Linking Lakes Huron and Michigan, the Straits of Mackinac (MAK-i-nacc) have been a crossroads of the Great Lakes for hundreds of years, a key waterway for hunting, fishing, trading, and transportation. The four-mile-wide Straits also sever Michigan in two, both emotionally and geographically. Until the 1950s, the only way across was by ferry, effectively blocking the development of the Upper Peninsula  and creating half-day backups at the ferry dock during prime hunting and fishing season.
Today, the magnificent five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge  stitches the state together, allowing a free flow between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. But the Straits, now a key vacation area for much of the Midwest, continue to lure people, and many come specifically for Mackinac Island.
No place name in Michigan conjures up as much history, attention, and affection as the tiny parcel known as Mackinac Island. Over the centuries, the 2,200-acre island has been a sacred ground for the Native Americans who summered here, an important base for French fur trappers, a fort for British soldiers, and a gilded summer retreat for the wealthiest of Victorian-era industrialists.
It is the Victorian era that Mackinac chose to preserve, from the exquisite 1887 Grand Hotel, with its 660-foot-long porch stretching across the hillside, to the clopping of the horse-drawn carriages down the vehicle-free streets. Yes, it can seem touristy at first blush. Yes, it can be crowded. But Mackinac Island can also be irrepressibly charming, all buffed up and neatly packaged, the state’s heirloom jewel.
Some of the criticism lobbed at Mackinac is based on misconception, anyway. For starters, Mackinac is more than the tangle of fudge and souvenir shops that greet you at the ferry dock. A full 80 percent of the island is a state park, comprising a restored 18th-century fort, undeveloped woodlands, crisscrossing trails, rare wildflowers, and sculpted limestone outcroppings.
Secondly, Mackinac Island has far more lodging choices than the famous Grand Hotel. Many are moderately priced. Plan to spend at least one night, so you have a little time to wander around and get past the cliché. Mackinac doesn’t lend itself well to a cursory glance. Like those wealthy resorters knew, it’s a wonderful place to retreat from the pulls of the real world.
A million people visit Mackinac Island every year, so getting there isn’t a problem. You can fly into the Pellston Regional Airport (PLN) (231/539-8441, www.pellstonairport.com ), then either charter a flight to the island through Great Lakes Air (906/643-7165, www.greatlakesair.net ) or use the Mackinaw Shuttle (888/349-8294, www.mackinawshuttle.com ) to reach the ferry docks in Mackinaw City .
There are in fact three ferry services that can zip you across the Straits of Mackinac, from Mackinaw City  or St. Ignace , in less than 20 minutes: the Arnold Transit Company (800/542-8528, www.arnoldline.com , round-trip $25 adults, $12 children 5–12, $7.50 bicycles), Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry  (800/828-6157, www.sheplersferry.com , round-trip $23 adults, $11 children 5–12, $7.50 bicycles), and Star Line (800/638-9892, www.mackinacferry.com , round-trip $25 adults, $12 children 5–12, $7.50 bicycles).
During the main tourist season—May–October—they operate several times daily. Only one, the long-standing Arnold Transit, in operation since 1878, offers service in April and November (from St. Ignace only). Since much of the island shuts down for the winter, you’ll find it a little more challenging to reach Mackinac December–March.
No matter which ferry you choose, it will deposit you at the southern end of the island, in the heart of the hotels and shops lining Main Street, which follows the curve of the waterfront. It’s a wild scene: Dock workers load luggage onto pull-carts and carriages, flocks of bicycles dodge horse-drawn buggies, pedestrians stream up and down the road eating fudge and window-shopping.
Horse-drawn “taxis” are available 24 hours daily from Mackinac Taxi Service (906/847-3323) or Mackinac Island Carriage Tours (906/847-3307, www.mict.com ). If you enjoy walking and hiking, you can easily traverse Mackinac on foot.
It’s a wonderful place for casual strolls and all-day hikes. The island also is a terrific place for biking. Bike rentals are available all over downtown; the Mackinac Island Bike Shop (906/847-6337, www.mackinacislandbikes.com ), for instance, rents bicycles for $6–12 per hour or $30–70 per day. Equipment varies, so look before you pay. If you plan to do much biking, you’ll be happier with your own bike, since you can transport it on the ferry. You’ll want a hybrid or mountain bike to negotiate most interior trails. Be sure to bring your own helmet.