Destination of the week: Mackinac Island, Mich.
If you prefer to get around by horse or bike, this is the place for you.
Mon, Aug 09, 2010 at 09:46 AM
Photo: Tom Buchkoe
In many ways, Mackinac Island is an eco-friendly utopia. Cars are completely absent from this strip of land in Lake Huron a few miles from lower Michigan. People on the island take their cue from the 19th century and use horses (among other non-mechanized means of transport) to get around. The quaint, Victorian vibe draws plenty of visitors during the summer months. Because of this, the main areas of Mackinac are quite touristy. However, Mackinac Island State Park covers three-fourths of the island. This means that there are numerous options for those who want to experience nature rather than purchase souvenirs, sit in cafes and take horse-drawn carriage rides.
While horses are a major part of Mackinac’s image, bicycles are an arguably more convenient means of transportation. One of the country’s only car-less state highways circles the island, providing a perfect pedal-powered sightseeing route. It is a bit surprising that camping is not allowed in the state park (concerns about the environment or a leg up for the island’s inns?), but the famous Grand Hotel has managed to balance its Victorian vibe with eco-friendly measures, and B&Bs make small-scale sleeping a viable low-impact option as well.
All these features make Mackinac Island a great green tourist destination. The touristy vibe might be a turnoff for some, but a little time on horseback, on foot or bending over the handlebars will lead to some of Michigan’s best natural scenery.
The 123-year-old Grand Hotel is known for its Victorian charms (and for its long porch). Recent upgrades have earned it credibility as an eco-friendly hotel. Michigan recognizes the Grand as a green hotel. An energy efficient cooling and heating system, designed with the help of staff members, a recycling and composting program, and low-flow faucets and shower heads are among the list of features that got the hotel’s green side noticed.
Bed and breakfasts around the island offer small-scale inn experiences. Most share the Grand’s Victorian style and sense of environmental friendliness. Even at these less-sizable venues, staff can often help facilitate bike rentals, horse riding sessions and tours.
Mackinac owes much of its image as a tourist destination to its horse carriages. However, for those who simply want to explore the main tourist areas (characterized by cafes and fudge shops), traveling by foot is possible. The downtown area’s attractions are all less than a mile from the pier where the ferries from lower Michigan dock.
Horse carriage tours offer a glimpse of both the central shopping and entertainment areas and parts of Mackinac Island State Park. Guided and unguided horseback rides are available for those who want to venture inside the confines of the state park. Horse “rental” fees are steep ($40 per hour, for starters). Non-residents can’t bring their own equines to the island, so horseback riding is more of an experience rather than a practical means of transport. Nonetheless, the horse culture on Mackinac is an attractive element of the island and a major reason many tourists head there during the summer.
For most tourists, bicycling is the most convenient means of transportation. Visitors can bring their two-wheelers to the island on the ferry (for a fee) or they can rent bikes by the hour, day or week once they arrive. Mackinac’s circumference is less than 10 miles, making bike tours around the island possible for people of all levels of fitness.
The island’s limestone rock formations are both historic and photogenic. The impressive and aptly named Arch Rock is located along the eastern shoreline. It rises nearly 150 feet into the air. Nearby Sugarloaf Rock does not have as impressive a height, but its location, towering above Mackinac State Park’s trees, makes it photo worthy. Sugarloaf is the site of an important burial ground for the island’s native inhabitants.
As with most shoreline landscapes in the Great Lakes region, Mackinac’s lakeside draws tourists with its rugged beauty. Lake Shore Boulevard is a well-maintained road that has the distinction of being the only Michigan state highway that is car-free. It circles the entire island, making for some spectacular sightseeing. For eco-tourists in search of something a little more natural, there are bike and walking trails crisscrossing the island’s interior.
The Mill Creek Discovery Park has, on the surface, some interesting eco-tour staples: a lengthy bridge that seems to wind through the forest canopy and a zip-line ride over the park’s namesake creek. The park offers naturalist-guided tours, but features like fake trout in the creek and a man-made climbing wall might be turnoffs for hard-core eco-tourists. That said, the amusement park vibe of Mill Creek draws necessary dollars into the economy. For true nature lovers, there are trails only a short distance away from Mill Creek where visitors can find their own adventures without zip lines and faux fish.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.
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