When I tell people in Texas that I grew up in Michigan, they typically conjure up images of Detroit—or big piles of snow. Few imagine what I always envision when I think of home: velvety sand beaches along the coast of Lake Michigan. We lived about 15 miles inland, in the northern portion of the state’s lower peninsula. (Hold out your left hand, face-down; it’s the region that extends from the tip of your pinkie finger over to the middle of your pointer.)
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, population in the region surges, as vacationers from “downstate” and Chicago flock to the resorts and their summer homes (most of which are on the western coast). And every summer, there’s one place both the locals and tourists make a point to visit: Mackinac Island.
The small isle (about 4 square miles) lies in the Straits of Mackinac, waters that separate Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas and connect Lake Michigan with Lake Huron. Just a 20-minute ferry ride from the mainland, the island transports visitors back in time. One gets about by bicycle or horse and carriage, as cars are not allowed.
Despite its small size, Mackinac offers a bounty of activities and experiences. You can tour Fort Mackinac, which was founded during the American Revolution, and see where the British landed in the first engagement of the War of 1812. You can hop on a bike and trek around the island’s perimeter (about 8 miles), which meanders a bit into the woods but mostly runs along the shoreline. You can watch fudge being made at Murdick’s or one of the other shops in the island’s quaint downtown, or try the region’s signature whitefish or perch at the 1852 Grill Room in the Island House Hotel. And, if you time your visit right, you can watch the ships come in during the Chicago Yacht Club’s annual Race to Mackinac.
The island has more than a dozen hotels and another dozen B&Bs, but to do it right, you’ll want to stay at the Grand Hotel, a majestic 390-room resort that dates back to 1887. The Grand is famous for its gracious elegance, dramatic 660-foot front porch (the world’s largest), colorful rooms (no two are alike), bountiful gardens, and Esther Williams pool. It’s also known as the setting for the 1980s movie “Somewhere in Time” with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.
Open between May 1 and November 1, the Grand typically sells out every year. A “healthy percentage” of visitors come from Dallas, says Ken Hayward, managing director: “Relief from the heat is probably one of the major reasons, along with the history and tradition of both the hotel and the island.”
Luggage is checked when you board the ferry, then conveniently delivered straight to your room. Tipping is not allowed at the Grand, which has more than a dozen bars and restaurants. Room rates range from about $300 to $800 per night, and include a full breakfast and a five-course dinner in the hotel’s renowned main dining room. There’s a dress code at the hotel, with evening attire required after 6:30 p.m.
Also worth checking out: the Grand’s Woods restaurant. A horse-drawn carriage will take you into the heart of the island’s interior, where you’ll come upon a Tudor mansion that was built in 1905. The Bavarian-style menu at Woods includes things like whitefish, venison with spätzle and red cabbage, and chilled pumpkin bisque. Be sure, too, to visit the Grand’s Cupola bar, if only to take in the stunning views of the Straits.
The hotel also offers a unique golf experience at The Jewel, a two-part course. After you play the Grand nine, which overlooks Lake Huron, you and your clubs are transported to the Woods nine, which features views of the Upper Penninsula.
Dale Petroskey, president and CEO of the Dallas Regional Chamber, calls the Grand “one of the most spectacular and picturesque hotels in America.” His family and his wife’s family both maintain summer residences in Northern Michigan. “When we’re Up North,” he says, “we feel very much at home.”
To really experience the beauty of the region, tack a few days on to your Mackinac Island trip and fly into Grand Rapids or Traverse City and drive up the coast. An absolute must is a visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore near Empire. Named the “most beautiful place in America” by “Good Morning America” viewers in 2011, its 35 miles of pristine beaches is one of the nation’s best-kept secrets. Views from the top of the dunes, which reach a height of more than 450 feet, are jaw-dropping. Unless you’re in tip-top shape, skip the dune climb and take in the vistas from one of the stops on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. Also worth exploring: Leelanau Peninsula’s wine trail (24 wineries), Fishtown (get a Chubby Marry at The Cove), and the region’s terrific farm-to-table restaurants (a favorite of celebrity chef Mario Batali). Stay at the historic Park Place Hotel in the heart of Traverse City, where the amazing burgers and Mac N’ Cheese Bites at Bubba’s are just a quick walk away. (Be prepared to wait in line.)
Heading north along the lake, stop in Charlevoix and spend some time at Lake Michigan Beach; walk along the pier and watch the yachts come through the channel from Round Lake. Pull over at any of the roadside parks along Little Traverse Bay between Charlevoix and Harbor Springs and hunt for Petoskey stones, a fossilized coral that dates back 350 million years (and can’t be found anywhere else on earth). Drive through the “tunnel of trees” to Cross Village and have dinner at Legs Inn, a 1920s-era restaurant that serves authentic Polish fare like goulash, pierogis, and szarlotka. In this region, stay at any one of the Boyne resorts: The Inn at Bay Harbor, Boyne Highlands, or Boyne Mountain. All feature luxurious spas and first-rate golf. Boyne Mountain also has a huge indoor waterpark.
Visit the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, where you may get lucky and see the awe-inspiring Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). And before or after your trip to Mackinac Island, drive across The Mackinac Bridge. One of the world’s longest suspension bridges (at 5 miles, it’s three times longer than the Golden Gate), the Mighty Mac connects Michigan’s two peninsulas and towers more than 200 feet above the water.
This story appears in the January/February 2016 issue of D CEO.