What was once exclusively a Michigan local secret has now become a bucket list destination drawing travelers from around the country. Read on for my tips on the best things to do, where to eat and sleep, and the burning question we all have….where to find the best fudge on Mackinac Island!
About Mackinac Island
No cars in sight. Bicycles everywhere. Taxis run by literal horsepower. On Mackinac Island, you can leave your fast-paced life at the ferry dock and allow yourself to slow down for a much-deserved escape.
Mackinac Island, located in Lake Huron, between the lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan has been completely car-free since 1898! The island does have one emergency use vehicle, but otherwise, everything is done by horses, on bikes, or on your own two legs! There are more than 600 horses on the island during the summer season, and 1,400 bikes available to rent.
Mackinac is a small island with just 3.8 square miles of land. However, despite its size, the island still has 70+ miles of hiking trails! The hiking trails crisscross the forest and take you past 200-year-old cemeteries, Fort Holmes from the War of 1812, and unique rock formations (skull cave and sugarloaf).
How did Mackinac Island Get its Name?
We learned on our Mackinac Island Carriage Tour that the name “Mackinac Island” (pronounced “Mack-i-naw”, not “Mack-i-nack”) comes from the Native American tribes. Before the French or British settled in the area, Native Americans called Mackinac Island, Michilimackinac, meaning place of the great turtle. The Anishinaabek people said that Mackinac Island rose out of the water like a turtle. When you visit Mackinac Island, look for the turtle influences around the island (hint: there’s one in the Grand Hotel Parlor).
Best Time of Year to Visit Mackinac Island
Mackinac Island is a seasonal island that starts welcoming guests beginning May 1 through October 31. From May to October, you can experience the flowers blooming in early spring, long summer nights, or the leaves changing in the fall.
Mackinac Island Tips for Choosing When to Visit
Mackinac in Spring
The month of May is a fantastic time to visit Mackinac Island to see the tulips bloom. You’ll find the best hotel deals and the fewest crowds before Memorial Day Weekend.
Mackinac during Summer
Beginning Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day is the peak season for visiting Mackinac Island. In early June you can experience the Mackinac Lilac Festival and the Fudge Festival at the end of August. On July 4th, the sky lights up with a firework show beginning at 10 p.m. The best viewing spot for fireworks is at the Mackinac schoolyard. Hotel rooms and restaurant reservations book up quickly during summer, and it’s best to make reservations in advance.
Mackinac Island in the Fall
After Labor Day and through the end of October is perfect for finding great hotel deals and shopping deals! Stores mark down their remaining inventory as the season comes to a close. Early October is the peak for experiencing the fall foliage that transforms the Mackinac Island forest into a beautiful sea of red, yellow, and orange.
Getting to Mackinac Island
No major airlines fly into Mackinac Island Airport. However, the easiest (and cheapest) way to get here is flying into one of the larger airports and then renting a car for the rest of the journey. The closest major airports are Detroit (4- hour drive), Minneapolis (9-hour drive) or Chicago (7-hour drive). After a long time in a car, it was a satisfying feeling to arrive at the ferry dock and leave our car to take a ferry over to Mackinac Island – where no cars are permitted on the island!
Popover Tip: For shorter road trips, you could fly a major airline into Michigan airports in Grand Rapids (GRR), Flint (FNT), or Traverse City (TVC).
Mackinac Island Ferry Overview
Currently, there are two primary ferry companies that operate to/from Mackinac Island – Shepler’s and Star Line. Both ferries depart from Mackinaw City (lower peninsula) and St. Ignace (upper peninsula). The ferry ride is a quick trip that won’t take longer than 25 minutes.
If you’re driving south on I-75 North, the easiest option will be to catch the ferry from Mackinaw City. We chose Shelper’s, and had a stress-free and fun ferry experience from start to finish!
Mackinac Island Shepler’s Ferry Tips
- Ferry reservations are not required, but I recommend purchasing online to receive a small discount. With online tickets you can skip the line to go directly to the boarding area to have your QR code scanned.
- If you make a ferry reservation in advance, you will not be asked to book a set departure date/time. Instead, all you need to do is arrive at the ferry at your preferred departure time. Ferry departure times are frequent and can be found online here.
- Shepler’s offers discounts for military families and guests staying at the Grand Hotel or Mission Point Resort. These discounted tickets can be purchased at the Shepler’s Ticket Office.
- Luggage transport for the ferry is quick and easy! All you do is drop off your bags at the ferry port which are then tagged with the name of the hotel you’re staying at on the island. If your hotel does have porter service, your bags will be (magically) delivered to your hotel. If your hotel doesn’t have porter service you’ll pick up your luggage when you arrive on the island.
