Note: We took our trip to Mackinac Island during the COVID-19 pandemic and have been asked a lot if it was safe to visit. For the most part, we thought it was pretty safe. At the time of publishing this post, all shops require masks to enter and most restaurants offer outdoor dining. There are a lot of outdoor activities to choose from and you can ensure social distancing as long as you take the proper precautions.
However, we heard from one of our waitresses during our trip that Mackinac Island has had record visitors this year. We believed it – we were alarmed by the number of people on Main Street when we got off the ferry on our first day. Because Main Street got pretty congested, we made the decision to avoid Main Street as much possible during the hours of 11am and 7pm when daytrippers were more prevalent on the island.
Mackinac Island has been on our list of U.S. getaways for quite some time. We had heard about the charm of the island and the fact that there were no cars allowed and that the only way to get around was by horse, bike, or foot (and snowmobile in the winter). It sounded like the most idyllic place to visit especially amid a pandemic, where we could take a step back in time, enjoy the great outdoors, and relax. Mackinac Island is definitely worth a visit for families, couples, and friends and is recommended for a long weekend getaway.
I am letting my husband, Adam, take the lead on this post! Like me, Adam loves researching and planning our trips (we have a Google doc for every trip) and he did most of the research for our trip to Mackinac Island. I figured, why not give him a chance to share his perspective while I focus on other L&I projects!?
If you’re interested in learning more about Mackinac Island, take a read below and hear from Adam on tips of when to visit, what to do, where to stay, and what to eat!
When to Visit
Being on the northern tip of Michigan, Mackinac Island is most popular during the summer months of June-August when the weather is comfortable and warm. Kelly and I went in mid-August, which ended up being perfect timing, as our temperatures were in the mid-70s range while we were there. With the warm waters of Lake Huron surrounding the island, we were told by the locals that it stays a bit warmer than the mainland in the fall and leaves don’t start to change color until late October. Going in September or early October would also be an ideal time to visit without the summer crowds.
Mackinac Island is a 6.5 hour drive from Chicago, 4 hours from Detroit, and 6 hours from Milwaukee. With it being farther away from Chicago, we decided to stay for a long weekend, from Friday to Monday. In order to break up the trip a bit, we decided to drive to Grand Rapids in Michigan first and stay the night there on Thursday, as it allowed us to get to the island quicker on Friday.
Since there are no cars allowed on the island, you take a ferry from either Mackinaw City or St. Ignace in Michigan. The two companies that operate the ferries to and from the island are Star Line or Shepler’s. The ferries both offer overnight parking ranging from $5-$15 per night.
When you arrive, you can tag your luggage so you don’t have to lug it onto the ferry yourself. You can have the ferry company then arrange for your luggage to be taken to your hotel from porters that meet you at the ferry. If your hotel is far away from the Star Line or Shepler’s dock, it can be a huge hassle dodging all of the people, bikes, and horses with your luggage, so this would be recommended in that instance. However, Kelly and I decided to bring our luggage ourselves onto the ferry as we didn’t have much to carry and because our hotel was close to the dock.
Note: During COVID-19, you will be required to wear a mask on the ferry, even if you are on the outdoor decks.
Where to Stay
The number one question we got when we told people we were visiting Mackinac Island was if we were staying at the Grand Hotel. We decided to look into it since it’s an iconic landmark on the island. When we noticed the price per night there ranged from $500-$2,800, we quickly decided it was a no-go. (Note: there is also a strict dress code at the Grand Hotel that is enforced after 6:30pm each night.) When we travel, we typically like to check out Airbnb and VRBO too as an option, but found rentals were extremely limited on the island.
There were plenty of hotels and quaint bed and breakfasts to choose from though. We narrowed our search down to Hotel Iroquois and the Chippewa Hotel, both of which are on Main Street. We decided on the Chippewa Hotel, as we liked the location and the sundeck/hot tub amenity that was offered. The best part of this hotel’s location was pulling into the dock on the island and seeing the Chippewa right in front of us. We only had to walk a few steps to get to our hotel!
The Chippewa was situated perfectly between the Grand Hotel and Mission Point (another popular hotel on the island). It was also steps away from all of the shops and restaurants on the main strip. The hotel is very historic, having been built in 1902. Their hotel rooms ranged from Queen or King size rooms overlooking Main Street or luxury suites overlooking the harbor. It had the Victorian era charm, but with modern touches (their lobby and bathrooms look to have been recently upgraded). While the room size was fairly small, we were pleasantly surprised at how quiet the room was with it facing Main Street.
The Chippewa also hosts one of the most popular restaurants on the island – The Pink Pony (they even have a store dedicated to it attached to the hotel!). The staff was incredibly kind too and offered us early check-in and texted us upon arrival to our room to ensure everything was to our satisfaction. We highly recommend the Chippewa – it’s very likely we will stay there again in the future!
