Mackinac Island is a bizarre and beautiful place. On the map, it sits on Lake Huron like a desirable gem just out of reach of Michigan’s mitten. In photos, it looks like a chillier Caribbean: Long-sleeved visitors gaze out upon turquoise waters. The place seems to scoff at phonics — it’s pronounced “Mackinaw.” (The name is French in origin.) And when you arrive, you puzzle over whether you’ve landed in a tourist trap for the grizzled well-to-do, or on a posh little island stuck in the 1800s, swarming with horse-drawn carriages and bicycles.
What permits Mackinac Island its charm is its commitment to remaining carless.
In another state, when my eldest daughter was an infant, I took her for a run while she rested in her stroller. It was my usual route, a quiet back road — or at least that’s how I had remembered it before fatherhood. With the stroller, I couldn’t jump to the safety of the grassy shoulder when a car zipped by. And I realized that there were fewer sidewalks than I had remembered and many more blind curves. Cars sped past us with little regard. I stopped going for runs with my daughter.
But on Mackinac, jogging with a stroller would be a joy. My children are older now, so on the island, my wife and I rent bikes. We put the youngest in a tow-behind trailer and the oldest on a tagalong bike to ride tandem with me.
“Go slow!” my daughter shrieks, her brew of fear and excitement palpable as we roll down the hill from our resort for our eight-mile trip around Mackinac’s perimeter.
Main Street bustles with a few hundred horses shuttling visitors about, and porters wheeling luggage to and from the ferries. It’s inundated with fudge shops, souvenirs and day trippers. A street sweeper cleans up the horse equivalent of car debris and oil spills. Anachronistically, a pair of steeds pull a cart loaded with Amazon boxes while tugging a quaint U.S. Postal Service trailer behind it. Cyclists pedal leisurely.
Outside of town, Mackinac becomes vacant. Across the lake, the silhouette of the Mackinac Bridge is seen stretching between Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas. The forest rises up in the center of the island — most of Mackinac is a state park — and many tree roots, not deeply buried, clutch for soil.
We cycle on, with lovely greens to one side and blues on the other.
“Don’t stand!” my 5-year-old chastises me, her tagalong getting wobbly when I lift from my seat on the slight inclines. In no world would these negligible upslopes be considered hills, but on the flat trail encircling the island, they are hills to my 5-year-old. “Slow down!”
A pair of seniors riding motorized wheelchairs zip past us.
Stopping on the north side of the island, where a single cannon aims toward the horizon, my kids tour the one-room nature center, where they wonder at stuffed woodpeckers and owls and run fingers across a half-dozen small mammal pelts. The only other activity on the north tip is to wait in the queue at Cannonball, a roadside stand that claims fame for its fried pickles.
But who eats fried pickles first thing in the morning? We order ice cream and milkshakes, take our seats at the picnic tables out back, and shoo away seagulls. A sign indicates that Cannonball takes responsibility if their purple and red-spotted seagulls snatch food, but they can’t do a thing about those pesky white ones.
As my daughter grows more comfortable on the tagalong, she instructs me to go faster. We never manage to keep pace with her mother and sister, or the two octogenarians in the motorized wheelchairs, but we enjoy a little more speed.
We pedal past a few tucked-away mansions, archway rock formations that tower above the trees and an empty horizon off the east side of the island.
From the tagalong, my eldest daughter shouts, “Best day ever.”
The next day is even better. We visit the Little Barn, which runs a therapeutic equine program for island children in the morning, and horse- or pony-back lessons for the public in the afternoon.
My daughter loves horses, yet she’s only ever saddled up at the local fair, where a bored teenager walks kids lazily around a 10-by-10 corral for $5 a lap.
At the Little Barn, my daughter is nervous. But the owner, Gretchen, acquaints her with Henry, a wonderful if slightly flatulent 15-year-old pony. She brushes Henry’s sides and helps ready the saddle. Suddenly, my 37-pound daughter sheds her nervousness and steers this nearly half-ton pony around the small corral. In just 30 minutes, she goes from frightened to confident: She rides without Gretchen by her side, without holding the reins, with eyes intentionally closed, and while sitting backward in the saddle. At the end, she even instructs her younger sister on how to ride.
“Best day ever,” she declares from atop the pony on this horse-filled island (milliesonmain.com/the-little-barn.htm).
Other family attractions
Fort Mackinac: Built by the British during the Revolutionary War and the site of the first land engagement in the War of 1812, Fort Mackinac appeals to the entire family. There are incredible sweeping views of the island, lighthouses and ferries disappearing toward the mainland. Every half-hour, costumed interpreters fire rifles or cannons, conduct bayonet demonstrations, or tour visitors around the compound’s 14 buildings. One houses interactive games and hands-on displays. Kids can tap out “Yankee Doodle” on a color-coded electronic fife or dress up in the fashions of the time. Parents who enjoy history will appreciate the other structures, including Michigan’s oldest public building (mackinacparks.com).
Fudge shopping: Besides horses, fudge is the most obvious feature on the island. There are more than a dozen shops downtown. In fact, fudge businesses like Ryba’s, Joann’s and Murdick’s have multiple storefronts, implementing the same strategy as Starbucks, yet the ubiquity is contained to the quarter-mile stretch on Main Street. Sample to your heart’s content.
The Original Mackinac Island Butterfly House and Insect World: For some, it’s a tourist trap, but for entomophiles it’s a garden of 800 blissful butterflies flapping about (originalbutterflyhouse.com).
Where to stay
For families, Mission Point Resort is best. Not only do kids 12 and under eat free at all resort restaurants, but from 2 to 5 p.m. each day, the property’s Kids’ Club offers complimentary camp, allowing parents with children ages 5-12 an opportunity to also shout, “Best day ever.” The resort has the island’s only miniature golf course, a small outdoor pool, bicycle rental stand and a beloved border collie who spends his days greeting children in the main lodge (missionpoint.com).
Noah Lederman (@SomewhereOrBust) is the author of a memoir, “A World Erased: A Grandson’s Search for His Family’s Holocaust Secrets.”