If you love horses, you might love Mackinac Island because on an island 8.2-miles round there are about 600 of them during the peak summer season. But if hate seeing horses work, this might not be the vacation for you.
Mackinac Island in Northern Michigan USA, (and just south of Sault St. Marie in Ontario, Canada) is car-free. No motorized vehicles are permitted on the island, and it’s been that way legally (without challenge) since the early 20th century.
To get around, you have two choices: bicycles or carriages.
That’s right, horse drawn carriages and that’s what shows up when you call a ‘taxi.’
It’s also what you get when you book a private carriage tour to show you around this historic island that’s primarily a summer playground for those seeking a slower-paced journey back in time – without sacrificing the creature comforts of WIFI, heat, electricity, gourmet food and fudge …. Mackinac Island is known for fudge.
‘Downtown,’ essentially Main and Market Streets, Mackinac looks like the film set of a wild west movie but with draft horses pulling multi-seat carts (the $5 shuttle from the ferry terminal to hotels) and no gun-wielding cowboys.
Victorian style carriages pull up in the u-shaped driveway (no need for parking lots) in front of hotels like the Mission Point Resort and individuals who’ve booked private tours around the island – like me – climb aboard.
I owe my tour today to the efforts of my driver Logan, and a Percheron/Standardbred team named Sonny and May. “I can’t tell you a lot about Sonny and May,” Logan tells me. “They are not the team I usually use. But I do know a lot about my usual team. That’s what I like best about working with the horses, taking care of them in the stables and paddocks.
“The horses are very well taken care of,” he assures me, including one of the many stable and carriage barns on our tour – not something he usually does.
What else do we see not always on the private tour of Mackinac Island?
Trails through the Mackinac State Park – 80 per cent of the island is state park. Sonny and May pull our carriage along hard-packed wide trails while coniferous branches slap the sides of the awing and brush the fringe.
“I knew there’s no saddle horses along these trails at this time,” he says, otherwise be can’t risk startling riders along the trail. Another carriage does cross a trail in front of us.
“Who has the right of way?” a passenger asks.
“She does, apparently,” Logan says. There are some ‘rules of the road’ though. For instance, the carriage traveling up hill has the right of way because it’s harder on the horses to start from a stop.
We also pass the popular sites such as the Grand Hotel and Fort Mackinac, first built by the British during the American Revolution and was attacked during the War of 1812. The 100-year-old tea room patio at the fort claims status as the best view on the island, resting on a bluff 150 feet about Mackinac Island Harbor.
The company Logan works for (Mackinac Island Carriage Tours) owns 300 horses during the summer and there’s more than double that on the island peak season. However, many leave via boats for the winter with only a few remaining on the island to service the 500 year-round residents who might need a taxi.
Also, during the summer, approximately 1400 pounds of horse poo are removed from the streets daily – yes, daily – via bike carts and cleaners with shovels. This manure is used to replenish the shallow top soil on the island and nurture the trees.
Mackinac Island prove what all horse-lovers know: it’s possible to live without cars (at least on an island) but not horses. And if you’ve always wanted to learn to drive a carriage … you can do that here too. (see below).
TRAVEL GUIDE: You must take a ferry to Mackinac Island, Michigan from either Mackinac City or St. Ignace. Ferries take about 15 minutes to cross the Straits of Mackinac and the ride can be bumpy depending on weather. Two ferry companies run boats: Shepler Ferry and Star Line. (I took Shepler from Mickinac City). Premium parking is $25 a night at the ferry dock, or $5 a night at an outlining parking lot, where you are shuttled from.
Luggage is loaded onto the ferry by staff and transferred directly to your hotel (including in the price of your stay). Cost is $26 per adult round trip; $14 per child and $11 for bikes. (Dogs are free). On-line advance purchases save $1 to $2 per round trip ride.
There are many places to stay on Mackinac and all sell out quickly in July and August. Main Street is lined with hotels (no chains), B&Bs are close by and there’s two large resorts on the island. The first is the historic Grand Hotel built in 1890 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places (and charges $10 admission to non-guests just to tour).
The second is Mission Point Resort with about 200 rooms, five restaurants, an outdoor pool and hot tub, 18-hole putting green, tennis and bocce ball (affiliate link) courts. Mission Point Resort is also dog-friendly in the Strait Lodge.
Bike rentals are all over the island including at the hotels for about $20 a day or $7 an hour.
Private carriage rides are available through Gough Livery Carriages or Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, or you can drive your own buggy after a short lesson at Jack’s Livery Stable. Guided and Unguided trail riding is available through Cindy’s Riding Stable – the next time I’m on the island, that’s what I’ll be doing.