Spending 2 nights at the Island House Hotel on Mackinac Island – May 8-10, 2015
Mackinac Island…it is hard to know where to begin…If you grew up in Michigan, you probably have fond memories of stepping off the ferry boat and smelling that unique aroma that is mixture of barnyard and fudge that can only be found one place. You really felt like you were stepping back in time. No cars, just bikes and horses. Back then, the first thing on the agenda for the day was renting bikes and pedaling around the outside of the island. The bike ride was made more exciting by the “road apple” obstacle course along the way. After eating lunch and checking out the shops in town, it was time to climb the hill up to tour Fort Mackinac. The highlight was always the canon and gun firing demonstrations. I remember asking my dad why all the boats anchored in the harbor were not worried about a canon ball flying right over them. It seemed both dangerous and cool at the same time to a 6 year old. If there was still time we would squeeze in a quick carriage ride up to see Arch Rock. By the end of the day we were all herded back on the ferry with big sunburned smiles and a fudge induced sugar high. We wouldn’t be very good Michigan parents if we did not give our kids these same memories.
main street mackinac islandBusy tourist places like this are not really my thing, but I have to admit that Mackinac Island truly is a Michigan treasure. It was designated as the second U.S. national park after Yellowstone in 1875 and then later turned over to the State of Michigan in 1895 becoming the first State Park. Today over 80% of the island is still protected as State Park property. Probably the most interesting feature is that cars have been banned from the island since 1898. Bikes are the main mode of transportation. It is a cyclist paradise, with 70 miles of roads and trails crisscrossing the Island. You will find everything from M-185, which is the only paved 2 lane highway in the country that does not allow cars, to rocky single track trails. If you like to explore on 2 wheels this is the place for you.
The other way to get around is by horse. In the summer there are almost 500 horses working on the island. They are used for everything from shuttling people to picking up trash. A horse drawn carriage tour gives you a great introduction to the highlights of the Island and it’s interesting history. There are also horseback riding rentals and horse taxi services. Without motorized transportation everything seems to slow down and this gives Mackinac Island a unique laid back kind of charm that everyone seems to long for.
We had been talking about taking the kids to Mackinac Island for a while and this past winter we decided it was time. We knew we wanted to spend at least one night on the island. We did a weekend for our 10 year wedding anniversary a few years back and found that this was the best way to get the full experience. After all the day trippers head back on the ferry boats, the Island takes on a whole new feel as things quiet down. When we started researching places to stay, we came across the opening weekend package at the Island House Hotel. The price seemed reasonable for a family of 5, so we took a chance and booked it. We knew that the weather in early May would be cool, but we thought that having less crowds would more than make up for it. Mackinac Island is a very popular summer vacation destination, but even though it is surrounded by water it not really the place to go if you want to sit on the beach or by the pool. In fact, there are not any sand beaches on the island. We reasoned that if we had to wear some extra clothes at this time of the year for biking around or seeing the sites, that would be fine. As you will see in pictures below we did have to wear coats or sweatshirts some of the time, but overall the weather was pretty nice.
The hotel package was for Friday and Saturday nights on Mackinac Island. We decided to drive up to Mackinaw City after work on Thursday night. Doing it this way gave us almost 2 full days on the island. We pulled into Mackinaw City just after sunset and found that in early May it is like a ghost town up here. About half of the hotels and shops still looked closed for the season.
We crashed for the night at the Super 8 Bridgeview. We had not stayed here before and it has mixed reviews. Overall it was okay and it worked good as a cheap place to spend the night with breakfast included.
Our package with the Island House included tickets on the Star Line Ferry to Mackinac Island. A bike rental was also included, but we wanted our own bikes so we had to pay an additional $9 for each to take them over. If you do not get tickets as part of a package they are $23 per adult, $12 per child and free under 5.
Part of the reason I booked the room at the Super 8 was because I figured the free breakfast right at the hotel would save us some time in the morning. The plan was to eat in shifts while others were showering and getting ready. I hoped by doing this we could make the 9 am ferry. This departure takes you under the Mackinac Bridge on the way to the island. Unfortunately our hotel was not stocked up for breakfast yet. It ended up working out okay because they sent us to a different hotel that was right by our ferry dock. The food there was really good, but missed the 9 am boat.
