The ferry ride from the northern tip of Michigan’s Mitten to Mackinac Island takes less than 20 minutes, yet visitors who leave their vehicles in Mackinaw City to cross the Straits of Mackinac are traveling back 125 years in time.
Mackinac Island is a sepia photograph of America before the advent of the automobile – only it’s a living reality. My wife, Monika, and I stepped off the ferry, its U.S. flag snapping to attention in the Lake Huron wind, and watched as our luggage was hoisted aboard a horse-drawn wagon. We clambered onto a wooden bench as a young man in suspenders and newsboy cap snapped the reins. Off we headed down Main Street to the sunrise side of the island less than one-half mile away.
The streets bustled with people moving in and out of the many shops and lodgings, some on foot dodging horses, others pedaling by, yet the village was strangely quiet absent any motorized vehicle traffic. Why, I wondered, do seaside and lakeshore resorts always feature fudge shops?
No one on the island seemed in a real hurry or the slightest bit stressed, certainly not the team of sturdy horses that hauled us uphill to Mission Point Resort, our home for the next three days. We had learned only by accident that the Ware family of San Antonio had purchased and was refurbishing the historic resort. How the Wares came to make such a major investment in distant Mackinac Island so close to where I was born piqued my interest. There must be a story there, I told Monika, as we planned our trip. There is, and I tell it farther down in this travelogue.
A change comes over the island visitor with the immediate realization that you are suddenly in a world without cars. The air was a redolent mix of blooming flower beds and sturdy work horses, both of which are everywhere. With the streets and roadways empty of motorized vehicles, teams of horses ply the streets, pulling smart-looking carriages, shaded trolleys, and wagons stacked with supplies from the mainland.
Men on bicycles pulling small carts stop to shovel and sweep clean the streets.
A Main Street day on Mackinac Island is where “Share the Road” means horses, cyclists, and pedestrians enjoying the right of way free of motorized vehicles. This 3.8-mile-long island, with an official population of 492 people and 700 horses, swells with a few thousand visitors and seasonal workers on any given summer day, many of whom rent bicycles to move around the island. There are so many rental bikes that people do not lock them.
A Great Lakes Sojourn
I was born 37 miles to the south in Petoskey on the shores of Lake Michigan. After 36 years of marriage, I had finally brought Monika, my Texas-born wife, to the state where lived until I was 11 years old. We flew to Chicago in late August, rented a car, and slowly wended our way north along Lake Michigan’s shoreline, following M-22, the state’s most scenic byway. Along the way we stopped in quaint lakeside resort towns – St. Joseph, Benton Harbor, South Haven, Saugatuck, Holland, Ludington, Travis City, Charlevoix, and Petoskey.
We budgeted time for day hikes through densely forested natural areas, and up and down steep sand dunes that dropped down to the Lake Michigan shoreline. Bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and hawks soared by, on patrol.
Our Michigan sojourn eventually would take us across the majestic five-mile long Mackinac Bridge to St. Ignace and on to the UP, or Upper Peninsula. Our first stop was at the Peninsula Point Lighthouse, where monarch butterflies gather in endless numbers at summer’s end. There they await the southern breezes that carry them down the length of Lake Michigan and on the 2,500-mile journey to winter roosts in Michoacan, Mexico.
It’s one of the planet’s great migrations, and by October, the butterflies are seen fluttering through San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country. We arrived ahead of the mass of monarchs, and saw only a few dozen butterflies as we meandered through the lakeshore woods and bramble, feasting on wild raspberries like black bears.
From there we drove to Marquette and the shores of Lake Superior and then turned back south to make our way down the western side of Lake Michigan through Wisconsin and back to our starting point in Chicago. Monika, who had only seen Lake Michigan from Chicago’s lakefront parks, experienced three of the five Great Lakes on this trip. Michigan is not on the way to anywhere, so too few Americans experience the wild and beautiful northern reaches of this state, where summers are mild and winters are deep.
A San Antonio Family Buys Mission Point Resort
First, though, we wanted to spend a few days and nights on Mackinac Island, more than a little curious to visit historic Mission Point, an 18-acre resort whose original building, Mission House, dates to 1825. The property was purchased in late 2014 by San Antonio businessman Dennert “Denny” Ware, his wife Suzanne, and their oldest daughter Liz.
Denny was born in Kalamazoo, where I spent my boyhood years after leaving Petoskey, a connection that I learned about after coming to know him during his years as chairman of the San Antonio Symphony board. Many in San Antonio’s business community know Denny as the former CEO of Kinetic Concepts, now named Acelity. Our shared passion, however, was the orchestra.
Fast-forward two years. As I was planning this long-delayed sojourn, I knew Monika would be captivated by the remote beauty of Mackinac Island, where my ancestors, French Canadian Catholics, established the first mission in the 1600s, decades before the first stone was laid at Mission San Antonio de Valero in San Antonio.
Denny had told me years ago that his family was fixing up “an old place” on the Upper Peninsula. At the time I had never heard of Mission Point and had no sense of the Wares’ ambitious purchase. If I ever returned to the northern reaches of my home state, Denny said, I should pay a visit. It was only after I began planning our trip that I tripped across online news stories about the Wares published in the Town Crier, Mackinac Island’s weekly newspaper.