What To Do
Rent bicycles for the day – With no cars on the island, the biggest mode of transportation is the bicycle. Our favorite part of our trip was riding our bikes. You can rent bikes from the numerous rental shops on the island or you can bring your own on the ferry (which is an additional cost). The island has an 8-mile paved road that encircles the island (fun fact: it’s the only highway in America with no cars!). Once you get out of the downtown area, the road really opens up and you can get a close-up view of Lake Huron’s turquoise waters. I felt like we were biking on a Caribbean island with the water that surrounded us. You can make a few pit stops on the way too and explore Arch Rock, the British landing, and Cannonball Drive Inn for their famous fried pickles!
Spend time at the Grand Hotel – The Grand Hotel is worth visiting even if you don’t stay there. Beware that there is a $10 per person charge to enter, but it grants you access to the entirety of the historic hotel and its beautiful gardens. Walking through the hotel, you get a sense of the amount of history that it has seen in its time.
We decided to get some cocktails at the Germanium Bar and sip on those as we relaxed in rocking chairs on the hotel’s famous front porch. It had stunning, sweeping views of the grounds, as well as Lake Huron in the distance. You can also grab a drink at their Cupola Bar (which is on their highest level and boasts even better views) or sit down for a meal at the nearby Jockey Club. Afternoon Tea is offered between 3:30-5 for $56 per person (we chose to forgo this to avoid being inside too long due to COVID-19). Don’t miss exploring the gardens either!
Check out the many fudge shops – We lost count of the number of fudge shops there are on the island. They take it seriously there! Mackinac Island is known for its fudge, so definitely make sure you sample it or take some home with you. You can also watch the fudge be made as they craft it on Mackinac’s famous marble slabs. Our favorite flavor was the chocolate peanut butter!
Relax at Mission Point – Mission Point is a public park in front of its hotel that offers a chance to relax in Adirondack chairs and take in the views of Lake Huron. This was our second favorite thing to do. We ended up coming back each day to sit and sip on a coffee or alcoholic beverage (both of which you can get at the nearby Boxwood Cafe). Boxwood Cafe also offers meats and cheeses, which can be a nice option for a picnic by the lake. One of the mornings, we got breakfast to go at Watercolor Cafe and rode our bikes down to Mission Point to enjoy.
Go shopping on Main Street – Kelly and I enjoyed going in and checking out the shops. There’s something for everyone – from the typical tourist knick-knack stores to clothing boutiques to gift shops. It was great to walk around and support local businesses!
Visit Fort Mackinac – A former British and American military outpost used during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, Fort Mackinac is something for the history buffs! Kelly and I both love history and normally would have visited the fort. However, due to COVID-19 and the fact that a lot of the museum is based inside, we opted out. We made a mental note to go next time!
Take a carriage ride – This is a very popular attraction for the people visiting the island to get acquainted with the island and learn more about it. We did not partake in this (we decided we’d rather ride our bikes), so can’t really speak to it. If you’re looking for more info, you can head here.
Watch the sunrise and sunset – Because Mackinac Island is only 8 miles around, you can easily watch both the sunrise on the east side of the island and then the sunrise on the west side. We did both and recommend enjoying a walk from your hotel to witness both.
Where To Eat
Kelly and I were pleasantly surprised by the quantity and quality of the restaurants on Mackinac Island. There are plenty to choose from and most take reservations. For breakfast, we loved going to Watercolor Cafe and getting acai bowls, as well as their peanut butter toast and avocado toast. We liked it so much we went twice! Since we visited during COVID, we noticed a lot of the breakfast places were closed, as they only offer indoor dining. However, we heard great things about Chuckwagon from the locals that you can call to order and pick up. If you go that route, we recommend eating it at the park in front of Fort Mackinac or at Mission Point. Lucky Bean Coffee House was a favorite for a coffee break as well.
For dinner, we ate at 1852 Grill Room at the Island House Hotel, the Pink Pony at the Chippewa and Carriage House at Hotel Iroquois. All three restaurants were excellent choices. Do not miss the peanut butter pie at the Carriage House. It comes with the most delicious homemade hot fudge. I’m pretty sure it was Kelly’s favorite dessert ever.
Pro tip – make reservations far in advance for dinner, especially if you want to sit outdoors. Wait times for tables can exceed 3 hours.
The Perfect Midwest Getaway
Mackinac Island makes you feel like you are transporting back in time. You can feel the charm of the town with its unique and historic buildings, mom and pop shops and restaurants, and horse-drawn carriages. We found the majority of people came to Mackinac Island for the day and headed back to the mainland after the afternoon hours. This made the mornings and evenings fairly quiet and extremely peaceful.
We felt there was enough to do for an entire weekend and we both said to each other that we hope to revisit someday. We both loved the fact that there are no cars on the island. There is something about being able to bike around on the streets and not have the anxiety and stress of dodging cars. The amount of happiness that this place brings people is truly remarkable. Everywhere we looked, it seemed everyone had a smile on their face.
Kelly Nash is a Chicago-based writer, speaker, career advisor, and founder of Lipstick & Ink®. In addition, she works full-time in technology as a Success Manager at Salesforce and has over 10 years of digital marketing experience. Kelly has been featured in Thrive Global, International Association of Women, General Assembly, Salesforce, SheFactor, and Six Degrees Society. She is also in the process of writing her first book.