By 10 am we were hydro jetting our way to the Island.
It was a nice and warm morning in Mackinaw City, but by the time we were out on the cold water in the middle of the straits we were putting our coats on.
After about 15 minutes we were pulling into the Mackinac Island Harbor.
The Round Island Lighthouse from the ferry.
The Island House Hotel
From the Ferry we biked over to the Island House Hotel to see when our room would be ready, and ask them to send a porter to the dock to pick up our bags. After a short wait we were able to check into our room and drop off our carry-on bags.
The room that we were in was awesome. It was on the first floor with a view of the front porch and the water. It big enough that the 5 of us did not feel crowded at all. There were 2 queen beds and a sitting area with a pull out sofa sleeper. We also really liked the location just outside of town across from the marina.
The Island House was originally built in 1852 and was one of the first summer hotels on Mackinac Island. For the next 86 years the hotel was a popular destination from tourist from Chicago, Detroit, St Louis and New York. During this time it was moved back from the water 300 feet to the present location and the east and west wings were added. After the second owner’s daughter passed in 1938 the hotel stood vacant and deteriorating up until 1972 when the famous Ryba’s Fudge family purchased the property. They completely renovated the property and in 1973 it was recognized as a Michigan Historical Landmark. Today it is still owned and operated by Ryba’s son-in law Victor Callewaert and his family. For the complete history see the Island House website
After checking in at the hotel we walked into town and made the climb up the big hill to visit Fort Mackinac.
Fort Mackinac was originally built by the British in 1780 during the American Revolution. It was captured by the Americans and then later taken back over by the British. The fort remained an active military post until 1895. After this the fort buildings leased as summer cottages for the next 60 years. In 1959 it became a Michigan State Historic Park. It has been restored back to how it looked during the final years of military occupation and serves as a living history museum.
The view from just inside Fort Mackinac.
The rifle firing demonstration was just getting ready to begin as we entered.
After the demonstration, you could meet the acting soldiers and ask them questions. The guns that they use were the real weapons that dated back to the late 1800s.
Checking out the restored bath house.
The interior of Fort Mackinac.
The blockhouse that was built in 1798.
After checking out about half of the buildings it was time for the cannon firing demonstration. The kids were worried that it would be really loud, but it actually was not too bad. The cannon and gun firing displays alternate every half hour throughout the day.
Everyone was getting hungry so we went to the Tea Room Restaurant below the old Officers Stone Quarters building. The weather was perfect for lunch out on the patio overlooking downtown and the harbor.
The Tea Room is operated by the Grand Hotel and has light menu with soups, salads and sandwiches. We thought everything was pretty good and were happy with our lunch and the service. I read some reviews complaining about the prices, but you should just plan on things costing more on the island. We thought the setting made paying a couple extra bucks for a sandwich worth it. Go here for a great view and good sandwich.
After lunch we went up to the Officers Quarters building, which is also the kids area.
There are several hands on and interactive displays for the kids. This was one of our favorites.
The view from the west corner of the fort.
After checking out the rest of the fort we walked back down into town. It was starting to get busy with everyone arriving for the weekend.
Mackinac Island Carriage Tour
We decided to take advantage of the nice afternoon and took a relaxing ride on the Mackinac Island Carriage Tour. Doing 2 tourist things in the same day is usually more than I can handle, but the weather was not looking as good for the rest of the weekend. We decided it would be best to do it while the sun was still out. We bought our tickets and then had about 20 minutes to walk around town and get everyone to the restrooms before we left. At $28 for adults and $11 for kids the tour depleted a good part of our cash reserve for the weekend.
While we were waiting to board Reese made friends with Big Joe. We were told that he was one of the biggest horses that the company had.
The tour starts in downtown and the goes up the hill past the Grand Hotel. At the top of the hill you pass the Carriage Tour Company barns and the new Grand Hotel Stables.
The tour then passes the island cemetery and winds through the quiet roads of Mackinac Island State Park on the way to the stop at Arch Rock. You get about 10 minutes to get off the carriage and view the Arch.
The view from the overlook by the top of Arch Rock.
