MACKINAC ISLAND, MICHIGAN
Updated: Aug 14
After the endlessly quiet, lonely even, but exceedingly beautiful drive around the north shore of Lake Superior, we dipped back into the US from Canada via the long, elderly International Bridge at a point we had all seen on the map as schoolchildren, Saulte Sainte Marie (Saulte is pronounced 'Soo' by the way). Like many border towns, it is an ugly, decaying abortion of a place, exuding out of every neglected pore the tell-tale signs of long-passed better times. The homes are peeling and unloved while the roads seem to be breaking up in front of you. The feature of the city is of course the wide rapids of St Mary's River, which fall 20ft from the level of Lake Superior to the west, and which have for years been circumnavigated through locks, which still ease the ships from one Great Lake to the others, making it the world's busiest canal in terms of tonnage that passes through. The interest stops there.
The International Bridge
So the best way to handle 'Soo' is to try not to stop, except to have a hopefully brief but unavoidable exchange with the soulless border security officer, who is mostly curious about what guns you might have on board and how much alcohol you are hiding.
We were heading south, to the point where Michigan's upper (northern) peninsula meets its lower. Here, the magnificent, fifty year old but stunningly graceful Mackinaw Bridge stretches out over the Mackinac Straits where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron conjoin. As you drive at 200ft above water level, you may suffer a twinge of gephyrophobia, the official name for the phenomenon of having a fear of bridges. You would not be alone. The Mackinac Bridge Authority even has a Drivers Assistance Program to help sufferers get across - and over a thousand people use their comforting arm each year.
At this point, we need to say that there is no misprint in referring to Mackinaw and Mackinac. They are, curiously, both pronounced exactly the same - Mackinaw. The main town here is Mackinaw City but the waterway is named the Mackinac Straits. The name is a corruption by the British, who failed to get their Anglo tongues around its original Native Indian title, Michilimackinac and shortened it to something more pronounceable. Thankfully, the old Redcoats, who had a fort on the south bank of the Straits until they moved it onto a
nearby island, did us all favor.
The new island colonial fortress flip-flopped between being held by the British and being ceded to the newly independent United States. It is easy to forget that there were not one but two big wars between the British and the Americans, the War of Independence which famously ended in liberation for the colonies in 1776 and the less well remembered 1812-15 War, a New World extension of the Napoleonic Wars. The Brits had decided during the first fracas that the position of the fort was too vulnerable and so moved it on to a 3.8 square mile island a few miles to the east in Lake Huron. By the end of the second skirmish, it was given back into American hands.
But it is this little island, this little Diva, that is the Prima Donna here nowadays. This precious nugget of a little landmass, Mackinac Island, is a superstar and never fails to attract millions upon millions of admiring fans each and every summer.
So this is this place that has been voted the #1 Summer Destination in the whole of America by none less than TripAdvisor, winning out over such august rivals as Yellowstone, Cape Cod and, at #2, Bar Harbor in Maine (to which we shall be returning next month).This sceptred isle is a veritable wonder, fully deserving of its lofty accolade. It is probably the most beautiful place we have been to on our whole trip. For a start, it has no cars. Just large, hairy-hoofed dray horses pulling carts full of awestruck tourists. And, gloriously, the charges pull them slowly, very slowly - for here there is nothing to rush for. The moment you arrive off the ferry at the quaint little port, protected by a harbor wall and two charming lighthouses, you drop three gears in pace and this gentle, elegant little town embraces you, envelopes you, absorbs you into its own relaxed, calm, peaceful time. As you sit back in your carriage, the muscular carthorses' rear-ends rolling backwards and forwards before you, you are taken along the two main streets - the bustling waterfront trading thoroughfare with its colorful stores and smart small hotels and, behind it, the long street of merchants' houses and historic cottages with their colorful, manicured gardens. Next stop is the aptly named Grand Hotel which overlooks and dominates the idyllic scene, with an exceptional majesty of Victorian grandeur, style and opulence.
