I've been to Mackinac Island countless times. There is an 8-mile run in the fall, the first Saturday after Labor Day, that I have done probably going on six or seven years now. The last couple of years I have taken to also going up for a spring race, which is usually the weekend after Memorial Day. So what I'm saying is, the 4 hour drive and the ferry ride and pretty much the whole Island experience is old hat to me. I know the hotels, I know the restaurants, I know the trails. That's part of the attraction, honestly. It is a very low stress weekend for me because I know what's what.
But despite my familiarity, there are always little events that keep things interesting. For instance, this time I managed to drive all the way up to the ferry departure, ride the ferry over, and get to my hotel before I realized I did not have my wallet. The gut punch feeling of that was awful. I think I literally doubled over briefly. Needless to say, going back home and retrieving my wallet was out of the question.
So I really had two questions. 1) How was I going to survive the weekend? and 2) How in the hell did I get so far without having my wallet on me?
In reverse order: How did I get that far? That's easy. I filled up the gas tank the night before and had a big breakfast and a late-morning start, so didn't really stop on the way except at a rest stop. (Plus, I didn't get pulled over for any reason - limiting myself to ten over helped.) I bought my ferry ticket online a week before. Therefore I travelled hundreds of miles over land and sea with no need to reach in my pocket. Normally I would not do this. Normally I would have stopped for lunch. Normally I would have bought my ticket at the dock. The thing is, if I had gotten too far north before I stopped, I may not have been able to make it back for my wallet in time anyway. So in some sense it was a blessing that I got all the way to the Island before I had a reason to beat myself up.
How was I going to survive? Ah, this is the thing that mitigated my sorrow. About ten or so years ago I forced myself into the habit of not carrying my cash in my wallet. I keep cash in one pocket and wallet in another. The idea is that I could lose one or the other and still be able to get by. Thus, I still had a pocket full of money. So I was conflicted by feeling like a moron for forgetting my wallet, but feeling like a genius for still have a couple hundred dollars in cash on me. The hotel had my credit card on file from the reservation and were nice enough to let me check in without seeing a photo ID. They even offered to give me a cash advance for a hundred bucks or so if I ran out of money. (Thank you, Bicycle Street Inn!). I would have to watch my spending, but $200 is plenty for a Mackinac Island weekend if you don't overindulge, so I was able to pay my way without washing dishes. I just had to reserve enough to pay for gas on the way home. I'm way too old to be carded, so that was a non-issue. In the end, the only thing I had to fear was getting pulled over on the way home, so I limited myself to five over the limit and managed to make it through a great weekend incident free.
Lucky I didn't forget my phone. That would have been a real disaster.
If you're not familiar with Mackinac Island, you probably should get so. Especially if you live within a day's drive. It can only be accessed by ferry ($20-ish round trip, give or take) or by small plane (too expensive for me). The ferry ride is 30-40 minutes. A lot of people stay at the cheaper hotels that surround the ferry docks on the mainland and take the boat over for the day. For a single day that may save you some money, but staying on the island gives you a place to relax during the day, otherwise you are just darting from destination to destination in a mad rush to get things done before you catch the ferry back at night. Rushing about to save a few bucks is distasteful because Mackinac Island, at least for adults, is a healthy dose of chill. Think of it as a classier, Up-North variation on a Caribbean vacation.
Famously, there are no cars. Transportation is either by horse drawn carriage (taxis and tours), by bicycle (rented bikes are the most common form of transportation) or on foot. One of the real visceral pleasure of the island is waking up to the clip-clop of horses hooves going about their daily routines. And horses and carts do all the work on the island, from delivering tourists to their hotels to picking up trash. (Downside: the smell of horse dung can be overpowering until you get used to it.) Another pleasure is the flowery landscaping everywhere and the broad green lawns with Adirondack chairs where you can sit and enjoy the wonderful world and beautiful people.
Luckily even if you refuse to rent a bike and are averse to horses, staying on your feet is workable because the vast majority of the hotels and restaurants and other activity is in about a one square mile radius right as you exit the boat. The look of most everything is old-timey -- and it's not all fake old-timey. The bulk of these buildings have been around for many decades, if not centuries. That's not to say it's some kind of a stuffy historical re-enactment. People feel comfortable cutting loose. With no cars and no crime you can give the kids a lot of freedom. And since no one is driving home, folks have been known to make liberal use of the numerous bars and pubs.
Three nights on the island is about perfect for a newbie. If you are familiar with everything, two is good. Which hotel? Here are some thoughts: The Grand Hotel gets all the press for its requirement of formal dress for dinner and its historical status and for Somewhere in Time, but I advise against it. It's really too much trouble to and too far away from the center of things to be worth it. Mission Point Resort is always a safe bet. As is Island House. Most of the hotels in town are on the bed-and-breakfasty side, the best of which I would say is the Iroquois (not surprisingly, it's also one of the more pricey). For something more quiet I would look one street back from the main street and give some thought to Metivier Inn. For something less rustic and more in line with the sort of room you might expect from a quality chain hotel I would try the above mentioned Bicycle Street Inn.
Where to eat? Doesn't matter much. There is no real fine dining, lots of standard pub food and basic American entrees. I like Mary's Bistro and The Gatehouse.
More importantly, where to drink? Anywhere. There are a couple of iconic bars however. You'll want to make a stop at the famous Pink Pony, once described as an Irish pub designed by Barbie. But if it's nice weather, skip the decor and head outside to the Porch at the Pink Pony. You might also want to try The Seabiscuit and/or the Mustang Lounge. Both are just the right mix of kitschy and divey and are the ones frequented by locals. Another good choice would be the gazebo at Mission Point which is right out by the water with beautiful views all around.
How about non-drinking activities? Well if you must... A good place to start is with a horse and carriage tour of the island. They'll hit all the key spots and give you time to snap pictures and do a bit of scurrying about. On your own, I suggest a rent a bike and a map; bike rental shops are everywhere. You'll want to see Arch Rock and Fort Holmes, both of which are on the east bluff. Take some time to wander the trails up there; lots to see. The west bluff (out behind the Grand Hotel) is dominated by exquisite neighborhoods of old money homes and wonderful views of the Mackinac Bridge. Bike the circumference of the Island along the shore -- 8 miles total. More specific activities would be a Fort Mackinac tour or a visit to the butterfly house. Arnold Ferry Lines runs cruises circling the island with food and drink available. Mostly, just see if you can capture the rhythm and the spirit of being on the island. Enjoy the sunset (or sunrise, as the case may be), watch the boats pass, admire the horses, wander and find someplace that touches you personally -- a shop, a garden, a view (I have a couple; I won't be sharing them). Visit once and you'll be back for more.
A word on pronunciation: It's pronounced "Mack-i-naw," as if the closing "c" was a "w." I don't know why. My spell checker keeps wanting me to spell Mackinac as Mackinaw. That's just wrong and I refuse to do it.