The tour then heads back to town passing the Governor’s Residence and the upper entrance to Fort Mackinac along the way. Then back down hill past the Grand Hotel again and into town along the same route as the beginning of the tour.
The tour is a little pricey, but I think it is worth doing at least once. If you are a first time visitor we would recommend doing this early in your visit as good introduction to the Island. The guide had a lot of interesting information and history to share.
After resting at the hotel for a little while we planned to go back into town for dinner. It soon became apparent that our 4 year old was pretty much done after the day’s activities. We decided it would be best to order a couple pizzas from Doud’s Market instead.
Doud’s opened in 1884 and claims to be America’s oldest family-owned grocery store. This little store packs in a nice selection of grocery items and adult beverages. We were surprised to find that the prices were similar to our store back home. The deli in the back has salads, sandwiches and pizza, also at reasonable prices for the Island. We were back several times during our stay.
Eating pizza with a view from the porch at the Island House was better than what you would find at most of the restaurants in town.
After dinner the girls and I went for a bike ride. The coastal road around the outside of the island is just over 8 miles long and is a fairly flat and easy ride.
A GoPro time lapse of our loop around the island. One of the benefits of staying overnight on the island, is that by this time of the evening, we had road almost all to ourselves.
The next morning we woke up to rain. Our package at the Island House included a breakfast in the 1852 Grill Room at the hotel. We had a nice breakfast and relaxed with several cups of coffee waiting out the weather. By the time we finished, the rain was letting up so we walked into town to visit the shops. The kids each brought some money along and were in search of a souvenir. After a lot of looking, we were finally on our way back with a battery powered jeep, a pink beach hat and a monster hat. We also stopped at Doud’s Market again to pickup a couple sandwiches for lunch to go with our leftover pizza.
Mackinac Island Bike Tour
After lunch the sun came out and we hopped on the bikes to do our own tour of the Island. We started by riding through town and then up the hill on Cadotte Ave past the Grand Hotel. At the top of the hill we took the 2nd right on Carriage Road.
Our first stop was at the Grand Hotel Stables building. We passed this the previous day on our carriage tour and thought it looked worth coming back to check out. The building is open to the public and has around 20 antique carriages from the Grand Hotel and Mackinac Island Carriage Tours. The 12 horses from the Grand Hotel are also housed here.
Inside the Grand Hotel Stables.
A couple of the classic Grand Hotel carriages.
Click and drag the image above for a virtual tour of the Grand Hotel Sables.
Next we continued on Carriage Road past the Island Cemetery, and then climbed up Fort Holmes Road. The next stop was at Point Lookout to see the Sugarloaf Rock overlook.
Just a little ways past Point Lookout, you get to the highest point on Mackinac Island at Fort Holmes.
Fort Holmes was built by British soldiers in 1814 to protect against an attack by the United States during the War of 1812. The attack came in the summer of 1814, but the fort here was not involved in the conflict. After the U.S. took over the Island, the Fort was named after American Major Andrew Hunter Holmes who was killed in the 1814 battle of Mackinac Island. Fort Holmes has deteriorated over time and during our visit construction was just starting on a restoration project. We later read that they will be rebuilding the 2-story blockhouse, fixing the fort walls and added interpretive displays.
The view of the Mackinac Bridge from on top of Fort Holmes.
Click and drag the image above for a virtual tour around Fort Holmes.
From Fort Holmes we headed back down to Garrison Road and took it north to Crooked Tree where we took a right. Then we took the Juniper trail back to the bottom of Sugar Loaf Rock.
Family pic at the base of Sugar Loaf.
The kids climbed around on the rock for a little while and then we continued on Sugar Loaf Road down to Arch Rock.
From Arch Rock we started heading back to town on Huron Road. We made one last stop at Robinson’s Folly overlook.
Biking back to town on Huron Road.
Huron Road runs on top of the south facing ridge and has nice views of Lake Huron, downtown and the Grand Hotel to the west. This is good spot to walk after dark and see the island lights and the Mac Bridge. See our 2011 visit for a night photo.
The total distance we biked was just under 7 miles and it took us about 2 hours and 15 minutes with all the stops. We really enjoyed ride and it was a good way to link several Mackinac Island popular sites.
