Travel | A visit to Mackinac Island and the Eastern U.P.
To celebrate our anniversary a couple weeks ago, my husband and I drove up to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for a short vacation. We spent two days on Mackinac Island and then another day at Sault Ste. Marie and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. If you’re planning a similar getaway, here are a few things we’d recommend.
On the drive up, we stopped off at Palms Book State Park, home of Kitch-iti-kipi, a spring 200 feet across and 40 feet deep. That structure that looks like somebody’s back porch in the photo above is actually a raft connected to a cable that visitors can pilot out to the springs and then back to shore.
The raft has a big square hole in the middle of it that gives you a breathtaking view of the springs when you’re over top of them. The water has a green cast, but it’s incredibly clear. You can see all the way to the bottom, where old tree trunks are laying and the sand is constantly shifting and bubbling.
Lots of fish swim by, too. The park was a few miles out of our way, but I’m so glad we took the time to stop. It was beautiful.
Our next stop was the Mackinac Bridge, which is 5 miles long and connects the Upper Peninsula to the Lower at the Straights of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet.
At the time it was built in the 1950s, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. These days it’s only the fifth longest, but it’s still pretty impressive.
The center lanes are open grating, which allows the air to flow through and makes the bridge more stable in high winds.
Once we crossed the bridge, we stopped for lunch in Mackinaw City. Pasties, of course. If you’ve ever been to the U.P., you know what a pasty is. If you haven’t: It’s a meat pie — and it’s pronounced with a short A. Pasties (the short A kind) came to the U.P. along with Cornish immigrants, who settled there to work in the copper mines in the 19th century.
After lunch, we hopped on a ferry to Mackinac Island. Ferries depart from both Mackinaw City (south of the bridge) and St. Ignace (north of the bridge). No cars are allowed on the island, so you basically drive to the dock and hand your keys and your bags to somebody from the ferry company. They’ll park your car and load your baggage onto the ferry for you. Three different ferry companies make runs out to the island. We went with Shepler’s. The ride cost us $26 per person, round trip, plus $15 a night to leave our car parked in a fenced-in area. The ferry ride took about 15 minutes.
We made our hotel reservations at the last minute, which severely limited our options. We could have stayed at the famous Grand Hotel (pictured above), where rooms (at least the ones on the upper floors with a balcony overlooking the water on a September weekend) cost almost $900 a night. We didn’t stay there. Jim kind of wanted to, but I told him the only way I was spending $900 a night on a hotel room was if it had a view of the Caribbean.
The only other hotel with vacancies on the weekend we wanted to go was The Murray. The Murray is right on Main Street — and it’s rooms were about $700 a night less than the Grand’s. We stayed there.
The Murray is a lovely old Victorian hotel with a lot of charm, a fudge shop conveniently located on the first floor and the loudest vintage wallpaper you’ve ever seen. My husband’s first words upon opening the door to our room: “I think Abe Lincoln slept here.”
The Victorian decor was mostly just for show. Our room was small but had all the modern amenities, including a lovely marble shower in the bathroom, which (I’m assuming) was added sometime after Lincoln’s stay. Here’s a view of the stairway going up to the second floor.
On our first day on the island, we just walked around exploring and getting the lay of the land. I dragged Jim into a few cute little craft and gift stores. He dragged me into a few bars.
I had my first Moscow Mule on the island. (And my second.) (And my third.) Mmmm. I think it’s my new favorite drink. And not JUST because of the adorable copper mug it’s served in. It was $9 (at Millie’s on Main), but worth every penny.
We also checked out a few of the fudge shops. Mackinac Island has about 15 of them, making tons of different kinds of fudge. My favorite fudgey treat was the chocolate fudge ice cream cones we had at JoAnn’s Fudge. (Because fudge alone isn’t decadent enough.)
On our second day on the island, we were planning to take a carriage tour that was part of the package deal that came with our hotel room — but we couldn’t find our tickets. Jim remembered putting them in his pocket when we checked in, but the next morning they were gone. We went down to the front desk to ask if there was any way we could get replacements, and the clerk told us a good Samaritan had actually found two tickets laying on the ground, and, seeing “The Murray Hotel” printed on them, turned them in. How’s that for Michigan hospitality?
Unfortunately, I think Jim may have regretted getting the tickets back, as he pretty quickly started complaining about riding downwind of the carriage’s exhaust system. (As someone who spent the first 18 years on her life on a dairy farm, I apparently lack my husband’s delicate sensibilities.)
