Imagine this… an idyllic island surrounded by a crystal blue-green freshwater ocean. From the island, one can see a bridge spanning across a great divide between two land masses. All around, the island boasts of Victorian style houses, French and British forts, and ice-age old rock formations.
That’s not all… are you listening? Do you hear that? That’s right, the sound of cars and trucks are replaced by the sound of horse hooves “clip-clopping” along as yet another surrey trundles past. There is not a car in sight because there are no cars here, just horses, bikes and your own two feet to transport you around the 3.77 square mile island.
Sound too good to be true? It’s not! This is Mackinac Island, a gorgeous, historic, quaint island nestled in Lake Huron between the lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan. And this is the location of our first family vacation!
As I grew up a mere ~2 hour drive (+20 minute ferry ride) from Mackinac Island, it was a favorite family vacation destination. My parents both lived on the island for some time in their 20s and they maintained not only a sentimental tie to the island, but several friendships with local islanders over the years. It was a place we would go as a family to withdraw from our busy life, explore a historic island and visit places near and dear to my parents.
After moving back to Michigan last year, I wanted to share the “island experience” with Mr. Adventure Rich and AR Jr. So, we started looking at calendars earlier this year and decided to make it happen!
Mackinac Island, while a great place to visit, becomes quite pricey and crowded in the peak summer months.
On the flip side, much of the island shuts down between mid-October and April. Many lodging options close, the summer workers and horses head to the mainland for the winter and, in some months, the top spots to visit require snowshoes and cross country skis.
So we weighed our options, looked at work schedules and decided to book our stay mid-week (Sunday through Thursday) in late September.
Mackinac Island Vacation Highlights
Where to begin?!? This island holds such a special place in my heart that I have a hard time beginning to parse out the highlights.
Biking Mackinac Island
Bikes are the primary mode of transportation for islanders and tourists alike. It is pretty amazing stepping off of a ferry and entering a world that looks like what I image a Mr. Money Mustache town to be.
We followed suit and rode our bikes everywhere! Around the island, through the island, up and down the hills, to the forts, you name it, we biked it! Fortunately, the island makes biking very easy by paving many of the main roads and posting bike specific signs everywhere.
Mackinac Island Rock Formations
Mackinac Island was carved out by the glacier melt during the most recent Ice Age. As a result, there are various rock formations, caves and cliffs throughout the island.
Mr. Adventure Rich and I enjoyed biking our son to many rock formations and exploring the bases of the rocks (often speckled with fossils).
Our favorite was Arch Rock, boasting of an impressive view of Lake Huron through the arch. I enjoyed the view so that I made Arch Rock the destination of two of my morning runs.
Mackinac Island Forts
Mackinac Island boasts a rich trade and military history. The location of the island, in the middle of the key thoroughfare between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, made it a desirable location for traders and military strongholds alike.
As a result of the key location, there are two beautiful former military forts on the island. Fort Mackinac is located near the downtown with a view of the harbor, with Fort Holmes keeping watch at the highest point of the island.
We chose not to pay to visit Fort Mackinac, but we did walk by and hear the cannon shoot off several times. Fort Holmes is free and we went there 3 times (including twice for the sunset). By the end of the trip, AR Jr. was talking about the forts, yelling “Fort… boom boom!” every time we walked past one.
Lake Huron Sunrise/Sunsets
Sunset over the Lake Huron with the Mackinac Bridge in the foreground… what more could we ask for? We were very blessed with great weather and beautiful sunsets.
When my dad lived on the island, he loved to watch the freighters steam past. He imparted this love to my brother and I, and we now search the horizon whenever we are on a Great Lake shoreline with the hope of catching a freighter chugging by. If we find one, we enjoy watching it inch across the lake heading to its next port.
Needless to say, I was thrilled with the fact that we saw several impressive freighters while on Mackinac Island. It was another childhood experience I am excited to share with our son and he loved watching the “big boats” traverse the Straits.
Circling Mackinac Island, Michigan Highway M-185 totals a distance of 8.2 miles. My mom, when she lived on the island, was known to wake up early and run around the island before heading to her job. I, of course, had to follow in her footsteps 🙂
I woke up early on Tuesday morning and hit the road for the run. It was incredible! The morning was warm with a cooling breeze off the lake and the waves kept rhythm with my footsteps. I thought the 8 miles would hurt a bit more than they did. But between the sound of the waves, the scenery and the thoughts of my mom running the same route years ago, I was shocked to find the run over so “soon”.
The following two mornings, I opted for shorter (but hillier!) runs up to Arch Rock and along a bluff trail. It was glorious!
How Much did our Mackinac Island Vacation Cost?
Alright, here comes the juicy part. How much did this vacation cost us?!?
Transportation (Total = $100)
With most of our transportation covered by our bikes and our own two feet, we did not incur huge fees here.
Transport #1: Gas- $22 (~2 hour drive each way)
Transport #2: Ferry Ride- $48 ($23/adult round trip + tip for shuttle driver)
This is borderline between transportation and experience. Yes, it is the primary transportation used to shuttle to and from the island, but the ride is also an experience unto itself!
