Islands in the Straits

From rustic to resort, vacation life in the Straits of Mackinac moves in surprising ways to the rhythms of another era.
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Les Cheneaux's Government Islands
Les Cheneaux’s Government Island — shaped vaguely like a dolphin just to the right of the photo above — is tailor-made for fans of the outdoors, offering rustic campsites nestled in unspoiled surroundings and invitations to explore. Opposite page, top right: Striking sunsets, campfires along rocky shoreline and shared duties at a circa-1873 lighthouse make St. Helena Island an unforgettable experience.

Mackinac Island: The carriage awaits — literally — as we dock at our island getaway.  The British-style coach is polished to a shine and roomy enough to house our top hats (should any of us be actually wearing one). Two elegant Percherons are soon clip-clopping us past Victorian boutiques and toward our impressively grand hotel.

Had I arrived in the decade it only seems to be, the 1890s or so, a staffer posted in the cupola would have signaled our pending arrival. A manager in a beaver coat would have then greeted us as department heads rushed to memorize our likes and dislikes before cuing the orchestra for the Sousa march and our grand entrance.

Grand Hotel grounds covered in tulips
The Grand Hotel’s signature dessert — a pecan ball in fudge sauce — made its debut in 1947. The timelessly classic resort is also renowned for its meticulously maintained flower beds and gardens.

But no one is complaining as we instead climb a red-carpeted staircase to what is still the world’s longest porch. The orchestra hasn’t set up yet, but a harpist is tiding us over as a tuxedoed waiter brings over a plate of tea sandwiches and pours the champagne — a high tea prelude to the night’s five-course dinner and ballroom dancing to follow.

While some things have certainly changed in the 125 years since the Grand Hotel opened as one of the Midwest’s most popular summer resorts, the heart of the experience has not. You vacation at the Grand, always and still, in Victorian-style glamour and elegance.

You can relive times past on other islands in the Straits of Mackinac as well, though in far different resorting styles. Whether opting for a tent on an island chain that inspired budding naturalist Aldo Leopold or bedroom in a lighthouse built in the 1870s, you don’t just get away from mainland to island. 

You travel back to the rhythms of a century or more past.

Historic Photo of the Grand Hotel in Michigan
Photography Courtesy Grand Hotel
Live Like a
Victorian Industrialist

“Stroll” is the desired rhythm of a Grand Hotel stay, just as it has been for these 100 years-plus. The front porch, once dubbed the island’s flirtation walk, remains center of activity — namely, reading a novel, sipping tea and watching the world go by, says Bob Tagatz, the resort’s full-time historian. There’s a view of the Straits, over the 264 porch window boxes of flaming red geraniums and pool made famous by movie star Esther Williams. The Edison phonograph was demonstrated on this very spot, and the likes of John F. Kennedy (along with four other presidents), Mark Twain and Madonna have strolled here.

There’s one employee to every two guests, and Tagatz likes to say the staff is there to put on a play of sorts, staging an experience he calls Broadway of the Northern Michigan lodging scene. Keeping Broadway-level standards is helped by unusual-for-this-day rules like the formal evening wear required of all guests. 

Grand Hotel Front Porch
Traditions reign at The Grand Hotel: Every morning, staff raises American flags on the 660-foot-long porch, and for more than a century, afternoon tea has been served each day in the parlor.

The historian’s favorite response to why the dress code persists came in a Barbara Walters interview of one-time owner W. Stewart Woodfill in the 1960s. When Walters asked what was up with such an outdated rule, Tagatz says Woodfill replied: “I spent thousands of dollars to decorate this hotel, and I made one rule. It classes up the hotel, and it doesn’t cost me a dime.”

Most guests wouldn’t have it any other way, says Ken Hayward, the hotel’s executive vice-president and managing director. Such resort traditions will be celebrated this 125th birthday year with the publishing of a history-focused coffee table book, the baking of a 125-foot birthday cake and daily hotel history tours. 

Ours included fascinating tales of prohibition times and celebrity guests and an equally impressive look at how the old (Venetian art glass chandeliers and furnishings from the 1700s) blends seamlessly with the new (flat-screen televisions, air conditioning and the summery colors and patterns of New York-based designer Carleton Varney).

