I’ve always considered myself a hopeless romantic, and one of my favourite movies was a 1980 film called Somewhere in Time, starring a young Christopher Reeve (before his crippling accident) and the always-beautiful Jane Seymour. The plot revolves around two time-crossed lovers who manage to meet each other despite being separated in time by more than sixty years.
But Somewhere in Time also has an unbilled co-star that is Mackinac Island, Michigan, where the film was shot. That’s because Mackinac didn’t just ‘get into character’ for the movie; its historic charm is part of its identity to this day, and it’s impossible not to fall in love with it, too.
Fall in Love with Mackinac’s Architecture
Mackinac Island’s popularity grew in the late 1800s when it became THE summer destination for wealthy Michigan families who wanted to escape to the island for weeks and sometimes months at a time. Consequently, many of the residences on the Island reflect the Victorian architecture of that period, although these so-called ‘cottages’ appear more like mansions, as they also reflect the wealth of their owners.
Although elaborate, these buildings were constructed as seasonal homes only, with no foundations or insulation, and they were shuttered in the fall when the cooler weather arrived and the residents left.
The Grand Hotel: Perhaps Michigan’s Largest ‘Cottage’?
The crown jewel on Mackinac Island is the impressive Grand Hotel, built in 1887 as a summer resort for the rich and famous, and boasting all the luxurious amenities available at the time.
The Grand Hotel could be considered Michigan’s largest cottage, as it too was constructed without a foundation, and to this day is only open during the summer (from end of April until October). In fact, when the Hotel closes for the winter, all the plumbing is drained, the heat is shut off, and the Grand lies dormant until the following spring.
Historic, Picture-Perfect Downtown
The Grand Hotel may be the summer showpiece of Mackinac Island, but Downtown Mackinac is as pretty as a postcard, too, and it’s kept that way intentionally by historical committees who ensure that any new construction maintains the aesthetic of the community.
Stroll in either direction past the main cluster of quaint fudge shops, souvenir stores and restaurants, and you’ll discover one exquisite home after another with gardens that are as well-kept and colourful as the clapboard houses.
Fine Art is ‘Inside Out’ on Mackinac
If the architectural and natural beauty of Mackinac Island isn’t enough, visitors can also discover random fine art paintings all around the downtown area as well.
The initiative is part of the INSIDE|OUT project from the Detroit Institute of Arts, which places reproductions of paintings from the Institute into communities around the state.
With the lilacs in full bloom, dollhouse-style architecture everywhere and fine art randomly placed around the downtown, it’s almost impossible to take a bad photo here, especially when a beautiful horse and carriage drives by.
Say Yes to Carriage Rides on Mackinac Island
Speaking of carriage rides…I usually avoid carriage rides when I’m travelling, as they are almost always a tourist trap dollar-wise, or something that seems romantic, but actually feels too contrived for my taste. Not so on Mackinac Island.
Being an island with no bridge or causeway connecting it to mainland Michigan, Mackinac Island is accessible only by ferry. These are passenger ferries only, however, as the local government maintains a strict ‘no cars’ policy here that has been in effect since 1898. And it is that ban on cars that has helped to make the atmosphere on Mackinac so special.
No Cars, No Rush Hour, No Stress
With no cars allowed, life here is slower by design, and carriages ARE the way to get around the island. In fact, this might be the one place where riding around in carriages doesn’t feel like some tourist cliché, but part of daily life. Horses and buggies aren’t just used for visitors: they are used to transport lumber to job sites, supplies to the locals, and they serve as taxis for the numerous hotels on the island.
Carriage rides are also one of the most relaxing ways to tour the island, which we learned when we took an afternoon ride to see some of the main attractions. Clip-clopping our way between secluded cottages and along quiet dirt roads, the rhythm of the horses’ hooves seemed to dictate the pace of life here, too – one that actually allows visitors to stop and smell the roses (or in our case, pink and white trilliums that flanked our path.)
Commanding Views and Historic Forts
Our carriage ride took us to two of the best vantage points on the island, Fort Holmes and Fort Mackinac, both of which were positioned at strategic locations to monitor the fur trade through the Great Lakes and to protect the area from military invasion.
Fort Holmes is a small site that is a popular destination for hikers and visitors because of its commanding views onto the lake.
Fort Michilimackinac (as it was known then) was actually moved here in 1780 by the British from its original location on the mainland. Fort Mackinac, as it became known, changed hands several times between the British and the Americans until finally becoming part of the United States in 1812.
Today it has been restored as a living history museum run by the State parks where you can see characters in period dress and visit the oldest building on the island, the Officers’ Quarters which dates back to the 1700s.
TIP: A guided carriage tour is a great way to see the island and hear more about its history. Mackinac Island Carriage Tours cost about $35pp/hour, with a minimum of 4 people (but you can always share the ride with others if your group is smaller)
Mackinac Island Happily Remains Somewhere in Time
Returning after our carriage ride to the Grand Hotel, (where Henk and I were lucky enough to spend two nights), I was reminded again of how time seems to have stopped here. The walls are covered with dozens of photographs and memorabilia donated by guests who stayed here over the decades, and of course there are also framed mementos and articles from the Somewhere in Time movie.
