If you're looking for a destination where you can reset yourself without going totally off the grid or thousands of miles away, Mackinac Island is perfect. It's an oasis of quaint charm, a literal island untouched by things like self-driving cars or kale-loaded diets (and the never-ending pressure to keep up with society that accompanies such things.) Mackinac knows what it does best, what it's always done best, and sticks to it. Because, at the end of the day, what sane person wouldn't want to visit an island that's banned cars in favor of bikes and carriages, is home to a Devil's Kitchen, can boast fudge as its main export, was once the country's second National Park, and has almost as many horses as full-time residents?
But before you can enjoy the fudge and lakeshore views, you have to make your way to the island, which is only accessible by ferry or (if you're feeling really fancy) plane. Star Line and Shepler's are two ferry options that can get you and your luggage to the island, while offering some pretty nice views of Lake Huron, the Mackinac Bridge, lighthouses and more. As you approach the island, you can see the Grand Hotel (and its record-breakingly long porch lined with rocking chairs). They leave from St. Ignace or Mackinaw City, so you'll have to park and leave your car there, since cars aren't allowed on the island.
Mackinac Island was once the country's second National Park. It got a demotion, down to state park/National Historic Landmark, which, if you think about it, is maybe a good thing? It'd probably be a lot more crowded if it still had National Park status. But anyways. Mackinac doesn't just have small town charm going for it... it's also just a very beautiful place, naturally speaking. From the sea stack studded Mackinac Straights to the island's famed Arch Rock, there are loads of limestone formations that are fun to explore and find. Others include Sugar Loaf, Robinson’s Folly, Skull Cave, Devil’s Kitchen, Crack-in-the-Island and Cave of the Woods.
Mackinac Island has a past that's surprisingly rich in history. The island was inhabited by Native Americans for years before it became a key commerce center for the fur trade. During the American Revolution, the British established Fort Mackinac, and it played a role in the War of 1812 as well. After that, Mackinac grew a reputation as a summer resort town, and not much has changed since then.
Fort Mackinac is still around today, and you can tour the 13 historic buildings that dot the fort, one of which is the oldest building in the state. There are daily demonstrations by costumed interpreters every day during the season, and there's even a program where you can pay a fee and fire their old-school cannon!
Many of Mackinac's hotels ooze the same vintage aesthetic that the marks the rest of the town. The most famous is the Grand Hotel. The first thing you'll notice when you arrive here is their wrap-around porch. It's one of the world's longest, and it's lined with rocking chairs, perfect for soaking up the views of the lake. This place still has afternoon tea and dancing every night. Take a carriage tour, stroll the gardens, swim in the pool (where Esther Williams filmed a movie!), play croquet on the lawn... honestly you don't even need to leave the hotel to have an old-school Mackinac experience.
Closer to the main drag is the Murray Hotel, another vintage accommodation option. It dates back to the late 1800s, and (save for modern upgrades) still has that Victorian flavor. They do have wifi, a pool on the sun deck, and onsite dining, and it's all right downtown. They also have a fudge shop right in the hotel as well!
Cars were banned in the late 19th century. As the story goes, the local doctor had brought over a newfangled automobile, but it was so noisy that it scared the rest of the residents' horses, and the ordinance banning cars was passed. Despite the lack of cars (other than the ambulance and the firetruck, which bumped into each other in 2005, becoming the town's first, and so far only, car accident) there's still a highway, M-185, that circles the island. You can walk it, bike it, or take a horse or carriage around it.
Learn more about the history of getting around the island at the Surrey Hill Square Carriage Museum. It has displays of historic carriages and serves as a working blacksmith shop, which is actually still an important part of transportation on the island to this day.
I'm not really sure why Mackinac has cultivated such a strong fudge culture, but it's definitely a thing. Confectioners and fudge-makers are an old-school treat, so it does make sense. Plus, when you're on a summer vacation, it's ok to treat yourself. There are about 10 or so well-known fudgeries on the island, so if you're feeling hungry, you can do a little fudge crawl across Mackinac and sample the wares at each.
May's is one of the spots on Mackinac that claims to be the oldest, with its roots in an 1880s-era candy shop from Atchison, Kansas. It eventually was brought to Mackinac. It's the only shop that can say that a president has visited it; Gerald Ford stopped by in 1975. They also make divinity (a marshmallowy egg white candy) and English toffee as well as 10 flavors of fudge, ranging from chocolate peanut butter to rum walnut.
Sanders started in the 1870s in Detroit, and by the 1950s was something of a Great Lakes candy empire. Their Detroit factory is an impressive operation, and they send plenty of goodies, including unique chocolate molds, up to their Mackinac shop. You'll also find candied apples, chocolate strawberries, caramel corn, ice cream, baked goods, and other sweet confections in addition to their wide variety of fudges.
Murdick's has been a fudge tradition since 1887, when sailmaker Henry Murdick came with his wife and son to make awnings for the Grand Hotel. His wife brought her candy recipes, and soon, she and the son, Jerome, had started a tradition of fudge-making. It wasn't always smooth sailing; sugar rationing during the two World Wars and the Great Depression took their toll, but the fudge industry in Mackinac has been blossoming ever since.
There's some weirdness about Murdick's and May's, as the original Murdick's closed, and the second one that opened was sold to Robert May and renamed, and then this Murdick's operation was opened by the Murdick family after a 10-year non-compete candy clause with May expired.
They make 20 flavors, and some of their more unique offerings include Traverse City Cherry, Michigan Honey Butter, and Chocolate Macadamia. Mmmm.
Even though Joann's Fudge has only been around since 1969, they still use vintage fudge-making techniques, including classic copper and marble tools. They make a boatload of flavors, such as rocky road, Butterfinger, raspberry truffle, cookie crunch, and tons more. They also cook up another vacation staple: salt water taffy!
Okay, so maybe it's a good thing you're more motivated to bike or walk around the island... because it's a good way to work off all that fudge.