“On da sixth day he created da bridge
so da trolls would have a way to get to heaven.”
-Da Yooper Creation Story
The Straits of Mackinac always have been, and continue to be my favorite spot in the world. At first glance, it’s a down-turning tourist trap on both sides of a very large bridge. Scratch a little beneath its rough surface and it’s a fascinating place of beauty.
For any strangers that aren’t familiar with the correct spelling, I’ll lay it out bluntly. Mackinaw City, on the south side of the screwed this whole subject up when they decided to anglicize the French spelling. Mackinaw City is the only official place where –AW is used. The Bridge, the Island, the County, and the Straits, etc. all spell it the traditional –AC; and it is always pronounced Mack-in-awe, regardless of spelling.
The first thing that you’ll take note of upon arriving in the area, aside from the Mackinac Bridge, is the weather. It’s a land of weather extremes that can range from near 100°F and 100% humidity to winds strong enough to shut down the Bridge (and once even blowing a small car off the Bridge) and snow whiteouts. And while these extremes do occur fairly often, for the most part, it’s comfortable for whatever the time of year is.
The way most people will come into the area is through I-75 through about 60 miles of empty hillscapes, though the routes of US 31 and M-23 provide a much more scenic drive as the go along the shores of Lakes Huron and Michigan.
The Village of Mackinaw City (an official title I always considered a bit of a redundant oxymoron) is essentially a summer tourist destination and almost completely shuts down in the winter. The main street (Central Ave) is littered with custom t-shirt stores, fudge shops, and trinket stores that almost all sell the same things.
A few years ago, the Mackinaw Crossings mall opened with a much larger variety of specialized shops, odd things ranging from a medieval-themed store to one selling only Canadian merchandise. It’s also the only place within about a half hour to see a movie.
Along the eastern shore of Mackinaw City, just south of the marina, is where the long strip of larger, new hotels meshes with the ferries to Mackinac Island. Taking a look at the hotels on this stretch, you might not think that this is where the medium-spenders to the area are staying.
The cheapest rooms are in the motels across the Bridge on the outskirts of St. Ignace on the way toward the casino. Most of these rooms will be $40-60 in the warm season and rarely more than $50 in the winter (with the exception of large snowmobile gatherings.
The hotels in Mackinaw City tend to be filled with people making day trips to Mackinac Island on the nearby ferries. Most are certainly nicer and provide more amenities than the motels in St. Ignace and generally run about $100 per night.
The high-spenders tend to stay on Mackinac Island itself (still a large enough topic for its own post down the line). Because the limited space and high traffic to and from the Island, though, hotels charge high rates there (sometimes over $300 and never less than $100) for what may not seem like the most fantastic rooms. Though, most of the hotels try to maintain a semi-antiquated feel. For instance, the famed Grand Hotel rooms provide no air conditioning.
A drive through the west side of Mackinaw City is well worth an extra 20 minutes. While not as extravagant as some on the northeastern shore, there are some very interesting houses on the small roads along the shore west of the Bridge. Looping back through, you can see what little there is of a residential side.
As a child I always favored Mackinaw City for is tacky tourist nature. It seemed more accessible and more fun. However, in the time I spend in the area now, I find that there is little more to do on the south end of the Bridge outside of wandering the Central Ave and finding shop after shop of the same items.
St. Ignace, Mackinaw City’s counterpart on the other side of the Bridge, however, is much more a residential town with a tourism economy. And though I would by no means say that St. Ignace has a lot in activities to offer the casual traveler, it provides much more variety than does Mackinaw City.
Outside of the ferries to Mackinac Island (which will run just as often as from Mackinaw City) the most populated attraction is easily the Kewadin Casino. Located about a mile north of the main town, it provides all the standard games, albeit in a little bit of a confusing, zigzag space. It is also the town’s largest employer, and its owners, the Sault Tribe, the largest employer in the UP.
There are also a number of good low-key restaurants in the town. The first that I have to mention is Clyde’s Drive In, a classic drive-in style burger joint just west of the town on US 2 which My dad got me hooked on in our constant sojourns to the UP as a kid. Clyde’s signature dish is the Big C, a ¾ pound burger which, when ordered with cheese, is one of the best I’ve ever eaten. Though, I have to admit, it gets to be quite the task these days.
Bentley’s B-n-L Café in the center of town is a dedicated little breakfast diner with fantastic prices and great homemade food. However, the standout on the menu for me is their pasty (see Marquette post). It’s a very large and soft version covered with a beef gravy and is still my favorite pasty that I’ve tried.
Another area staple is the Village Inn, more recently shortened to V.I. (in italics, of course) in a bid to be with the times. With a location also on Mackinac Island, their signature dishes all revolve around seafood and the Great Lakes whitefish. The have a great baked whitefish dip, though their most famous dish is their Planked Whitefish, a boneless baked whitefish filet surrounded by duchesse potatoes. The future of the V.I. may be uncertain, however, as the building (and presumably business) is currently for sale.
Another curious fact about crossing over into the Upper Peninsula is that the geography begins to change dramatically. As the southern edge of the ancient Canadian Shield, the UP begins to become much more rocky as you head north, which becomes readily apparent as you exit the bridge into the highway carved between gravelly cliffs.
Continue on the highway a couple of kilometers north of the Bridge (or State Street in St. Ignace) you will come to Castle Rock, a large limestone monolith connected to the adjacent hill by a thin walkway. At the base of the long stairway is a gift shop (selling many identical items to the Mackinaw City shops) and fenced off statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe. They charge around $1 to climb to the top, which is well worth it, as it provides one of the best views of the Straits.
The best view will be discussed in the forthcoming Mackinac Island post though.
US 2, a road mentioned numerous times in this blog, begins here and continues all the way to the Pacific coast in Everett, Washington. The first 50 kilometers, though, may be one of the most beautiful roads you could drive as it parallels the north shore of Lake Michigan all the way to Naubinway. In the distance, it’s not uncommon to witness the ghostly silhouette of a lake freighter or two.
Aside from the natural scenery of beaches and hills and random islands, the odd buildings you come across can sometimes add an element of ghostly ambience to the drive. US 2 is littered with estranged buildings and derelict motels, and though some of the effect is only because they shut down in the off-season, this feeling is magnified in fall through early spring.
All of this is only scratching the surface of what the Straights has to offer. It is truly a historical crossroads in the Great Lakes and easily one of the most beautiful areas that one could hope to visit. Given its economic and strategic importance, part of me wishes that more of a city would have developed here (nearly the same latitude as Montreal, Ottawa, and Minneapolis) though that may very well have spoiled what makes it so appealing.