- Take the Mighty Mac departure! For no additional cost, this ferry travels under the famous Mackinac Bridge which is perfect for photo opportunities! The captain also gives a really interesting narrated overview of the history of the bridge. The Mighty Mac departures are usually in the morning and are notated on the ferry schedule here.
Mackinac Island Best Places to Eat
Best Breakfast Mackinac Island
1852 Grill Room – Start your day with gorgeous views overlooking the harbor at the 1852 Grill Room for breakfast. Their menu has all your breakfast favorites from buttermilk pancakes to a mouth-watering eggs benedict.
Lucky Bean Coffee – The best coffee on the island is at Lucky Bean Coffee. Everyone was so friendly here and the Love Potion #9 roast was delicious! My only regret was not buying a bag of beans to bring home!
Best Lunch Mackinac Island
Pink Pony – Since 1902, the Pink Pony has been a Mackinac Island staple that you must visit even if it’s just for a drink. It has the best rum runner cocktail on the island! The fish tacos made using pan-seared white fish from the Great Lakes were delicious!
Seabiscuit Cafe – A horse-themed restaurant named after the champion thoroughbred Seabiscuit. Seabiscuit has the friendliest bartenders! Bartender Johnny Nash is a local on the island, and you’ll get the best service under his care. Order the whitefish reuben sandwich, and one of Johnny’s craft cocktails he’ll make for you!
Ice House BBQ – Discover this secret BBQ restaurant that’s only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day! Just follow the path left of the Island House Hotel across from the marina. Ice BBQ is a perfect spot to relax with a cold beer and enjoy home-styled smoked BBQ on a summer day.
Best Dinner Mackinac Island
Carriage House Restaurant – You’ll find the best waterfront dining on the island overlooking the Straits of Mackinac at the Carriage House Restaurant. The Carriage House is an award-winning restaurant that showcases the region’s freshest and locally sourced ingredients including Michigan whitefish and lake trout.
The presentation of the dishes is spectacular. The pan-seared diver scallops and the jumbo lump crab tower are two of the most popular items on the menu. Promise me that you must save room for their homemade lemon meringue pie for dessert! Make reservations here in advance.
1852 Grill Room – A casually sophisticated restaurant known for its fresh seafood and delicious steaks. During dinner, a pianist plays, and guests enjoy the harbor views from inside the dining room or the terrace patio. The Crab Croquettes and Sautéed Walleye are two of the 1852 Grill Room’s most popular dishes.
The Grand Hotel – Dining at the Grand Hotel is a must-do for every first visit to Mackinac. The Main Dining Room at the Grand Hotel looks has beautiful views of Lake Huron that overlook the iconic Grand Hotel porch. It’s open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which features music played by the Grand Hotel Orchestra. For more information on breakfast, lunch, or dinner at the Grand Hotel visit their website here.
Bonus! Best Ice Cream Mackinac Island
Grand Pecan Ball – You can find the signature Grand Pecan Ball dessert at any Grand Hotel restaurant. The ingredients are simple, just a scoop of vanilla ice cream covered with pecans and drizzled with homemade fudge sauce (you can’t skip the fudge on Mackinac). Every season the Grand Hotel serves more than 70,000 of them a year!
Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor – An iconic old-fashioned ice cream parlor in the Grand Hotel named after a Scottie who won “Best in Show” at the 2010 Westminster Dog Show. They use Michigan- made ice cream, and you can order mini Grand Pecan Balls here, too! Sadie’s typically opens for the season at the end of May.
Sanders Candy – Sanders has Mighihan roots that date back to 1875! Their Mackinac stop has a huge selection of ice cream, and they stay open late! You can’t go wrong with any flavor here, but the caramel flavor I had was so good!
Best Places to Stay Mackinac
The old-world fairytale charm of Mackinac is only enhanced by the gorgeous hotels and luxury bed and breakfasts that make your hotel choice an essential piece of the Mackinac Island experience. During my visit to Mackinac Island, I stayed in three different hotels! Thanks to porter service, my bags were transferred to the hotels daily, and I never had to worry about rolling my bags across the island! Below are my three favorite Mackinac hotels for all travel styles.
Grand Hotel – Bucket List Experience
The most famous hotel on the island is the first sight you see on the ferry ride that welcomes you to Mackinac Island. Spending a night at the Grand Hotel is a bucket list item for many who visit Mackinac Island.
