Things to Do on Mackinac Island: The Ultimate Pure Michigan Guide

Mackinac Island is like no other island, making it a bucket list destination for visitors from around the world. TripAdvisor rated the striking destination with limestone bluffs and Victorian cottages, on which people travel still by horses and buggies instead of cars, as the number one summer travel destination in America for 2018. The appeal is as timeless as the transportation modes and architecture. The island was the nation's second national park after Yellowstone, putting much of the island into undeveloped parkland before the state of Michigan preserved it as a state park.

Many of the must-dos are the classics, which generally involve horses, fudge and bicycles, but the Victorian-themed island is not all buggy rides and forts perched on bluffs—although those are musts too! Here is a guide to the top adventures, classic and new.

1. Take a Carriage Ride

Carriage Ride from the Grand Hotel
Carriage Ride from the Grand Hotel | Photo Courtesy of the Grand Hotel 

An outing with Mackinac Island Carriage Tours is the best way to get your island bearings. Hop on the fringed surrey, settle in and learn some history, fun facts and more than a few tall tales as you explore the coastline and inner trails. You're participating in island history, too, since the company is still run by descendants of Thomas Chambers, who, while president of the influential Carriagemen's Association, petitioned the city to ban the automobile after a horseless carriage startled a horse. Cars are still banned and rides are still a must on the world's oldest horse and buggy service.

2. Learn the Legends and Lore

Arch Rock
Arch Rock | Photo Courtesy of Instagram fan whittles_lynn 
When you're on an island where life began—at least according to Native American lore—you know the stories and legends will be worthy of the hearing. As one example, the Anishinaabe-Ojibwe tradition teaches that Arch Rock, a dramatic limestone landmark that stretches 150 feet above the water, is where the Great Creator blew the breath of life into the newly formed earth. Island resident’s gossip is fascinating too. You'll hear stories both ancient and recent, with a few ghost tales tossed in, on a Mackinac Island Legends and Lore Trek with long-time local Mary Patay. Be ready head inland on foot to enjoy the solitude of Mackinac Island State Park, perhaps to tour Arch Rock, Sugar Loaf, Fort Holmes and more. There are group and individual treks, arranged by contacting: [email protected]

3. Bike the Island

The eight mile bike ride around the island is a one-of-a-kind experience and not just because your trek is on the state's only official highway that doesn't allow cars. Rent a single or tandem from one of the many Mackinac Island outfitters, or bring your own, and then head around the circle tour that hugs the rocky shoreline. There are plenty of inner island trails for fat tire enthusiasts, too. Mackinac Wheels (and others) guide weekly group rides through the interior, or grab a map and go it alone.

4. Explore by Kayak

Outfitter Great Turtle Kayak Tours hasn't been on the island long, but it didn't take long for the public to catch on to the beauty of paddling toward the morning sunrise or going out in late evening to catch the sun sinking behind the Mackinac Bridge. Knowledgeable guides also cover history in geology in their casual narration and also point out the boulders below the surface as you pass famed rock sculptures above.

5. Sample Afternoon Tea (or anything!) at the Grand Hotel

Grand Hotel
Grand Hotel | Photo Courtesy of Grand Hotel 

Like everything at the circa-1887 Grand Hotel, afternoon tea is steeped in tradition. In the 1840s, an elegant tea was a popular way to break up the day and provide a snack between lunch and dinner. Today, it's a way for those not staying overnight at the storied hotel to indulge in a taste of its luxury. The century-old tradition includes tea, sherry, Champagne, finger sandwiches, scones and more with live harp music as the backdrop. Book the lunch buffet to experience the grand dining room, or stay the night and wake to the unusual alarm clock of the clip clop of horse hooves. Popular packages are themed around activities like ballroom dancing and the movie “Somewhere in Time,” which was filmed in large part at the hotel.

6. Explore the Mission Point Observation Tower—and More

Maybe you've seen the tall glass observation tower at the Mission Point Resort, and if you haven't yet, you should. There are five floors of historical exhibits ranging from the filming of “Somewhere in Time” to the construction of the Mackinac Bridge, and each shares such a wide view of the Straits of Mackinac that the tower has become a favorite place to watch the finish of the Chicago to Mackinac sailing race. After, try the new spa, or a cocktail like the history-themed Madama La Framboise, infused with lavender from the resort's storied cocktail garden.

7. Tour the Governor's Summer Home

Every Wednesday through the summer, you can take a free tour of the summer home of Michigan's sitting governor and catch its bluff-top view of the Straits with the Governor’s Summer Residence Tours. The Victorian mansion was originally built as a summer cottage, but the state purchased it in the 1940s and turned it into a summer vacation spot for its governor, making Michigan the only state to offer such a perk.

8. Flit around the Butterfly House(s)

Educational and beautiful is what you'll find the tropical gardens of the Mackinac Island Butterfly House and Insect World near St. Anne's Church. Butterflies flit between tropical plants; there's an interactive Insect World exhibit for those who want more hands-on learning. A second butterfly sanctuary, Wings of Mackinac, is located on Surrey Hill.

9. Walk Fort Mackinac

Island regulars know how to mark their day by the firing of the cannon from the circa 1780 Fort Mackinac perched on one of the island's limestone bluffs. Touring is a must, too, as is joining a tour or demonstration of court martial proceedings, music of the era and even dances of the day. The fort rarely saw battle but for much of its life has set up to help oversee park tourism.

10. Learn History through Art

The island's earliest art fell along functional lines, much of it like a set of historic maps on display in the Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum's collection along with interpretation about geography and how it is expressed over time. There's a collection of Native American artifacts and art; and alongside quill baskets and drums are videotaped interviews with artists about how those connect to their culture and spirituality. The collection includes the earliest known painting of Mackinac, "Michilimackinac" by William Dashwood, and art that gets more scenery-focused as the Victorian era approaches, evidenced by the displayed photographs taken by early island photographers, including William H. Gardiner. The museum also houses the souvenirs that pre-dated the fudge, including those made of ruby glass engraved by an islander.