Having visited a good chunk of the island now, I was determined to watch Somewhere in Time again before leaving the island. So I found some dubious site online and watched a grainy version of the movie until the wee hours of the morning, curious to see how much of the Island and the Hotel I would recognize.
I soon realized that despite almost 40 years having passed since the movie was shot, Mackinac and the Grand Hotel looked pretty much the same: the lush grounds of the Grand Hotel seemed unchanged; likewise the hotel’s unmistakeably colourful interiors.
I had sipped a drink on the same historic porch where Reeve’s character spent a night on a wicker sofa. Henk and I had eaten in the huge dining room that looks almost identical today as it did in the movie. And the Orpheum Theatre where Seymour’s character performed was where it has always been downtown (although now it is a haunted museum of sorts).
Of course, I have to admit that viewed again through my ‘grownup eyes’ the movie that I remembered so fondly was in truth a little naïve and simplistic, (especially given the gritty, Breaking-Bad-style content that we seem to be bingeing today).
But naïveté aside, the movie is a nod to the grace and elegance of the era in which it was set, a simpler time when life moved at a slower pace, when ladies and gentlemen dressed for dinner and when a stroll was the evening’s entertainment.
This romantic homage to the past is what gives Mackinac Island its timeless appeal, too – and it’s probably the reason why the million or so visitors who come here every summer absolutely love it.
Make that one million and one.
TIP: If you really want to embrace the romance of Mackinac Island, the Grand Hotel hosts an annual ‘Somewhere in Time Weekend’ in October when fans come in elaborate costumes and really get into the spirit of the movie. (Jane Seymour even attended in 2015 to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the release of the film.)
PRACTICAL INFO for Mackinac Island:
Shepler’s Ferry runs boats to Mackinac Island multiple times a day from April to September from two locations in Michigan: St. Ignace (the closest city to Sault-Ste-Marie, Ontario) and Mackinaw City. Adult fares are $27 roundtrip (a little cheaper online). If you can, try to take the ‘longer’ ferry trip that goes under the Mackinac bridge as this bridge isn’t just picturesque; it is also the official dividing line between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. (Don’t let the name of the bridge fool you – the only way to get to Mackinac Island is by boat!)
TIP: When you stay at the Grand Hotel, your luggage is tagged at the Shepler Ferry Docks and delivered to the hotel for you. How’s that for service!
On Foot: Downtown Mackinac is easily walkable, and there are nice paths and parks all along the shore. If you have more time and are looking for a little exercise, there are also miles of hiking trails in the interior that are a great way to explore the island.
By Bike: Rental bicycles are plentiful and located right at the ferry dock and along the main street, so if you are planning to tour the island on two wheels, you’ll just need to choose the type that suits you best (fat tire, cruiser, tandem, etc).
By Carriage: Horse-drawn taxis are available for a reasonable price per person and are a great way to take you from ferry to hotel or if you don’t want to climb the stairs up the bluff to the Fort.
The Grand Hotel has its own elegant carriages complete with liveried driver which can take you to the hotel for a small fee.
You can even rent your very own horse and buggy from Jack’s Livery Stable for about $70/hour – that is, if you are comfortable operating a ‘1-horsepower engine’!
Where to Stay on Mackinac Island:
If you’re going to immerse yourself in the historic uniqueness of Mackinac Island, you might as well do it up right and stay at The Grand Hotel. Just be sure to pack elegant evening attire: the hotel has a strict dress code after 6pm. Or there are plenty of other unique, boutique hotels and B&Bs on the island to choose from which you can find here.
Where to Eat on Mackinac Island:
There are dozens of restaurants, bars, cafes (and fudge shops!) in downtown Mackinac catering to every taste or budget. Have a drink or a meal on the Pink Pony porch, one of the finer options in town, or head to the Mustang Lounge for more casual food where you might meet some of the local islanders, too. For a complete list of options, check out the Mackinac Island Dining Guide.
We ate lunch at The Tea Room cafe in Fort Mackinac which had a pretty terrace with sunny umbrellas and the best view in town overlooking the harbour and downtown Mackinac. The menu offered typical lunch fare (soups, sandwiches and salads) but the real star here is the stellar location.
For those who like to indulge in Afternoon Tea, as I do, The Grand Hotel offers one every day for $58 in its main parlour, usually accompanied by a harpist or other live music for an added touch of sophistication.
The Grand also offers upscale dining in the hotel’s main dining room, which is open to anyone (just observe the dress code). There is also the Jockey Club across the road which has a more alfresco vibe, but equally delicious food.
For more information or help planning your own visit to the Island, check out the Mackinac Island Tourism website.
TIP: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, is the perfect gateway city if you are coming to Mackinac Island from Canada. The drive to St. Ignace (where you catch the ferry to Mackinac Island) takes less than an hour.
Special thanks goes to Tourism Sault Ste. Marie who hosted our own grownup getaway to Mackinac Island.