Ferry Rides: Escape to Blue Horizons

Whether your destination holds exploring shipwreck relics or meandering sandy island dunes, these little boats make getting there half the fun. // Photography by Todd & Brad Reed Photography
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Ferry Boats

Michigan is surrounded and infused with great lakes and a fleet of ferries awaits to take us beyond myriad blue horizons. What would summer at the cottage be without a trip on a boat? Following are my favorite places to escape by ferry.

South Manitou Island. From Leland, this island is a 90-minute cruise aboard the Miske Mokwa across the Manitou Passage and past the North Manitou Shoal Lighthouse. South Manitou is part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and once you’ve landed you can spend the day climbing the tower of a historic lighthouse, snorkeling around shipwrecks, exploring dunes rivaling those back on the mainland or just lounging on an endless beach that makes you feel you’re somewhere in the tropics (manitoutransit.com).

Manitowoc. Launched in 1952, the S.S. Badger (pictured) is the largest car ferry ever to sail Lake Michigan and is today the only coal-fired steamship operating in the United States. The four-hour run from Ludington to Manitowoc, Wis. is floating history, an authentic steamship experience unmatched anywhere else. In Manitowoc you can be a Cheddarhead for a day and explore Rogers Street Fishing Village to view relics of famous shipwrecks and the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, the largest in the Midwest and home to a restored WWII submarine, or just kick back with a brat and a beer (ssbadger.com).

Mackinac Island. Half the fun of visiting this Victorian haven is the 20-minute cruise to reach it. From Mackinaw City an armada of boats — some sporting 35-foot roostertails — zip across the Straits of Mackinac, pass the Mackinac Bridge, the picturesque Round Island Lighthouse and maybe even a freighter. On the other side you disembark at a bustling turn-of-the-century town filled with unique stores, fudge shops, a historic fort and bicycle sheds where you can rent a two-wheeler for a ride around the island (sheplersferry.com; arnoldline.com and mackinacferry.com).

Beaver Island. If there are too many fudgies on Mackinac Island for you, then cruise to St. James, the only town on Beaver Island. The Beaver Island Boat Company operates a pair of ferries for the two-hour Charlevoix-St. James run, making even a daytrip possible during the summer. Check out museums including the historically intriguing Old Mormon Print Shop Museum (dedicated to King James Jesse Strang and his Mormon followers) and whimsical Toy Museum and Store (bibco.com).

Ironton. Sure it only lasts five minutes, but a trip on the Ironton Ferry across the South Arm of Lake Charlevoix is one of Michigan’s most delightful boat rides. Ferry service here dates back to 1876 and the present ferry was installed in 1926.

Guided by cables on the lake bottom, not a rudder, Ironton is one of only two cable-operated automobile ferries in the country, the reason it was once featured in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” The ferry is so small it holds only four cars and doesn’t make regularly scheduled crossings. It’s operated on demand because the South Arm is so narrow, passengers can be seen waiting on the other side. Once across, the shops and fine restaurants in either Charlevoix or Boyne City are just a short drive away (charlevoixcounty.org; 231-547-7200).


BLUE “Top 5” columnist Jim DuFresne is a Clarkston-based travel writer and the main contributor to michigantrailmaps.com.

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