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A grand summer retreat for less on Mackinac Island

Summer yesteryear still thrives on a small island in Michigan. Located in Lake Huron’s Straits of Mackinac at the juncture of the Upper and Lower Peninsulas, the winning destination of Mackinac Island is an idyllic place for cool lake breezes, cottage-dotted bluffs, and blissful repose. Plus, little else connotes a summer getaway better than preserved beaches, a boardwalk, fudge shops, bicycles, State Park land, and a grand hotel of the Gilded Age.

Although this National Historic Landmark is a suitable destination for railroad and automaker tycoons, you don’t need to make a hefty salary to visit. And yes, you too can come and play for a few days—sipping lemonade in wicker chairs under famous lilac trees—for under $500.

What’s the deal?

Because the island is literally a summer place—only around 500 residents remain year round—there’s no escaping peak travel season. Thus, successful planning hinges more on finding availability than snagging the lowest price. Ideally, it’s best to book several months before summer even starts. However, there’s no need to despair if you’re late in planning like I was. I booked my mid-June escape in late May and still found airfare for under $300, and a handful of hotel options, great and small.

Getting there

The only direct ways to reach the island are by boat or noncommercial aircraft. However, nearby Pellston Airport (PLN) on the mainland is only a 20-minute drive away. With a short series of land and water transfers, getting to the island is relatively convenient, not to mention affordable.

Only one airline, Northwest Airlines partner Mesaba Aviation, flies into Pellston. However, its frequent-enough service to Northwest Airlines’ Detroit hub makes it accessible to most North Americans. My flight from Boston cost $284.30 round-trip, which was lucky considering that I purchased it only three weeks in advance. It’s best to book as early as possible though, because once summer hits, fares typically shoot up $100 or more and can become scarce. Also, for the cheapest fares, the old standard Saturday-night stay still applies here.

Once at Pellston, you have to take either the Mackinaw Shuttle or Wolverine Stages shuttle for $40 round-trip, less for kids, to the Mackinac Island ferries. I booked in advance with Mackinaw Shuttle and found my name on its whiteboard when I arrived at the tiny airport, which felt more like a remote hunting lodge. Both companies will also schedule pickups based on your flight schedule.

Three ferry lines service the island—Star Line, Shepler’s Ferry, and Arnold Line—with competitive fares for around $18 round-trip per person—again, less for kids. Each company offers its own incentives as discount promotions or online coupons, usually shaving a buck or so. My hotel even sent me a dollar-off discount coupon, but I used my AAA card and saved $1.50. I chose the Arnold Line because of its high-speed catamaran service to the island in 14 minutes and because it docked closest to my hotel. It really doesn’t matter which ferry though, because all disembark right in town. Plus, porters at each dock will take your luggage to your hotel, so no schlepping is required.

Getting around

Despite the island’s industrialist homeowners, motorcars are not permitted, except for certain emergency vehicles and disabled persons’ aids. As a local guide told me, even the poor soul who decided to joyride his golf cart in the street got his comeuppance with a revoked license. The only legit ways to get around are by foot, bicycle, and horse and buggy.

The island is compact enough that walking can suffice, with most of the activities concentrated on one or two main streets. For getting to the farthest locations, or for moving around more quickly, biking is a pleasurable and cost-effective option. Bike renters compete with fudge shops for the island’s “most of” category and charge reasonable rates, usually $4 or $5 per hour for a single speed, or about $30 for the whole day. In the spirit of doing anything to save a dollar, I took a whirl on Ryba’s $4-an-hour special—classic, shiny, and accessorized with a basket.

Horse-drawn carriage is by far the island’s most stylish conveyance, as well as the most costly. The carriages are really more for tourist recreation than necessity, although the island’s businesses rely on them. Still, a Mackinac respite wouldn’t be the same without taking the reins at least once. Taxi, self-drive, and tour options are available for varying prices and durations.

Where to stay

Aside from multi-million dollar summer homes, most island lodging consists of visitor-ready hotels both small and grand in size, as well as in price. Booking late meant I had fewer options: either cost-friendly rooms at modest inns or leftover suites at large, swanky resorts that would have put me well over budget. For peak season during the annual summer Lilac Festival, I inquired at no fewer than 10 hotels, inns, and B&Bs, until I had success at Chateau Lorraine.

