Mackinac Island Hospitality: Eco-Tourism in Michigan

Reader Contribution by John D. Ivanko
1 / 2
2 / 2

With every quaint clicky-clop of the horse-drawn carriages and bicycles whizzing back and forth downtown, we’re not surprised that the lodging options and cuisine of Mackinac Island, Mich., reflects its historical past. Nearly every experience, given the charm of the place, came with stairs to climb, real metal keys needed to open doors, and, sometimes, bats to shoo away (there’s a zillion more bats than people residing on the island).

That’s not to say what my family and I experienced lacked the travel comforts many are accustomed to

these days (AC included). But every bag of luggage, marked with hand-written notes (not barcodes), was delivered by horse-drawn carriage or balanced on top of bicycle handlebars.

My family and I discovered that those in the hospitality business on this small island (Read Part One, “Where Cars are Illegal: Eco-Tourism on Mackinac Island, Michigan”) showcase the best of the past, blending it perfectly with modern sensibilities and, by default of it being an island, an ecological awareness to protect and preserve exactly what the millions of visitors come to see and experience every year.  Plus, we discovered a few restaurants at Mission Point Resort that serve up uber-local Lake Huron whitefish in a tasty and big way.

Mackinac Island Lodged in History

Opting for a break from the hustle of Mackinac Island’s downtown and feeling that getting dressed up just to eat dinner at The Grand Hotel required too much formality for our tastes, we settled in first at the more laid back Mission Point Resort at the quiet, eastern end of downtown – about a fifteen minute walk from the ferry docks. Its inviting Great Hall, resembling a sixteen-sided tepee constructed in 1956 with 50-foot long Norway pine trusses harvested from nearby Bois Blanc Island, reflects the history of the site before it became a resort in 1988. Cozy fireplaces in the Great Hall, plus Main Lodge and Straits Lodge, were likewise built from limestone quarried on the island. Using local building materials was the norm, in the old days.

“Perhaps what is now our Great Hall answered the prophecy held by Native Americans in the region that one day, on the east of the island, a great tepee will be built where all nations will come to learn of peace,” explains General Manager Bradley McCallum, about his present day, 239 room resort that includes bike rentals, swimming pool and putting green for adults and kids alike.

During the 1950s, however, the international Moral Re-Armament (MRA) movement started here, advocating for love and honesty, not communism, during the period after WWII; a museum on site captures its interesting history. An observation tower with four museum floors cover everything from the shipping industry to the movie cult classic, Somewhere in Time, largely filmed on the island and in the sound studio created and used by the MRA.

History aside, there’s nothing like kicking back on Mission Point Resort’s Adirondack chairs arranged on their spacious lawn overlooking Lake Huron, perhaps after a bicycle ride around the island.  At night, we felt as though we could reach out and touch the Milky Way in the crystal clear sky from our comfortable perch.  Star-gazing, sometimes accented by the aurora borealis, is hard to be topped.  If the aurora borealis isn’t bright enough for you, just disappear around the bend into the state park about a minute walk away.

At the other end of the downtown is one of the few remaining Historic Hotels of America, The Grand Hotel, world renowned for its frozen-in-time ambiance and 5-star service.  Largely credited for putting the island on the map as a tourism destination – in 1887 — this 385-room summer hotel features the world’s largest front porch, stretching two football fields long.

The Grand Hotel’s immaculate gardens, spacious lawns with bocce ball players and a labyrinth mask the hotels green innovations taking place behind the scenes, like their innovative liquid heat-exchangers that redirect the heat created by air conditioning units to heat the swimming pool or their guests’ shower water.  Due to the historic nature of the hotel, solar panels are out of the question, but water and energy efficiency were not, earning them certification as a Green Lodging Michigan Leader by the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor & Economic Growth.  Befitting the Gilded Age the hotel reflects, we had to get dressed up after 6 pm for a 5-course dinner or if we wanted to enjoy some live piano music at their Cupola Bar overlooking the Straits of Mackinac.

Plenty of other family-run bed & breakfasts offer attentive care of travelers, like the cozy Inn on Mackinac, situated in a colorful Victorian-style mansion with breakfasts provided al fresco and surrounded by lush perennial gardens.  Decking around its spa area is made from recycled milk jugs.  Its porch is perfect to hang out on after exploring the island by bike, on horseback or on foot.

Recycling on Mackinac Island goes way, way back: Back to the time when the soldiers at Fort Mackinac, which perches on a bluff overlooking the tidy and historic downtown, were ordered to “get the lead out” of the area around their targets at the rifle range outside the fort.  Being on and island, nothing should go to waste.

Today, aggressive efforts have been undertaken by Mission Point Resort to hand-sort every bag of garbage, a key element in their process of securing a Green Lodging Michigan Leader certification on which they’re working.  Recyclables with Michigan deposits has turned “trash” into a cash flow while food waste is composted on the island.  This same commitment is shared by most businesses, including the Grand Hotel, which hosts over 134,000 guests every year.  Of course, flowers and other plants seem to be on growth steroids, thanks to the never-ending supply of horse manure.

Culinary Outposts

While humdrum French dips may still dominate many of the menu boards, Mission Point Resort’s three
restaurants — Round Island Bar & Grill, Chianti at Mission Point and Bistro on The Greens – showcase the locally abundant Lake Huron whitefish, prepared in numerous and delicious ways.  Our favorite, the Semonlina Dusted Lake Huron Whitefish, prepared with a creamy asparagus risotto and pescatore sauce, captures Executive Chef Keith Schockling’s focus on selecting only the freshest fish. He also smokes many of the meats and makes his own pickles served at the restaurants there.

At The Grand Hotel, poolside we cooled off with an old-fashioned snow cone.  But it’s their lavish lunch buffet or five course dinner in their Main Dining Room that may, on occasion, feature a delicious organic chicken breast or sumptuous ginger squash soup served by white gloved waiters that suggests times are starting to change, even at the Grand.

The need for a quick energy fix can be had with any number of fudge shops dotting the Main Street about every hundred feet.  The fudge-makers whip it up right before your eyes, so it can’t get any fresher.  If you’re big on samples and have the time to browse, you can probably walk away with about a half a pound alone.

While Mackinac Island’s “greenest” lure may be the bicycle trails, nostalgic appeal of a by-gone time and the complete absence of automobiles, the hospitality shared with guests reflect an attunement to both history and island realities.

John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored  Rural Renaissance, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef, along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS. Ivanko writes and contributes photography to MOTHER EARTH NEWS, including most recently, “9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living.” They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10-kW Bergey wind turbine. Their Inn Serendipity is a finalist for Green America’s People & Planet Award; your vote is welcomed by December 2.