What I loved most about the rooms at the Grand Hotel are no two rooms are the same! Each of the 397 guest rooms were designed by the famous interior designer Carleton Varney of the Dorothy Draper Company, and each room has a unique style!
Hotel Iroquois – Perfect for Couples
The location of Hotel Iroquois overlooking Lake Huron with gorgeous sophisticated rooms couldn’t be more perfect for a romantic luxury getaway. We felt so welcomed during our stay, and the hospitality from everyone at Hotel Iroquois is unmatched. Not only are the rooms colorful and individually decorated, but the hotel itself is just as romantic. I love the sunroom where guests can sit in and watch the carriages go by. Mackinac Island charm at its best!
All stays include a delicious continental breakfast. This was truly one of the best continental breakfasts I’ve ever had! The coffee was exceptional, and the homemade croissants and fresh parfaits were delicious.
With historic charm and beautifully renovated guest rooms, the Island House Hotel is another must-stay hotel on Mackinac Island. The Island House has been a member of the Historic Hotels of America since 2005, and it’s actually the oldest hotel on Mackinac Island!
The location couldn’t be better with breathtaking views of the Marina and Mackinac Harbor. The Island House is the only hotel on Mackinac Island that’s located within the pristine boundaries of the Mackinac Island State Park.
If you’re looking for spacious rooms and an indoor pool along with indoor/outdoor hot tubs – this is the hotel for you! In 2021, they just finished renovating the beautiful new lobby, and they added a two-bedroom adjoining suite – perfect for families! We loved staying in the premium king room with a gorgeous view of the harbor! The room was spacious and so comfortable. On your first visit to Mackinac, I highly recommend splurging on a room with a view – you won’t regret it!
Don’t miss stargazing outside on their lawn! After a full day of exploring, it was so nice to sit in an Adirondack chair and enjoy the fire from the chimineas (Spanish fire pits).
First-Timer’s Bucket List for Mackinac Island
We did all of the activities listed below in three days. If you don’t want to feel rushed on the island, I would recommend visiting for three full days.
Romantic Dinner at the Woods
Take a scenic horse-drawn carriage ride to this enchanting Tudor mansion restaurant tucked away in (you guessed it) the woods. The interior is just as rustic and cozy with fireplaces, comfortable chairs, and chandeliers made from deer antlers. You would think you were eating in Gaston’s Tavern from Beauty and the Beast! I highly recommend ordering the creamy whitefish bisque soup and beef goulash.
Fudge Making & Tasting
10,000 pounds a day. That’s how much homemade fudge is handcrafted every day during peak tourism season on Mackinac Island!
Mackinac Island is the “Fudge Capital of the World”! I’ve never tasted better fudge than I have on Mackinac Island. Sampling all the delicious fudge on the main street is a right of passage for every Mackinac Island visitor. It’s so popular that the tourists who come to Mackinac to sample and bring home fudge are called “Fudgies”.
It’s so fun to watch (and smell) the fudge being made at the shops right before your eyes. Our two favorite fudge shops were Murdick’s and Ryba’s. Murdick’s had a larger flavor list, and fun flavors we never saw anywhere else – like Michigan Maple Walnut, Salt Toasted Coconut Double Chocolate, and Traverse City Cherry. Ryba’s had a smaller selection of flavors, but the Oreo fudge at Ryba’s was delicious!
Work off your sugar high from the fudge and rent bicycles for the afternoon!
You could rent a beach cruiser, or a tandem bike! A tandem bike is fun for the experience of sharing one bike with two people, but for a long bike ride, I’d recommend renting a seven-speed beach cruiser.
We enjoyed our experience renting from Island House Bikes right in front of the Island House Hotel. Keep in mind that bike rentals in Mackinac do tend to be on the pricier side. A seven-speed beach cruiser is $12 per hour, or a tandem bike is $18 per hour. Three hours was the perfect amount of time for us to explore the island.
If you have a historic buff in your group, you cannot miss this once-in-a lifetime experience for them to fire the first cannon of the day at Fort Mackinac! Fort Mackinac is a historic military fort from the war of 1812 when the British were fighting the Americans.
For only $50, YOU can help clean, load, prime and then FIRE the cannon. This unique and private experience is available for one person every morning beginning at 8:45 a.m. You can reserve a spot by calling 906-847-3328 – these spots fill up quickly!
We fired the cannon on the last full day of our trip, and it was such a fun experience! We enjoyed talking with the soldiers who perform cannon and rifle firing demonstrations throughout the day. Fort Mackinac is a must-see, and don’t miss attending one of the live demonstrations!