Tucked away on a quiet side street with other like inns, this Euro-style B&B offers tidy rooms with A/C, a continental breakfast with day-long coffee, and a front porch with wicker chairs for relaxing. The parlor houses the baby grand piano from the 1980 movie Somewhere in Time, starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. The inn’s location shelters guests from most street sounds, leaving only the pleasant clip-clop of distant horse hooves. Liking pink, however, is almost a prerequisite to stay here. Room rates generally range from $95 to $325 per night. I conceded an in-room bathroom to trim costs as much as possible and paid only $159 for two nights, $79.50 per person.

For a complete list of hotels, visit the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau or

Affordable activities

Mackinac Island has experienced a long and eclectic history since its known beginnings as a settlement for the Anishinaabe-Ojibwe Native American tribe: frontier outpost for French fur traders and Jesuit missionaries, British fortress during the American Revolution and War of 1812, fishing port, Civil War prison, wealthy Victorian summer resort, and of course, pleasant escape town for you and me. All of its history, combined with a commitment to preservation, has left it with much to explore and experience, including military landmarks, a 19th-century feel without campy anachronisms, and pristine natural sites. Here’s how I filled my time, all cakes and ale, while staying under budget:

  • Grand Hotel: Referred to by islanders as “The Grand,” this resort is the largest summer hotel in the world and is listed in Historic Hotels of America. Opened in 1887 to accommodate the growing masses of Midwesterners seeking a summer retreat, it has gained recent fame for being the setting of the movie mentioned above. Although room rates were too pricey for my budget, from $200 to a grandiose $625 per night per person, I used the resort as my Gibson Girl playground for almost a full day. For a paltry $10 entrance fee, I had access to its art gallery, gardens, shops, famous 660-foot porch (the longest in the world), and Parlor where afternoon tea is served every day for a nominal fee.
  • Horse and carriage ride: A ride is a must to fully absorb the island’s uniqueness. Of all the horse-drawn options, I wanted to take a carriage tour and learn more about the island en route. The more obviously popular Mackinac Island Carriage Tours cost $18 per person and seat about 20 people, then stop at a gift shop in the middle of the island for awhile and switch to a 35-person carriage. Instead, I chose a four-person private tour for just $2 more, which starts right in front of Fort Mackinac. Normally $80 per ride, I asked some people who happened to arrive the same time I did to join me, bringing the cost down to $20 per person. Locals filled with insider tidbits about the island lead these tours. For example, we learned not to pick the wildflowers, especially the cherished yellow lady’s slippers, or face a fine of several thousand dollars per petal!

    The ride passed by wealthy summer cottages, including one with a descendant of famous racehorse Sea Biscuit in its yard; Skull Cave, a Native American burial ground said to have concealed an English fur trader during an uprising; a National Park (the second after Yellowstone) turned Michigan State Park; the governor’s summer house; and Fort Mackinac.

  • Bicycle ride around the island: From the many trails available, I opted to take the eight-mile route that circumnavigates the island. The entire ride took me only an hour and a quarter, costing me $5 total ($4 per hour, plus a dollar for the extra 15 minutes). Along the way, I saw coastal scenery; geological limestone formations left over from the Ice Age; British Landing, where soldiers secretly entered the island during the War of 1812; and the five-mile Mackinac Bridge, an engineering marvel that connects Michigan’s two peninsulas, in the distance.
  • Fudge: Famous for its fudge, the island has four shops, each with multiple locations. Tastings and demonstrations are free. I got hooked on Joann’s double dark with pecans.
  • Walking around town: I spent much of my leisure time promenading up and down Main and Market streets, which run parallel. The area is bursting with fine restaurants with porch-side dining, clothing boutiques, Victorian-inspired china shops, and the usual boardwalk variety of knick-knack and tee-shirt stores. Nevertheless, I mostly enjoyed listening to the laid-back bustle of bicycles and clopping horses, as well as watching marina activity from a friendly coffee shop.

Time slows down on Mackinac Island to a bygone era before chain stores, pollution, type-A schedules, and modern inflation. For me, not only did I travel away from home, but I also traveled to the youth of summers past. Here, money has little meaning, other than the cost of an ice cream cone, and the object of the day is to kick back as much as possible.

Don’t forget to vote for my next escape destination.

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