One house of note is a former home of John Jacob Astor IV. He dominated the fur trade in the 19th century and made the island its commercial hub, bringing sellers and buyers from America and Canada together and in doing so making himself a zillionaire on the backs of millions of small furry animals. Astor’s wealth was legendary but even his extreme riches could not help him on April 15, 1912 when he perished aboard the RMS Titanic, the richest man on the maiden voyage at an estimated worth of $87 million (that would be $2.3 billion today). His wife Madeleine had chosen the transatlantic trip because she found out she was pregnant and wanted their child to be born in America. They joined the ship with their staff at Cherbourg in northern France full of good cheer and optimism, but tragically fate had a cruel and bitter destiny in store for them. Following the ship’s collision with an iceberg on the evening of the 14th, the father-to-be died dutifully early the next day under the ‘women & children first’ order whilst Madeleine and her maid managed to scramble from her first class accommodation into Lifeboat 4 to survive. Her last act before she left the ill-fated ship was to hand over her valuable fur shawl to third-class passenger Leah Aks to keep her young son warm. Pure theater with a touch of dramatic irony. Those Titanic stories really are the stuff of movies.
The Grand Hotel
There is also the State Governor's 'Summer Palace" (above) grabbing the best view over the harbor and Lake Huron. We were guided throughout our visit expertly and cheerily by our great friends Dickie and Liz, who had come up from Grand Rapids to share this special moment with us and we were all in a state of elation to be taken on the leisurely, horse-drawn drive through the town, past the fort and along the miles of narrow tracks in acres of forest. For this island was in fact the second-ever National Park in the US, following the inspired premiere of Yellowstone. It is 80% untouched woodland which, on the day we were lucky enough to visit, was lit up by the glaring sun shining out of a blue July sky. This is a place worth going out of your way to experience. A piece of unspoiled living history and a sheer delight for any ardent traveller. Put it on the list, please.
The elegant street of Mackinac Island
The Grand Hotel 'taxi'
The best view in town
There are two other exceptional towns within 50 miles of Mackinac Island. Harbor Springs is a sheltered bay on the shore of Little Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan. Its well-heeled population of just over a thousand keep the classy town spotless and pristine. Its shops, galleries and restaurants ooze upmarket chic as do the superb boats that stock the marina. Lunch at the Pier Restaurant, looking out over the water, is 'de rigeur' and as essential as the lunchtime Bloody Mary under the July sun.
Also a visit to the larger, more cosmopolitan coastal town of Petoskey is worth an hour or two. It too has great shopping and some excellent eateries. We were interested to learn that the ubiquitous Ernest Hemingway, a former neighbor of ours in Key West, had found his way here as a young scribe to enhance his much over-rated reputation for being the ultimate bon-viveur, ruthless huntsman and just above average, over-hyped writer. Where didn't old Ernie get to? There must surely have been more than one of him.
So, thanks to dear friends, we had had that most pleasurable experience of discovering for ourselves a hidden gem in Mackinac. Well, to be honest, it was another case of 'discovering' the bleeding obvious. We say 'discover' but in reality up to 15,000 tourist every summer’s day share that discovery as they are hosted by the 500 or so residents. But it would have been all too easy to have driven past and missed this exceptional paradise island. We are now back in Canada, on our three-day TransCanada Highway drive to the capital Ottawa as we continue our inexorable journey back east. Soon we shall be in that most challenging of environments for any old Brit, French Canada. We are feeding ourselves up voraciously on Cornish Pasties and Yorkshire Puddings, washed down with copious supplies of English Breakfast Tea, to build up our strength and ‘sang froid’ in readiness for the forthcoming daunting encounters with the formidable Québécois in a week or so. En garde.
As today marks, to the very day, the completion of two full and fabulous years on the road, without a single visit home, we just want to say a sincere thank-you to all those whom we have met on the way, those who have helped us so much and made us laugh, and you for taking the time to read this little diary. We truly appreciate it and hope you will follow us into the third amazing year.
So thank you, one and all.
Also, today, we must express our gratitude to our Michigan hosts, Liz and Dickie, who guided us like modern-day sherpas to some of the most wonderful places that we so nearly missed. There can be little worse for the more adventurous than having someone say, after you have moved on, "but didn't you go to so-and-so". Fortunately, thanks to their company, we found some true gems in northern Michigan.