Mackinac Island—A Perfect Place to Take the Grandchildren

Mackinac IslandMike Link and Kate Crowley, authors of Grandparents Michigan Style, take us on a tour of Mackinac Island. Here are their recommendations for some great sightseeing with grandchildren.

Back in 1898, the introduction of cars on Mackinac (pronounced “mak-i-naw”) Island scared the horses and disturbed the peace so much that they were permanently banned on the island. That alone will impress your grandkids when they visit the island with you. Travel is by foot, bike, or horse-drawn carriage. It is a wondrous return to a nearly forgotten time.

Some 490 people live on the island year-round, many descendants of the Anishinaabe people who originally occupied this hump of limestone between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Their name for the island was “Michilimackinac,” which meant “land of the large turtle.” In the late 1600s, the Europeans landed and Father Marquette set up a mission for his Huron followers; then in the late 1700s, the British moved from the fortification across the strait to the island to give themselves a better defensive position against the upstart American revolutionaries. After the end of the Revolution and the end of the War of 1812, island ownership bounced between the British and Americans, but finally the Americans took possession and invited traders to set up shop.

Mackinac Island

In the beginning, the economy was centered on the American Fur Company; then it moved to commercial fishing, and, finally (after the Civil War), tourism. In 1875, Mackinac Island became the country’s second national park; it became a state park in 1895. Hotels sprang up, including the Grand Hotel, which still shines like a beacon. Things slowed down between the Great Depression and World War II, but after that conflict ended, tourism resumed and hasn’t slowed since. In fact, the Park Commission is trying to buy more land to protect and preserve the unique qualities of the quiet, early twentieth-century lifestyle.

Even though the island is only 2,200 acres, there are so many things to do that it requires an extended stay or multiple visits. The Historic Fort at the top of the hill is well preserved, as are the commercial and residential buildings on Market Street. Tours of both include reenactors dressed in period clothing, ready to share their knowledge. You won’t be able to avoid the sweet shops. This industry sprang up in 1889; by the 1920s, Mackinac was synonymous with fudge. In June, there is a Lilac Festival with one of the largest parades in Michigan—the only one where all the floats are pulled by horses.

Bonding and Bridging on Mackinac Island
According to the old saying, you never forget how to ride a bike. That’s probably true, but sometimes our sense of balance or our legs don’t continue to function as they once did. However, if you are still able to ride a bike, this is the place to do it. There is a paved path that goes all the way around—8 miles. It is 90 percent flat, so neither you nor the kids will have trouble with hills. There are picnic tables scattered along the way and some rocky beaches to explore. You may have to slalom around horse apples, but the kids will probably consider that a bonus challenge. You can bring your own bikes over on the ferry or rent one of the thousands that are on the island, including tandems and tagalongs for younger kids who are learning to ride and are too big for the rickshaw-like trailers. Let the kids know you are riding on Lake Shore Boulevard, also known as “M-185,” the only Michigan state highway that doesn’t allow cars. You don’t have to make the entire circuit either—you can always go partway and turn back. The important thing is to enjoy the ride.

Word to the Wise
Because it is an island, food prices are high. You can reduce your expenses by packing a picnic lunch (if you’re there for just the day) or bringing a cooler with some sandwich makings and beverages in it, for a longer stay. Also, bring along a Frisbee, baseball glove and ball, or possibly a kite. There are large open fields in front of the Historic Fort and on the waterfront that are perfect for these old-fashioned pursuits. Try to get the kids to leave the electronic toys behind—on an island where cars are banned, so, too, should be toys that beep and blink.

Also be aware that weekends, holidays, and festivals are the busiest times. The streets can be so crowded that it feels like a state fair or maybe Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Keep a sharp eye out for distracted bike riders.

For more information contact the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau, 7274 Main St., Mackinac Island, MI 49757; (906) 847-3783

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Photo credits: By Marieonmarco (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Liliane Opsomer

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