That “old place,” it turned out, was Mission Point, a sprawling hillside resort with 241 rooms, a spa and gym, meeting rooms, an auditorium, a 500-seat theater, a natural grass 18-hole miniature golf course, and a vast lakefront lawn decked with Adirondack chairs where guests gather to watch the sunrise and enjoy a cocktail in the evenings. Hotel staff operate a busy children’s program that includes lakeside kite flying.
The Wares have invested millions of dollars more since they became owners of Mission Point, using the island’s traditional November-April offseason to upgrade the facilities and landscaped grounds, and paying special attention to the historic preservation of the property.
After our visit I called Ware to ask what caused him to take on such a massive project so far from San Antonio.
“We wanted to do something that mattered in my home state, and this seemed like a really worthy project,” Denny said. “The island is a wonderful place to go. History is truly respected there. The ore ships still ply the Straits of Mackinac, and different Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops camp out and work at Fort Mackinac each weekend. Mackinac is unique.”
Northern Michigan summers are a welcome escape from the South Texas heat. We didn’t even break a sweat cycling the steep hills from Mission Point to the Revolutionary War-era fort, which was built by the British and occupies the high ground looking over to the straits to unoccupied Round Island.
Below the fort is a sweeping vista of the town’s period Victorian homes, Main Street storefronts, and busy marina filled with handsome yachts and sailboats. Behind the fort, forested hillsides occupy 80% of the island, offering 70 miles of hiking trails, and dramatic views of Lake Huron.
“It’s a transformative experience that too few Americans have ever known,” said Tim Hygh, director of the Mackinac Island Convention & Visitors Bureau. “How would you like to spend three days without ever hearing an automobile horn, and instead listening to the sound of kids laughing, horses clopping, and birds singing?
A few years before the Wares purchased Mission Point, Liz Ware first came across another historic property, long abandoned, on the island’s north side, surrounded by state parkland. An early 20th-century Adirondack cabin and former hotel known as Silver Birches and two nearby cottages in Point Aux Pins, were both available and became her family’s first island purchases. The Wares are now restoring those properties for private use.
“I love the island in all seasons,” Liz said. “Only a few hundred people stay on the island year around, but I find it so peaceful there in the winter. With no cars there, the snow never gets dirty.”
Liz’s affection for Mackinac was soon shared by her parents.
“Our daughter Liz got interested in Silver Birches first, and John and Jeanie Shufelt, who owned Mission Point at the time, had been very kind and let her stay at Mission Point in the winter, so I got to know him,” Denny said. “He got to a point where he wanted to sell. I had worked all my life for other people, and I wanted to know if I could run a business by myself. So we bought it.”
The Wares have left the day-to-day management of Mission Point to general manager Bradley McCallum, who also is a historic preservationist.
“The prior owner was absentee and wanted someone to come in and show the property some love. It’s really gained serious momentum since the Wares bought it and brought their passion and resources to the project,” McCallum said. “It’s wonderful to see the property realizing its full potential without losing its vintage, quirky character. It hearkens to a different time without being hokey or cheesy. It’s a very contemporary experience.
“We are just starting the renovations and upgrades. A lot has been done, but it’s just beginning. This will be a long journey.”
I spent hours one afternoon exploring the Mission Point’s library and collection of historic photographs on display, searching for evidence of my own French Canadian past.
“The library is my favorite place in the 18 acres, with 2,000 books and our map collection that date back to the 1600s, all showing Mackinac Island,” McCallum said.
Our stay was too short for me to find what I was looking for. I will have to go back.
If You Go
The Wares’ hotel is surpassed in size and history only by the Grand Hotel, which opened in 1887 and boasts the longest front porch in the world.
With nearly 400 rooms – and a long-standing policy that gentlemen must dress in a coat and tie after 6 p.m. in the hotel’s public rooms – the Grand Hotel experience is a more formal one. Room prices include a full breakfast, buffet luncheon, and a seated five-course dinner. People who check into the Grand, whether they are honeymooners, golfers, or summer visitors, tend to spend a lot of their island time on the hotel grounds.
The same can be said for Mission Point guests, although the setting is far less formal and more family-friendly. Kids under 12 eat free, even in the tony Chianti restaurant, and there are extensive supervised children’s activity programs so parents can enjoy down time. Even pet dogs are welcome guests at Mission Point.
For travelers who prefer smaller hotels, cottage rentals, or B&B options, the island’s tourism bureau offers an informative catalog of nearly 40 choices. It would be easy to return to Mackinac Island again and again without ever staying at the same place twice. Room rates vary from $99 for a simple single bed to $2,415 a night for elegant suites. The newest hotel, located right on Main Street, has 43 rooms and is aptly named the Bicycle Street Inn.
The Hotel Iroquois was one of the more charming inns that Monika and I visited, with superb cuisine and service in its Carriage House restaurant. Room rates range from $245-$1,375. No, we didn’t stay there. All the diners within earshot of our table were engaged in lively discussions about life and travels on their yachts and sailboats. We enjoyed a vicarious evening of boating banter.
For more things to see and do on the island, see mackinacisland.org or call (906) 847-3783.