MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — Producers of the 1980 movie Somewhere in Time didn’t need to build elaborate sets to depict the tale of a playwright who travels back to 1912 to find romance. They simply filmed on Mackinac Island, a Great Lakes enclave that retains its Victorian-era charm thanks to its ban on motor vehicles.
Motor vehicles have been banned on the island since the start of the 20th century after an automobile frightened some of the horses. These days, people still travel by horse-drawn carriage, as well as by bike and by foot.
Mackinac Island, located off the Straits of Mackinac separating Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas, was an important outpost in the region’s fur trade, but that gave way to fishing and eventually tourism.
Among the main attractions: the Grand Hotel, a 385-room luxury hotel that played a central role in Somewhere in Time. In fact, fans of the movie, many in period costumes, descend on the island and the hotel every fall for a weekend of reenactments and a screening.
You get reminders of a bygone era before even leaving the mainland by ferry. Crews cart overnight luggage onto the ferry, the way full-service porters used to at train stations and hotels. The Grand Hotel stands out as your ferry approaches the island. Closer to the dock, you pass a pair of quaint lighthouses, including one featured in the movie.
Once you’re on the island, you have plenty of options. Head to the Mackinac Island State Park Visitor’s Center for an orientation. About 80 percent of the island is controlled by the state park, but staff there can also point you to other things to do, too.
Native Americans were the first settlers on the island. Europeans missionaries came to the area in the 1670s, followed by fur traders. The British moved operations from the mainland to the island in 1780 as protection from Americans in revolt.
So important was the outpost that the British didn’t cede the island until 1796, well after Americans won the Revolutionary War. The British got Mackinac Island back briefly after a surprise attack at the start of the War of 1812.
Through those years, the island’s military center was Fort Mackinac, built on top of a hill a short walk from the main village. For $11, visitors can stroll through Fort Mackinac. You can witness demonstrations of old-style guns and a cannon — be sure to heed the demonstrators’ advice to cover your ears. You can also see some of the buildings once used for distributing supplies, housing soldiers and more.
During the summer months, the admission also gets you into historic buildings in the main village, including a blacksmith shop and the former site of American Fur Co.
Despite the lack of motor vehicles, Mackinac Island has a state highway, running some eight miles around the island. You can walk or run it — consider the Mackinac Island Eight-Mile Road Race in September. You can also rent bikes.
If eight miles is too much, there are shorter hikes you can take, including ones to natural stone formations such as Arch Rock and Sugar Loaf. There are more than 60 miles of trails to choose from throughout the 1,800-acre state park.
In fact, Mackinac was the second national park created after Yellowstone. But with the closure of Fort Mackinac, the park didn’t have caretakers in the form of U.S. soldiers. The state took it over in 1895.
The Grand Hotel is such a draw among tourists that non-guests must pay a $10 admission fee. That allows you to shop, dine or browse an art gallery inside and lets you walk through the flower gardens in front of the hotel. Check out the Cupola Bar on the top floor for a wonderful view of the Straits of Mackinac. There’s a dress code in the evening, so plan accordingly.
It’s free to walk along the streets downtown, where you’ll find shops, churches, museums and other buildings. You’ll also see lots of horses and carriages in lieu of cars.
If you want to ride one, several companies offer tours and taxi service. Tours cost $24.50 and last nearly two hours. You can get off and get on as many times as you like, so you can use it as a bus service to get around.
Expect to pay $100 or more an hour for private taxi service.
You can also rent horses to ride yourself.
Planning your visit
Mackinac Island is about 300 miles north of Detroit. Interstate 75 will get you to the Straits of Mackinac in about 4½ hours. Ferries leave several times a day from Mackinaw City in the Lower Peninsula and St. Ignace in the Upper Peninsula. Tickets cost about $25, though you can save money by buying online or finding a coupon at your hotel.
You can also fly there. Delta offers service to Pellston, Mich., from Detroit, while Lakeshore Express flies from both Detroit and Chicago. From Pellston, you can take a cab or shuttle to the ferry, or take a charter flight to a smaller airport on the island.
As for accommodations, you can splurge for a room at the Grand Hotel or find several cheaper options on the island. The mainland has far more economical lodging, not far from the ferry terminals.
Whether you’re at Mackinac Island for just the day or with an overnight stay, be sure to stop by one of the many shops selling fudge — the island’s specialty cuisine. Just leave your diet on the mainland.