We pick clothing with a ’20s flair for our dinner dress, take a quick flirtation walk and totally get what the resort’s Hayward means when he says the Grand transports people to a different time and experience.

“It’s a state of mind, pace of life sort of thing,” he said. “It’s why people came to begin with, and it’s why they still come today.”

St. Helena Island
St. Helena Island
Be Inspired Like
a Naturalist:
Government Island

The only public lodging left on the islands of the Les Cheneaux island chain are some rustic campsites and two outhouses on Government Island. Today’s visitors arrive by kayak or private boat, not luxury steamships from industrial cities of the day. But don’t let that fool you. 

A visitor could spend weeks paddling around sheltered islands or stopping to hike at spots like Marquette Island’s new Aldo Leopold Preserve; the famed naturalist summered there in the 1890s and, according to family writings, knew the island intimately enough to produce artistic maps of its trees, animals and birds. Camping on Government is still a pristine nature getaway.

 It’s also historically authentic, says Amy Polk, Les Cheneaux’s chamber and tourism director. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, vacationers would land on an island, set up camp, catch fish and have a fish fry dinner, she says — much like you can do today on that island. “Most of the campsites are sheltered by cedar trees that gracefully arch over. It’s just a very peaceful feeling.” 

St. Helena Island
Live a Keeper’s Life:
St. Helena Island  

The C.B. moniker of Helena Island’s resident light keeper is “heaven on earth,” and it doesn’t take long to see what inspired that choice. 

Acres of wildflowers along rocky shorelines make for hours of exploration, and evenings find visitors gathering around a shoreline campfire, watching the sun sink near the glimmering Mackinac Bridge, or strumming some sea shanties. Stays from four days to two months are offered through an unusual keeper’s program that continues work scouts did to restore the circa-1873 island lighthouse. 

Duties are shaped by interest. Volunteers with cooking experience make a feast of chicken and biscuits and raspberry pie, while those handy with tools might adjust a squeaky door. The experience of living communally, pumping water for dishes washed outdoors to the backdrop of waves, has an unexpected effect. Says Donn Werling, a regular volunteer, “It’s a way to not only learn facts but also how these facts formed lives. This is a way to soak up the spirit of the place.” 

Celebrate History,
Freighters and Maybe
a Moose: Lime Island

A hotel once situated in the center of this island played host to the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Mae West. But Lime never caught on for tourism the way it did as a working island, and no wonder: Seagoing ships pass so close to its shore just north of the Straits along the St. Mary’s River that you can almost reach out and touch them. 

This has long made the island a natural stop-off site for refueling freighters just as it was for Native Americans, fur traders, rum runners and more. Today’s visits are so freighter-centric that its pristine rental cabins on the bluff come outfitted with “Know Your Ships” guides. 

Now a Michigan state park and accessible only by boat or private charter, Lime draws history buffs to its industrial ruins and restored schoolhouse and wildlife lovers to the oft chance of spotting a bear or moose. Wandering trails set amid the 900 acres is a popular sport, and play here follows a certain legacy. According to park officials, Native Americans once named Lime “ball playing island.”

Pure Michigan Kayakers
Kayakers Exploring Michigan – Photography Courtesy Pure Michigan

Explore by Day

No time for an overnight? Check out these adventures.

Stock photo of a canoe paddle • A lighthouse cruise offered by Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry. The narrated Westbound Cruise passes St. Helena as well as lights like Gray’s Reef and Waugoshance. The company’s St. Helena Experience offers an island day trip with lunch (sheplersferry.com).

• The Mackinac Seaplane tour, a one-of-its kind 20-minute flight over 45 miles of islands and shoreline (mackinacseaplanes.com).

• A tour by classic yacht of the Les Cheneaux Islands, notable both for its wilderness and its heritage of wooden boats and colorful boathouses (lescheneaux.net). 

To learn more, visit grandhotel.com; lescheneaux.org (Government Island); gllka.com (St. Helena Island); and Michigan.gov/dnr (Lime Island). Freelance writer Kim Schneider resides in Suttons Bay.

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