After the carriage tour, we meandered through Fort Mackinac. The fort is a former British and American military outpost and is a state park today. It includes 14 buildings that have been restored and furnished to depict scenes from the 18th and 19th centuries (like the soldiers’ canteen, pictured above). The buildings are all well maintained, and we had a lot of fun poking around. Admission was $12 per person.
From the fort, we headed over to the Grand Hotel, to eat a late lunch (and to see what we were missing). If you want to walk in the door and look around, the Grand charges you $10 for a “self-guided tour.” And if it’s after 6:30 p.m., you have to be in a suit and tie or a dress to do so. Because we were there for the lunch buffet — $45 each — they let us in wearing casual attire and we got to look around “for free” afterward.
Honestly, the lunch buffet was delicious. Beyond delicious. And there was just table after table filled with food. Soooo muuuuuch food. Suffice it to say, we both made enough trips back to the buffet that we got our money’s worth, even without the self-guided tour thrown in.
The front porch at the Grand is impressive. It’s 660 feet long.
A set of red-carpeted stairs lead up to the front porch.
Everything at the Grand is luxe. Even the horse’s harnesses.
I snapped this picture as we were walking past one of the shops on the first floor of the Grand. I love that old black-and-white photo, and I love the fact that it was blown up and used as a mural. I think that’s my favorite part of traveling: stumbling upon random things, sometimes in the most unlikely places, that surprise you or inspire you or make you look at the world a little differently.
Once we were done nosing around at the Grand, we headed back to Lincoln’s bedroom to sleep off all the food we ate.
After an hour-long nap, we were ready for our next adventure: biking around the island. We saw a few serious bikers who brought their bikes with them on the ferry. Most people just rented them. We got our bikes from Ryba’s, which charged $6 an hour for a 1-speed, $7 an hour for a 3-speed or $8 an hour for a mountain bike.
The road around the island is 8.2 miles long, and judging by the number of other bikes on the road, I think pretty much everybody makes the lap at least once. It’s a flat road with no traffic, and the scenery is beautiful. I’d definitely recommend it.
We ended the night getting a drink and watching the Tigers game at The Pink Pony, following in the footsteps of Alex McKnight. If you don’t know, Alex McKnight is a (fictional) private eye who lives in (the non-fictional) Paradise, Mich., and traverses the U.P. solving murder mysteries. My husband is a big fan of the series (written by Steve Hamilton). The Pink Pony was a lovely place, but I’m not sure it measured up to Jim’s expectations. It was storming while we were there, so the Tiger game kept cutting out. Plus there was no sign of Alex McKnight, and, to the best of my knowledge, no murders being committed.
We left the island the next morning and headed up to Sault Sainte Marie to look at the Soo Locks, which connect Lake Superior to the shallower Lake Huron (and beyond). You can watch from an observation tower as ships pass through the locks. Plus there’s a visitors’ center with lots of photos and exhibits. You can also take a Soo Locks Boat Tour. We didn’t take the tour, but one of the boats happened to be passing through the locks as we were watching from the observation tower.
We grabbed lunch at a little place in Sault Sainte Marie called The Antlers. The food was good, but I had the eerie feeling that I was being watched the entire time we were there.
After lunch we followed the Lake Superior coastline toward Whitefish Point. En route, we happened upon the Point Iroquois Lighthouse and decided to stop and take a look around. The lighthouse was manned by a keeper and assistant keeper, who lived onsite with their families, for many years. The buildings are maintained as a museum today. Admission is free; donations are accepted.
At Whitefish Point, we toured the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, which is filled with artifacts, paintings and photos of the ships that have gone down. Each exhibit tells a hauntingly sad story.
Among the exhibits: the bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald. The ship went down in Lake Superior during a storm in 1975. The bell was raised years later and brought to the museum. Divers who retrieved the bell left another one behind, one engraved with the names of the 29 crew members who went down with the ship.
There’s also a lighthouse on the Shipwreck Museum grounds, which offers an incredible view of the lake. Admission into the museum was $13 a person, plus an extra $5 each for a tour of the lighthouse.
After the museum, we had one last stop on our trip: Paradise. We scoped out the town doing a little detective work of our own to try to figure out where (the fictional) Alex’s (fictional) cabins and the (also fictional) Glasgow Inn were located. (Jim has some theories.) We listened to “A Cold Day in Paradise” (the first book in the series) during our drive. I’m not usually much of mystery reader/listener, but I got hooked — on both the books and the U.P. It’s beautiful up there — and there aren’t nearly as many murders in real life as there are in the Alex McKnight books.