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Cruising to Mackinac Island

By Gary Knowles


(Note: Mae Knowles was unable to join Gary on this trip due to other commitments. She promises to return for the next getaway.)

Let's get to the four bottom lines right away.

  • Mackinac and Mackinaw: Both rhyme with awe, law, saw and hee-haw. Drop the ack, as in slack, whack Jack and ack-ack. There's a long explanation but suffice it to say that the English and French are involved. It's awe. Both are pronounced Mack-in-awe.

  • Go to Mackinac Island and stay at the Grand Hotel. It's one of the great romantic destinations in the world, in your own backyard and you and your "special someone" deserve it. (Send the children to the Dells with the grandparents for the weekend. You'll all be happier.)

  • Take the Lake Michigan Car Ferry. It's a beautiful cruise across an inland ocean that's spectacular in sun, fog or under the stars. Most of the world will never even dip a toe in this big blue sea. You're a few hours away. How can you stay home?

  • If you yearn for a high end performance car, need a vehicle that will hold a family of four, want fun on the switchbacks with cruise-ability on the I system, have Rodeo Drive tastes but a Target budget - drop this magazine and go buy a 2002 Toyota Camry SE, right now. Go ahead. No regrets. No buyer's remorse. You'll likely even get a great deal on one this time of year. It's a great car with more spice and zest than you might guess.

So now, more details.

My destination for this trip was the famous Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. It's a trip every serious traveler has to have on their "must do" list - and especially if you live as close as we do in Madison.

The Grand Hotel is on most of the "big" lists. It's on the Conde Nast Traveler "Gold List" of the "Best Places to Stay in the Whole World," the Travel & Leisure list of "Top 100 Hotels in the World," the Wine Spectator's "Award of Excellence" list and Gourmet Magazine's "Top 25 Hotels in the World" list. Even the American Automobile Association (AAA) gave it a four-diamond rating (out of five), and that has to be pretty special because you can't even get there by automobile. Matter of fact, the residents of Mackinac Island saw one car, hated it and banned them all forever.

I chose to make a grand loop trip by taking the Lake Michigan Car Ferry across Lake Michigan, returning across the Mackinac Bridge through Michigan's Upper Peninsula to Green Bay and then back to Madison.

The chosen automobile for this extended weekend was an eye-catching, black four-door Toyota Camry SE edition with a responsive three-liter 192-hp V6. It came decked out with a tuned sport suspension, 16" wheels and a sporty rear wing. Heated leather seats, a power moon-roof, an eight speaker, six-CD JBL stereo and big, easy-to-read gauges made this beauty a joy to cruise on the freeway, but it took lots of self-control to not dash off on those tempting county roads.

Even in this "sports edition" the Camry is family friendly. Lots of cup holders, a comfortable ride and hardly a noise to be heard. The heat/ac controls are big, easy to understand and easy to use. This car is quick, quiet and very, very smooth.

A typical drive to Manitowoc is about 2 hours and 45 mintues, following Hwy. 151 from Madison. Passing through Fond du Lac I took a quick run into Lakeside Park to see Wisconsin's most photographed inland lake lighthouse (on Lake Winnebago).

If you have some time to wander, like I did, you can leave Hwy. 151 at Hwy. 149 to zigzag through some wonderful hill country. The Camry SE was "born to run" and loves these sweeping curves and roller-coaster hills. In Kiel catch Hwy. 67 north to reconnect with Hwy. 151 east to Manitowoc.

The ideal way to do this loop trip is to spend a day (or two) in Manitowoc before you catch the SS Badger ferry to Ludington. The city stands on the shore of Lake Michigan proudly wearing its hard-earned title: "Wisconsin's Maritime Capital." Today Manitowoc's beaches, harbor, shops and attractions continue to appeal to travelers and the city has become a top state travel destination.

You can trace the maritime history of the area and the Great Lakes in the Wisconsin Maritime Museum. In WWII the local shipbuilders turned out submarines that were carried on barges down the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers to be launched into service at New Orleans. The museum is the finest of its kind.

The S.S. Badger is 410 feet long, seven stories high and weighs 7,500 tons. It was built in Sturgeon Bay in 1952. It carries 180 vehicles (and bicycles!) and up to 620 passengers the 60 miles between Manitowoc and Ludington in about four hours.

Passenger fares are $45 per adult one way and $74 round trip. Seniors travel for $42/$68 and children 5-15 are $20/$34. There are discounts in spring (May 17-June 6, 2002) and autumn (September 3-Oct.14, 2002). Automobiles travel for $49 one way and $98 round trip while bicycles go for $5/$10. For reservations call 1-800-841-4243.

