The Case for a Car-Free Island Vacation: Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel Experience

The more I travel, the more I appreciate, downright relish, the unhurried feeling of a pedestrian zone, where locals and visitors alike can only traverse by foot or bicycle (or maybe by an old-fashioned horse-drawn carriage).  One can usually find a pedestrian zone within a historic center, such as we did in Dubrovnik (Croatia) and Krakow (Poland) or within a national park, such as Maria Island in Tasmania (Australia).

However, lately, I’ve started to gravitate toward car-free islands where it is downright acceptable to slow down, meander through roadways and scenic areas, think, and even strike up a conversation with a passer-by or two.

Just like last summer, when our family visited the tiny Greek car-free island of Hydra for a welcome respite from the heat and traffic of Athens, this summer, I traveled to the tiny Michigan island of Mackinac.  Crossing over the famed Mackinac Bridge (the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere), which connects the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan, I began to understand why this area draws attention from both photography and birding enthusiasts alike.

Just a few minutes later, I boarded a ferry for the 16-minute ride to Mackinac Island.  

Car Free Mackinac Island

The Grand Hotel Experience on Mackinac Island

For history buffs, Mackinac National Park has the distinction of being America’s second national park, designated just 3 years after Yellowstone.  The island offers kayaking and biking, art exhibitions, walking and horseback riding tours, fishing, golf, and historical Fort Mackinac tours, among other activities. 

Yet, the whole island experience is downright serene. As soon as I stepped off the passenger ferry, I could hear the clip-clop, clip-clop of horse drawn carriages and feel a sense of time almost standing still as well as the island’s welcoming hand.

Certainly, there are many day-trippers who make their way from the small ports of St. Ignace and Mackinaw City. But, I found that just walking 10 minutes past Main Street onto Lake Shore Boulevard, the crowds melted away.

Another few more minutes’ walking along Mahoney and Cadotte Avenues, I came upon the Grand Hotel, the very reason why I was so curious to visit Mackinac Island.

For movie buffs, Somewhere in Time (with Jane Seymour and the late Christopher Reeve) was set and filmed at the Grand Hotel. It was built in 1887 to accommodate the Midwest region’s wealthiest vacationers (the nightly room rate was $1 to $3 per night after all) and one of the many interesting features of the Grand Hotel was and still is its Front Porch, which is the world’s longest (and by the way just perfect for a late-afternoon stroll and drink).

Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island

How Old Design Can Combine with New Technologies to Become Green

As you probably have guessed, the only ways to get around the 3.8 square mile Mackinac Island are by foot, bicycle, horse, or carriage.  But, why should you consider it for a vacation?

Generally, car-free islands have a healthier population due to less air pollution and a less sedentary population, improved conditions for culture and leisure facilities, more space set aside for gardens and parks, more energy-efficient and water-efficient buildings (due to necessity), higher real estate values, and lower rates of crime, among other sustainable benefits.

Hence, Mackinac Island’s 600 residents pay great attention to the environmental components of sustainability, namely energy efficiency and water management.

I had the chance to talk to a couple of members of the Grand Hotel’s staff about its green program initiatives. The point of view of management is that unlike new hotel developments that can more easily incorporate environmental efficiencies, the Grand Hotel’s very allure – a relaxed atmosphere whose high quality service elements and interior design harkens back to the turn of the last century – adds a level of complexity toward being green. 

With that, the hotel has installed LED lighting, implemented several water management techniques that allow for monitoring and more efficient water / heat exchange, and employed recycling and composting programs.

Admittedly, while more could be done to source Michigan specialty fruits, vegetables, fish and meat for its dining menus, employ gray water recycling for its expansive grounds, utilize more durable bamboo fabric linens, implement ionization techniques for cleaning the Esther Williams swimming pool, and communicate to hotel guests the relevance of its green program, the Grand Hotel is an experience like no other.  

Rooms are comfortably updated, activities such as bocce, croquet, tennis, chess, geo-caching, carriage tours, fudge tasting (over 10,000 pounds of fudge are purchased each day), pickleball (a new sport to me), and biking are family-oriented (I saw only a handful of children who could not tear themselves away from a smartphone or tablet), musical performances are ubiquitous, and afternoon teas as well as dinners culminate to relive a time when going slow was physically and emotionally healthy as well as stylish.  Not a bad lesson to teach to the younger generation!