Native Americans first appreciated Mackinac Island’s abundance of natural beauty, bountiful waters and restorative breezes. By the nineteenth century, enterprising American businessmen had discovered that those same qualities would make the island a popular tourist destination.
Weary Americans in the throes of the urbanization and industrialization sweeping the country sought a relaxing atmosphere where they could restore their health, renew their vigor and refresh their minds. As early as the 1840s, travel guides like Dr. Daniel Drake’s The Northern Lakes touted Mackinac Island as a delightful place where waves lapping the shore would serenade the sick back to good health.
Ferry boats first brought tourists to the island in the late 1800s. Island visitors continue to arrive by ferries and other sailing vessels. Since the 1950s, their journey has taken them by the five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge that links Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. Known as the “Mighty Mac,” the suspension bridge allows travelers to cross the four-mile wide Straits of Mackinac between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace.
They also pass the Round Island Lighthouse, completed in 1895 to safely guide ships through the narrow, dangerous passage. For over 50 years, it was manned by a crew until an automatic beacon was installed off the south shore of the island, but it continues to be a much-loved landmark.
Some vacationers stay in modest frame cottages built to reflect popular Victorian styles like the Gothic Revival, Queen Anne and Shingle Style. Large rooms with an abundance of windows, open porches and verandas encouraged the flow of fresh air. As an 1894 Petoskey, Michigan newspaper reported, the high, wide windows of the Mackinac cottage provided both a view of and cool breezes from the Straits and Lake Michigan. Softly hued rooms with comfortable wicker furniture, billowing curtains and natural wood finishings heightened the feeling of coziness and ease that the island cottages fostered.
In the 1880s, forward-thinking transportation executives decided to establish a resort hotel on Mackinac Island that would attract wealthy travelers from long distances. Built of Michigan white pine, the grand four-story hotel was situated on a clearing 100 feet above the shore, with a commanding view of the Straits.
Its distinctive features were a 660-foot-long porch on which guests could promenade in all types of weather and a rooftop cupola, providing a view all the way to Cheboygan on a clear day. Public rooms had French plate glass windows with antique oak trim, inlaid wood floors and a 213-foot-long, 80-foot-wide dining room with a 27-feet-high ceiling. The Grand Hotel opened in July 1887 after just three months of construction.
Since then, the hotel has welcomed notable guests like Mark Twain, Thomas Edison and five United States presidents. Jimmy Durante and Esther Williams filmed “This Time For Keeps” there in 1947. “Somewhere in Time,” the 1980 movie starring Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve, was filmed there in 1980. Its devotees travel to the island to see several movie-related landmarks around the island, including a monument marking the spot where the main characters see each other for the first time.
Noted interior designer Carleton Varney refurbished the Grand Hotel in 1977, choosing a scheme of glorious summertime colors. Ceilings are painted a soft sky blue. Salmon-hued “Yours Truly” geraniums became the hotel’s signature flower. Large geranium blooms framed by geranium leaves accent elegant black carpets in the hotel’s parlor.
The vibrant yellow marigolds blooming in the hotel’s window boxes inspired the décor of the hotel’s dining room, known as the Salle á Manger. Decorative lambrequins at the windows and hanging lamp shades are made from fabric printed with yellow and orange marigolds. Chair backs are covered in green and white stripes with green seats, while the walls are painted a sunny yellow.
Pick up a “Camellia Rose” plate like legendary interior designer Dorothy Draper created for Chicago’s Camellia House in the 1930s. Then, indulge in the Grand Hotel’s lunch buffet, featuring tables laden with salads, fruits, hot and cold vegetables, shrimp, oysters, hand-carved ham, chicken, salmon, and more. At least a dozen different choices for dessert finish the meal.
At the Hotel Iroquois, take in a beautiful view of the Straits of Mackinac and the hotel’s lush Victorian-style Proven Winners Signature Garden as you enjoy a lunch of local whitefish, the perennial Great Lakes favorite. Bite-sized sugar-dipped blueberry-lemon muffins are another Hotel Iroquois specialty.
The Chippewa Hotel, built on the waterfront in 1902, is best known for its Pink Pony bar and grill. After it opened in 1948, the Pink Pony was recommended by Duncan Hines in his Adventures in Good Eating. Its iconic pink pony logo has become a sought-after status symbol that adorns shirts, hats, beverage glasses and other merchandise from this place where visitors have Yachts and Yachts of Fun!”
Mission Point Resort, so named for the Protestant mission established near the property in 1823, makes its home on property that once contained the mission’s boarding school for Native American children and several adjoining summer cottage lots. Walk the shoreline trail to Robinson’s Folly, a 127-foot limestone tower just past the resort that is said to be the place where Captain Daniel Robertson, a soldier stationed at Fort Mackinac, fell to his death on the rocks below when a jealous Indian attacked him. Then, shop for Dubarry of Ireland tweed in the hotel’s boutique.
Since 1869, visitors have explored the island on horse-drawn carriage tours; in fact, they were so successful that horseless carriages were banned from the island in 1896. Bonded pairs of Belgian draft horses, bred to pull thousands of pounds of weight behind them, continue to transport people and goods around the island. Island-exploring is also possible on horseback, by bicycle and on foot.
Souvenirs of visits to Mackinac Island first included toy birchbark canoes decorated with dyed porcupine quills that recalled the island’s Native American heritage. Ruby-stained engraved pressed glass souvenirs, pictorial china, hand-colored photographs and stereoview cards that produced a three-dimensional image when viewed through a stereopticon were other popular keepsakes.
When Henry Murdick opened his Candy Kitchen in the 1880s, soon followed the island’s most famous souvenir: fudge.
Murdick and his son started making fudge in the window of their shop. Crafting the confection on marble slabs not only gave it a unique flavor, but also provided a show that lured passers-by as sweet smells of cooking chocolate wafted outside via a ventilation system above the front door of the shop. After the candy maker poured the mixture onto the slab, he theatrically swept and folded it with a trowel as it cooled and stiffened.
While the fudge was still warm, he sliced it into half-pound pieces and boxed it up.
Other confectioners followed. Harry Ryba introduced almost a dozen different flavors of fudge, packaging it in bright pink boxes and shopping bags. The tradition continues today.
For more on Mackinac Island’s tourism, read View from the Veranda: The History and Architecture of the Summer Cottages on Mackinac Island and Fudge: Mackinac’s Sweet Souvenir, both by Phil Porter; Michigan’s Traverse Bays & Mackinac Island, by Laura Martone; Mackinac Island: Historic Frontier, Vacation Resort, Timeless Wonderland, by Thomas Piljac and Pamela Lach; Grand Hotel: Mackinac Island, by John McCabe; “The Bridge at Mackinac,” a poem by David B. Steinman, the engineer who designed the Mackinac Bridge; Mackinac Bridge: The Story of the Five-Mile Poem, by Gloria Whelan; Mackinac and the Porcelain City, by Eugene T. Petersen; and Mackinac Treasures: The Museum Collections of Mackinac State Historic Parks, by Steven C. Brisson. Ice Bridge: Mackinac Island’s Hidden Season is a documentary film that followers island residents throughout an entire year, including tracing the formation of the three-mile span of ice that allows islanders to cross the Straits to the mainland during the winter.