When I drove up to the auto-loading area, several Badger staff rushed over to offer to drive the Camry aboard. I grabbed my "cruise bag" with camera, sweater, magazines, newspapers and postcards and was welcomed aboard by a Badger greeter as the car was tucked away in the lower deck.

At about 2:30 p.m. the Badger blew a farewell blast of the horn to Manitowoc. The deck was lined with passengers as we steered out of the harbor and watched the city shrink smaller and smaller as it eventually became the horizon.

For those who want a private room the S.S. Badger offers 42 staterooms which rent for $32 one way, $64 round trip. I had arranged for a room and though I was too busy to sleep, it served as a good base of operations where I could do some writing and reading in between expeditions around the ship.

My fellow passengers came from as far as Texas and North Carolina to take the cruise. One family from the East Coast had been camping in Yellowstone and decided that the ferry ride would be a good way to add some adventure to the drive home - "The kids will get to see a Great Lake and it's sure better than driving through that mess in Chicago."

One couple from Michigan said they had been to the Dells for a few days, visited the Circus Museum in Baraboo, spent a day in Manitowoc and now were heading back to the Detroit area. "We like the ferry because it's so peaceful out on the lake."

A trip on the Lake Michigan Car Ferry could easily be a great weekend adventure getaway in itself. I'd suggest planning a round trip to include an afternoon of attractions, museums and shopping before an evening in Manitowoc. A quick breakfast would give you a bit more touring time, then you can catch the afternoon ferry (1:15 p.m. in summer) to Ludington (arrive 6:15 p.m.) where you can spend a day looking around, spend a night and then catch the 8:00 a.m. ferry back to Manitowoc the next day.

We arrived in Michigan at 7:30 p.m. (having "lost" an hour as we crossed into the eastern time zone). As much fun as the Badger had been, it was another pleasure to get back behind the wheel of the Camry and cruise the lightly traveled open highway (U.S. 31) north through rural Michigan. I took full advantage of the moon roof and excellent stereo as I drove the slightly more than two-hour drive to Traverse City.

This community can be compared to Wisconsin's Sturgeon Bay as the gateway to an extremely popular peninsula and vacation destination. It sits at the foot of the bay with beautiful accommodations available throughout the area.

A friend had recommended the Waterfront Inn Resort (800-551-9283, www.waterfrontinn.com) as a good place to stay before heading up to Mackinac Island and he was right on the money. The comfortable hotel is set on a beautiful 775-foot sandy beach on East Grand Traverse Bay.

From Traverse City it was a pleasant morning sprint of about 100 miles through Elk Rapids, Charlevoix, Bay Harbor, Petosky and Bay View on the lake on the way to the Arnold Ferry Line Dock on Lake Huron in Mackinaw City. Mackinaw City is one of two jumping-off points (St. Ignace is the other, on the north, across the Mackinac Bridge) for Mackinac Island.

I was eager to get out to Mackinac Island and the Grand Hotel - the destination for this trip. I chose to use the Arnold Ferry Line which uses sleek, fast catamarans and valet parking. Since I had to abandon the Camry to the parking lot for a few days I figured it should at least get the valet treatment!

It's a quick 15-minute ride to Mackinac Island with great views of the Mackinac Bridge along the way. When you arrive at the dock it's another world. This is probably the most famous island in the Great Lakes, a kind of Victorian Jurassic Park - preserving and maintaining the best of 19th-century ambiance and attitude in lodging, hospitality and transportation.

And yes, there are no automobiles here. In 1898 the first car brought to Mackinac was so noisy and upsetting to horses that automobiles were banned permanently. (Geeze - if they'd had my quiet Camry SE, Mackinac might be a lot different place today!)

Today the horse is still king of the road. The 600 permanent residents - and the million guests who visit each year - are carried in style by about 600 oat-burners in summer months and 20 in winter. They're really a treat to see. Even after a few days, the novelty doesn't wear off. I found myself getting used to thinking in terms of allowing walking time for a trip downtown or to the ferry dock. Of course lots of people also use bicycles to get around the island. You can rent them at several bicycle shops near the dock where the ferries land.

My bags were tagged for the Grand Hotel and we were greeted by a beautiful carriage sent to carry us five or six blocks to our headquarters. The carriage driver said he was from Melbourne, Australia (where he had worked with horses), and he had been recruited to come to the island to drive for the summer.

Mackinac Island is known for great parks, lake vistas, spectacular natural beauty (don't miss Arch Rock or Sugar Loaf), historical sites (Fort Michilimackinac, Stuart House Museum) and dozens of art, gift and fudge shops (visitors buy over five tons of fudge a year). Mackinac Island is the official summer residence of Michigan's governor. A wide variety of bed-and-breakfast inns, cottages, hotels and motels offer comfortable accommodations. There's even a butterfly museum.