Hours and Admission
Admission is $13.50 for an adult and $8 for children under 12.
Opening Hours vary depending on the season and are found here.
If you can only do one activity on the island, don’t skip the Mackinac Island Carriage Tour! The guides are so entertaining, and you’ll learn interesting stories about the island. For example, on our carriage tour, we learned the Mayor of Mackinac Island, Margret Doud, is one of the longest-serving mayors in the country at 45+ years of being mayor!
Carriage tours do not take reservations in advance. I recommend going early in the morning on peak summer days, but we had no issues hopping on the next carriage tour. The tour is around 90 minutes, and you see both the city and inside the forest. A carriage tour is the most authentic way to experience Mackinac Island!
Carriage tours cost $38 per person for adults and $14 for children.
If you’ve always dreamed of a butterfly landing on you – now is your opportunity! The Wings of Mackinac is a butterfly conservatory with hundreds of butterflies.
See Arch Rock
Arch Rock is a beautiful 144-foot tall natural limestone arch on the eastern side of the island that overlooks the shoreline of Lake Huron. You can bike to Arch Rock and take stairs up to the top. I would like to bet that almost everyone who visits Mackinac Island has a photo from Arch Rock!
Every first-time visitor to Mackinac Island needs to have the experience of sitting at the Grand Hotel on the world’s longest porch in a rocking chair. From the porch, you’ll have gorgeous views of the Straits of Mackinac and the Mackinac Bridge. This classic ritual of sitting on the Grand Hotel porch is just one of the many examples of how time stands still on Mackinac Island.
The Grand Hotel is a National Historic Landmark that dates back to 1887. Before you visit the Grand Hotel, I’d recommend that you watch the 1980 romantic movie “Somewhere in Time” which was filmed at the Grand Hotel. A memorabilia room on the property of the Grand Hotel displays movie artifacts.
Keep in mind that non-guests of the Grand Hotel will be charged a small admission fee of $10 per adult and $5 for children to visit the Grand Hotel.
Sipping on champagne and snacking on delicious tea sandwiches in the Grand Hotel’s Parlor was my favorite Mackinac Island memory. Every day from 3:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. you can enjoy high tea in the Parlor of the Grand Hotel. Reservations are not accepted for high tea. All you need to do is find a spot in the parlor shortly after 3:00 and wait to be served. If you have a large group, I recommend arriving earlier to ensure you can find a spot together.
The cost of the tea is $59 and includes a tray of petite finger sandwiches, fresh-baked scones, and pastries. It also includes a pot of hot tea (with refills) and two glasses of Champagne or sherry. A harpist plays during high tea too!
Find the Best View Points
You will have to bike or hike up some hills to reach these points, but the views are worth it!
Sunset Rock – One of the better-kept secrets on Mackinac Island, Sunset Rock is located on the West End of the island near The Woods restaurant. It’s perfect for sunset with views of Lake Huron, the Mackinac Bridge, and the Upper Peninsula.
Bonus! Three Mackinac Island Things to Do
We did all of the activities listed above in three days, but if you have extra time, the activities below come highly recommended by local guides!
If you’re a horse lover this is a must-do experience! At Jack’s Livery stable you can rent a horse and buggy to experience cruising the shoreline and streets of Mackinac Island with your own horse and buggy! Buggies are available for two, four, or six passengers and are available by the hour. You’ll be given a quick lesson on how to drive and then you are off to explore!
Hop on the Isle Royale Queen III and cruise under the Mackinac Bridge (nicknamed Mighty Mac) for a stunning sunset and enjoy your favorite adult beverage of choice! This is the most popular tour run by Pure Michigan Boat Cruises! The photo opportunities from the boat are spectacular!
Nowhere else do you take a horse-drawn carriage ride between nines or play on a former battlefield that was turned into a golf course more than 120 years ago! A bucket list course for golf enthusiasts is The Jewel at the Grand Hotel. The first nine courses have views of Lake Huron and the Grand Hote. The second part of the course runs back through the interior of the island and offers beautiful views of the Mackinac Bridge and the Upper Peninsula.
Final Thoughts on Mackinac Island
With the beautiful sights, signature fudge shops, and nostalgic old-world horse-drawn carriages, it’s no surprise Mackinac Island has become a must-see destination from May to October. The island offers guests truly unique experiences you won’t likely find anywhere else in the world. If Mackinac Island has now climbed up to the top of your bucket list, reference save this guide for the best tips to make your first-time experience to Michigan’s crown jewel perfect.
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