Mackinac Island

Fall 2006 CSANews Issue 60  |  Posted date : May 30, 2007.Back to list

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to step into a machine and travel magically back to an earlier time? You would have to choose your era very carefully, since we tend to romanticize history and your destination may not turn out to be the wonderful past you had imagined.

Perhaps you would like to return to a special period in your life rather than“deep” history…a time of youth or your Service days. But be careful, time tends to dull the memory. We forget the not-so-good moments, the pain and the present, you may remember your time destination as the“good old days,” rather than the way it really was.

Kathy and I were able to experience a“time passage” this summer. Those who remember the wonderful 1980 movie“Somewhere In Time,” with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, will know exactly where we went. But before I tell you where and how we got there, let me describe one of my memories from this recent visit to the early 1900s.

“I was lying in bed with the window casement fully open (no airconditioning then) to catch any night breeze from the lake; the ceiling fan gently wafted the air down towards me. The moon was full and from where I lay, I could see the stone lighthouse on Round Island across the strait, silhouetted against the water’s surface of shimmering silver. In the distance, I heard the muted clip-clop of the occasional horse on cobbled streets– a pleasant backdrop to a quiet and peaceful night.

And then the noise of horses grew a bit louder and soon, the rumble of carriage wheels approached the courtyard beneath my window. Brakes squeaked and a quiet but commanding, “Whoa” brought the hooves to a stop. Carriage doors clicked open, a leaf spring creaked and luggage could be heard thudding to the ground. A voice broke into my reverie, ‘Welcome to the Grand Hotel, sir.’

Yes, I was in a room overlooking Lake Huron, in the famous Grand Hotel at Mackinac (pronounced locally in the original American Indian manner,“mac-in-awe”) Island. Just 11 kilometres off the coast of the lower Michigan Peninsula, where the two great lakes of Huron and Michigan meet under the famous Mackinac Bridge. An island on which horses reign and the motor car has been banned since its invention. Our time machine? The comfortable and fast-moving ferry of Arnold Transit Company.

Kathy and I began our journey in Mississauga and drove via Sarnia and Flint in Michigan, to take Interstate- 75 northwards to the Arnold’s Ferry dock in Mackinaw City – a distance of 74 2km. Although a pleasant drive, it was a long day taking about eight hours from our home.

At the dock, the courteous staff took over. Tired, I surrendered my car keys and we sat in the sun watching the activity out on the lake while our luggage was unloaded and tagged to go over to our hotel; our car was whisked away to a secure valet parking area. All we had to do was climb aboard the ferry and, within 20 minutes, we had arrived in a different time and place.

My first impression was smell. Not unpleasant, but a very unusual mixture of lilac blooms, fudge, and recycled hay dropped on the road by some of the island’s 590 working horses! Then you realize that there is not a car in sight. Everything is moving by foot, horse or bicycle. A one-horse Federal Express cart turns a corner, giving way to a lovely open “two in hand” Landau carriage of an island resident. The Mackinac baker’s cart rumbles by on delivery to a restaurant and a cyclist hangs on to a hay cart (illegal under island traffic laws) to beat the heavy “push” up a hill. We even saw the night’s entertainment – a band from the mainland – load all of their instruments and sound gear into a two-wheeled luggage cart, to be pulled by a pair of muscular Percherons (descendants of the medieval knight’s war horse) up the hill to the hotel.

Back to the smell. The mild “street” odour is actually an interesting experience for a historian because it provides a rare opportunity toexperience what must have been a very common street smell in the 19th century. Crowded places such as downtown Montreal or Toronto must have been quite “interesting” in that era. But here on the island, everything is under rigid control. The byways are kept very clean by a contingent of constantly roaming “poop patrollers” (on bicycles, of course) who shovel roadway “deposits” into the closed containers towed behind them. Another interesting fact – within an hour or so, the novelty has worn off and you don’t notice it any more.

The other two predominant aromas, lilac and hot fudge, are also part of island life. Lilac trees and bushes are everywhere, presenting a very pretty sight and fragrance. Every picturesque lane seems to be lined with lilac, creating passages of sweet-smelling blooms.

Fudge was originally produced to induce Victorian travellers to visit the island. It worked! Today, sweet-toothed tourists will find many fudge shops with traditional marble-topped tables, lining the main street. The locals benignly call visitors from the mainland,“Fudgies,” although Michiganders from north of the Mackinac Straits are still known as“U-Ps,” (for Upper Peninsula.)

Back at the island dock, a gentleman driver in red livery, white gloves and top hat “hands us up” into our elegant dark-burgundy hotel carriage (an original 1901 Fisher Omnibus), while a dock labourer stows our luggage on the brass roof rack. And then it’s off, clip-clopping our way across the cobbled yard and into the streets and lanes of Mackinac Island.

As we climb the hill towards the Grand Hotel, we see a very unusual sight – a policeman beside a parked bicycle using a radar gun on cyclists coasting down the hill. There is a bicycle speed limit of 25 mph (40 k/h) on the island and we heard that fines for speeding can be as high as $110 (US), and even higher if you accidentally collide with a horse.

Our few days on the island seem to rush by with so much to do. There are many fine cafes and restaurants but, in keeping with the times, there is nothing finer than a picnic out of a wicker basket, under red-and-white parasols, on the hotel’s gently sloping front lawn. Or perhaps you would prefer to dine at a Tudor lodge in the woods or on the battlements of the old fort, overlooking the harbour.

Mackinac Island literally does have something for everybody. Locals say that the streets can become very crowded in summertime with the many hotels, guesthouses and bed & breakfast lodgings filled to capacity. The shoulder periods of spring and autumn are much quieter and, I think, better reflect the true nature of this
unique community.

For me, the best time of all is late October, when the Grand Hotel hosts the “Somewhere In Time” weekend. Much of this romantic movie, set in 1912, was filmed here at the hotel and elsewhere on the island. Most of the hotel guests arrive in early-1900s dress by carriage or on horseback and, for a few days, you really have been transported back into another era... somewhere in time.

To reach Mackinac Island from Sarnia, drive north via Flint on I-75, to Mackinaw City (468km, 4hr: 7min). Ffrom Windsor, drive north on I-75 to Mackinaw City (461km, 4hr: 3min) Ffrom Sault Ste Marie, drive south on I-75 to St. Ignace (85km, 47 min). At either town, take the ferry to the Island (

Related links
Mackinac Island information
Grand Hotel