Of course, best known is the Grand Hotel

(1-800-334-7263 or www.grandhotel.com). This big white neo-classical Mackinac landmark literally glows on the hillside as you approach the island. It was built in 1887 in 93 days using 1.5 million feet of Michigan white pine. There are 381 rooms with no two alike. The world's longest front porch (660 feet) is highlighted by 2,500 geraniums (the official flower of the Grand). There are more than 5,200 geraniums on the grounds, accompanied by 25,000 tulips and 15,000 daffodils.

A huge swimming pool that holds 500,000 gallons of water was built for Esther Williams when she traveled here in 1949 to shoot This Time For Keeps. Movie fans will recall the Grand was used as the movie set for Christopher Reeve's (1979) Somewhere in Time, which has developed something of a cult following. The film was shot almost entirely on the island. (In fact, my room came equipped with a VCR and a well-used copy of the film.)

The hotel enchants some 130,000 guests each summer season (May through October). Everyone feels like a VIP here. Gracious, attentive service is provided by a staff of some 600. Some 100 kitchen staff prepare 4,000 lavish meals each day (included in room rates of $175-$650/night - and no tipping allowed) and help secure the Grand's ranking as one of the world's top 100 hotels.

There are 18 holes of golf on a beautiful course called the Jewel. The original "Grand Nine" is a delightful resort course with reachable greens and outstanding lake views. The newer "Woods Nine" is cut through the forest and features bent grass tees, greens and fairways. Together they comprise a nice mix of relaxed golf outing with some fairly good challenges. The Grand also offers four clay tennis courts, swimming, horseback and carriage rides, a fully equipped exercise room, bicycles for rent and a labyrinth for meditative walks.

Those are the numbers, but the magic of the Grand Hotel lies between the sum of its parts. Carlton Varney, the hotel's design consultant, filled the hotel with exotic antiques, international art and lavish color combinations. Varney says the secret of the Grand is that "it's a living, breathing, changing entity. A great hotel is a very special place that should not be like any other you've ever seen. It should be memorable. The Grand Hotel is alive, changing, constantly in motion with a sense of excitement."

A 10-minute stroll from the Grand Hotel is the bustling downtown business district. There are dozens of fudge makers here, along with art galleries, gift shops, t-shirt stations, bicycle rental shops, bars and restaurants. Horse-drawn carriages fill the air with a clip-clop serenade that becomes quite soothing, like the sound of waves on a beach.

The island is loaded with history going back to the colonial empires, fur trading days and even to pre-European contact. Be sure to see Fort Mackinac, a National Historic Landmark with 14 original historic buildings re-creating life in the 1700s.

First-time visitors will find it helpful to take one of the guided carriage tours of the island. This will help you get some sense of all the attractions and scenic high points of the island. Later you can walk, bike or hire a carriage if you want to do more personal exploration.

I left the island early in the morning with the sun burning off a wispy veil of fog from the island. The Grand Hotel looked like a splendid surreal palace floating in a fantasy world art print. The sound of unseen horses clip-clopping along the street rang through the fog at the dock. As the ferry pulled away into the low fog over the water, the island and the Grand Hotel disappeared completely and the only sound you could hear was the roar of the catamarn's engines.

At the Arnold Ferry Dock the valet had the Camry waiting as I got off the boat. I opened the sun roof so I could glance up and catch a look at the 550 foot tall towers and suspension cables as I drove over the spectacular 5 mile Mackinac Bridge. The shimmering blue Straits of Mackinac seemed miles below. The views up, then down were stunning.

In St. Ignace I followed U.S. Hwy. 2 west along the wild northern shore of Lake Michigan through Manistique to Rapid River and Gladstone. The JBL stereo blasted out Vivaldi, Steve Forbert and Van Morrison. I hardly even noticed a bump as the Camry's McPherson Strut Suspension easily leveled out a few stretches of winter ravaged "yupper" pothole highway. There was so little traffic that the miles seemed to drift by quickly. I had to check the speedo regularly to be sure I stayed within the accepted range.

In Escanaba I took Michigan Hwy. 35 south along the western shore of Green Bay until it met Highway 41, then took Hwy. 41 back south through Green Bay and the Fox Valley. At Oshkosh I followed Hwy. 44 west to County M south - which is a much "sportier" and enjoyable driving road for an SE than Hwy 41. "M" runs through the country and Waupun before reaching Hwy. 151. From there it was Camry in cruise control and just three quarters of a Jimmy Buffett CD as I glided home.

Gary Knowles lives in Madison where he is a communications consultant to clients in travel, hospitality and entertainment.


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