An island is a world apart — that’s part of what makes them such in-demand travel destinations. But you don’t need to go to Hawaii or the Bahamas to experience that distinctive sense of place and culture.
You can visit islands in the heart of the United States, where you’re likely to get more bang for your buck and spend less time traveling to get there.
Let’s take a look at two very different inland islands less than 50 miles apart in the state of Michigan: Mackinac Island in Lake Huron and Beaver Island in Lake Michigan.
Mackinac is famous for its Grand Hotel, horse-drawn carriages and fudge. It’s been featured in several movies, including “Somewhere in Time,” starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.
Beaver Island is famous for ... well ... it’s not really famous. But it is one of the backdrops for National Geographic Channel’s reality TV show “The Boonies” with Dan Burton, a boat builder who spends time “off the grid” with his family in the woods.
Both Michigan islands are rich in history, from Mackinac’s military past to Beaver’s Irish inhabitants who dubbed it America’s Emerald Isle. Since these aren’t tropical islands, the most popular time to visit is summer.
Measuring less than 4 square miles, Mackinac draws more than a million visitors a year from near and far. That includes the 130,000 who stay at the Grand Hotel, a National Historic Landmark billed as the world’s largest summer hotel.
This month kicked off the Grand Hotel’s 130th season, which includes the debut of the island’s first-ever sushi restaurant, Sushi Grand. Even if you’re not staying at the hotel (rates start at $304 a person and include breakfast, lunch and a five-course dinner), splurge on a drink, an ice cream cone or the extravagant luncheon buffet. Or pop for the $10 fee levied on nonguests to walk on the expansive front porch. The spectacular surroundings are worth it.
Mackinac is a place of manicured lawns, art galleries, boutiques and Victorian buildings painted in pastel hues. No cars are allowed on the island, helping to ensure its lost-in-time feel. Fudge might as well be a required souvenir; it’s said that each day during the summer, tourists leave with 10,000 pounds of the sweet treat.
Bicycling and horseback riding are popular activities. There are a few sandy beaches, but most of the coastline is rocky.
At 55 square miles, the largest island in Lake Michigan draws about 50,000 visitors a year, most from neighboring states. It’s a no-frills, wooded natural wonder about 32 miles from the mainland’s resort town of Charlevoix, Mich.
“We don’t have Beaver Island fudge, and our horses stay in the fields where they’re supposed to be,” said Steve West, executive director of Beaver’s chamber of commerce, taking a good-natured jab at the island’s better known neighbor.
Indeed, Beaver Island is a laid-back, rustic destination with people so friendly they’ll lend a car to strangers who show up without a rental car reservation. (That happened to two people I met during my visit last fall. I heard the story while attending an impromptu sunset party at the rental house of a woman I’d met on the ferry on the way over.)
Spend a day on the island, and you can hit the beaches, hike to the lighthouses, fish, hunt and drive or bike through miles of native forest. Everybody leaves their car keys in the ignition when they park. Who would steal the car? Where could they go?
The island’s dark skies make it an ideal stargazing spot. It’s also a popular place for birdwatchers. West said Beaver Island’s reputation for fishing flats-style (in shallow waters where the angler spots the fish before casting) draws visitors from around the country and even a few from Europe.
In the tiny village of St. James, there’s a small bakery and deli where you can watch the sun rise as you sip a cappuccino on the front porch — no $10 fee required. Don’t leave the island without watching a sunset on its western shores.
You can rent a waterfront home for less than $1,000 a week, even in high season, and rooms can be had for less than $100 a night.