Mountain Biking Mackinac Island
After dropping everyone off back at the hotel I went out to check the last thing off my list for the weekend, riding the Mackinac Island single track. Many people are surprised that some pretty decent mountain biking can be found on the Island. Unfortunately I forgot to recharge my GoPro so I didn’t get any video to share.
I generally followed the route outlined in the Mountain Biking Michigan Book I climbed back up to Huron Road and headed back to Arch Rock. From there I picked up the Tranquil Bluff Trail. Do not let the name of the trail fool you. The first half is very technical and at times you are right on the edge of high cliff. The Tranquil Bluff Trail follows the ridge that runs along the eastern shore of the Island for a little over 3 miles. It then turns into the Croghan Water Trail after you cross British Landing Road. The Croghan Water Trail follows along the edge of a wetland area in damp and dark cedar forest. Next I took a right on the Lydia Trail and climbed up to higher and drier ground. This was the only intersection that was a little hard to find on this ride. It is not marked and this area had not had much traffic yet this season. Watch for the faint trail climbing a steep hill on your right.
The Lydia Trail turns into the Nicki Trail after you cross State Road. In a short distance you will take a hard left on to the Partridge Trail and continue on this as it turns into the Crack in the Island Trail and then connects back to State Road. Go right on State Road and then right again on British Landing Road. Just after you pass the airport you will pick up the Coffee Trail at the Four Corners. When the Coffee Trail ends on Annex Road the single track portion of the ride is over.
From here you could follow the roads back into town, but I chose ride through the West Bluff area and check all the historic cottages. To end I picked up West Bluff Road and biked past the front of the Grand Hotel and back into town.
The loop was 9.5 miles and was overall a good ride. There were a few sections in the second half that were a little bumpy from horse traffic. There were several other side trails that I would have liked to explore, but I had to make it back in time for our dinner reservation. You could probably spent a couple days exploring all the other trails here.
Our Opening Weekend Package also included dinner at the 1852 Grill Room. We had a really good meal with a nice view. The kids, and mom, were very excited when they found out that desert was also included.
After dinner we were all stuffed, so we took a slow walk into town.
We spent our last night relaxing by the fire in front of the Island House.
The Island House Hotel at night.
The next morning was very cool and cloudy. Before checking out, we walked over to see the Mackinac Art Museum. Admission is around $5, but it is included with the purchase of a Fort Mackinac ticket. Admission is also free if you stay at overnight at a Mackinac Island Convention and Visitor’s Bureau member property.
Inside, you will find an interesting collection of Mackinac Island art and historical photographs. We enjoyed looking at the old photos and seeing how much things have changed over the years. After the museum it was time to pack up and check out of the hotel. We left our bags with the dock porters and then biked into town for the Mother’s Day brunch at the Yankee Rebel Tavern.
By the time we made it to the ferry docks, there was already a big line waiting to board. We were lucky to get some of the last seats in the enclosed bottom area. It would have been a cold ride on the top deck back to Mackinaw City.
We had great time and highly recommend the Opening Weekend Package at the Island House Hotel. If you do not like crowds or heat, this is the perfect time to visit. We had some mixed weather, but when the sun came out and temperature got up to around 65 degrees, it was perfect for exploring the island.
If you are considering going at this time, I should mention that you could tell the hotel summer service staff was still trying to figure things out. There were small things like waiting too long for coffee at breakfast, and empty plates stacking up on the table at dinner. Housekeeping also didn’t get to our room until 4pm, which is when we were just getting back in the room after our day full of activities. None of it really bothered us. We were just happy to be there, and this is part of the reason you can get good prices early in the season.
Spending 2 nights gave us the right amount of time to do all the things we wanted to do on the island. We also felt it was a good value considering everything that is included in the package. The hotel was very nice and we really enjoyed our stay.
I am often asked about the camera that I use for the photos on this site. We are starting to use our cells phone cameras more because of the convenience and improved quality. However, when I want to good quality photo it is still hard to beat my old Cannon DSLR camera.
I have been using a relatively inexpensive Canon Rebel XS with the 18-55mm lens for several years now. This trusty old camera only has a 10MP sensor, but the photos still look better than our 16MP point-and-shoot. For outdoor shots I often use a Circular Polarizer Filter to reduce glare and really make sky and other colors really pop.
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