The 20 minute ferry ride from Mackinaw City to Mackinac Island gives you breathtaking views of the Mackinac Bridge, the other islands and lighthouses in the Straits of Mackinac and the island’s Grand Hotel as you near the docks. AR Jr. had a blast on the ferry!
Transport #3: Bike Passes/Licenses- $30 ( $10 each bike + bike + bike trailer/buggy)
We chose to bring our own bikes instead of rent them on the island so that we could have the flexibility to head out for a ride at any point and save money. The $10 per bike fee + $10 for the bike trailer is both the transport fee for the ferry and the island temporary bike license fee (no cars so you have to have a license for your bikes!)
Lodging (Total = $610)
The lodging took some research. Being a popular tourist destination, Mackinac Island’s hotels, inns and B&Bs can get expensive! There are a few AirBNBs on the island, but they are houses and cost a lot more that the hotels/inns!
When I first started researching, I was finding base costs around $200-$300/night. Yikes. I know, that isn’t the end of the world, but there had to be something cheaper, right?
Sure enough, after searching around 30 different lodging options, I found a cute, basic little inn on Main Street. The rooms looked clean and simple (simple = easier with a toddler) and included a microwave and small fridge (perfect for our food plans!).
We booked a room with two queen beds for $125/night. By the time we included taxes/fees + maid tip, the total for the 4 nights added up to $610.
Experiences (Total = $37)
There are SO MANY WAYS to spend money on Mackinac Island. Tour this fort, take that horse drawn carriage tour, a “Sip n Sail” cruise to the Mackinac Bridge, the list goes on.
We decided that, for this trip, we would focus on spending our time enjoying the scenery, biking and exploration adventure the island has to offer. We did, however, incur two “experience” fees.
Experience #1: The Butterfly House- $16 ($8/adult, AR Jr. was free!)
The Butterfly House and Insect World on Mackinac Island is a live butterfly, insect, amphibian and spider exhibit.
The first room of the house is the “Butterfly Garden”. Hundreds of butterflies are flitting around a tropical looking (and feeling!) paradise. It is a small, quiet and peaceful place so we took the time to enjoy the garden for awhile. We sat down and watched butterflies dive bomb past our noses, circle the koi ponds and waterfalls, nibble on banana slices and land on AR Jr’s back! He had a blast pointing out the brightly colored wings and was surprised more than a few times when the “leaves” started to move (camouflaged butterflies!).
After the “Butterfly Garden”, we headed into the “Insect World”. AR Jr (and his parents!) quickly became fascinated by the turtles, frogs, tarantulas, scorpions, centipedes, lizards/geckos, and the praying mantis (eating a cricket!). More than once, I was dragged away from the exhibit I was looking at by AR Jr. exclaiming “Mom, mom, mom, moooom! Turtle!”
While we paid for this attraction, I found it to be a worthwhile expense. The look of wonder on AR Jr’s face was apparent as he became fascinated by the featured creatures. It was an opportunity for him to be introduced to butterflies, insects and amphibians he had yet to see outside of picture books.
Experience #2: A “Taxi Ride” (Surrey) to Dinner- $21 ($5/adult + tip)
While we utilized our able bodied selves to cruise around the island, we chose to take one taxi ride so that AR Jr. would have the experience of a horse-drawn surrey. He loved it! Our taxi driver was a Romanian college student who was working on the island for the summer.
I planned to give him a decent tip ($15 for 3 riders + a $6 tip), but when I handed over the money, he informed me that the $5/person fee only applied to adults. Oops. He started to had the extra $5 back, but we told him to keep it and enjoy his evening. Honestly, we are two paid professionals on vacation and paying an extra $5 tip to a college student is not really an issue, so, why not?
Food (Total = $375.19)
This was a huge area of focus for our Mackinac Island vacation. While Mackinac Island is a wonderful place to visit, you can completely blow your budget on food there!
Restaurants are expensive and even the local grocery store is pricey because, well, it’s an island. They have to ship in their food + you have no other options… so a loaf of bread was $4.59! And we couldn’t exactly drive up to our hotel with a cooler in our car (Remember? No cars… ferry ride to the island = pack light!)
At the same time, we spent our days on the island biking around, walking and working up a huge appetite… what to do?!?
We tackled the food portion of our trip with several hacks.
— We brought our own almonds, granola bars, water bottles (reusable of course!), toddler snacks and some fruit.
— We ate out seldomly (5 times total including 2 mornings of take-out breakfast burritos, 1 sit down breakfast,1 sit-down dinner, and 1 mid-afternoon cocktail break). For each restaurant meal, we ordered 1-2 entrees for the 3 of us.
— We bought picnic supplies so we could eat on-the-go at any location on the island.
— We purchased our own alcohol (save for buying cocktails 2 times) at the local store. This included some local beer, a small bottle of bourbon and a bottle of wine for a “fancy picnic date” (with AR Jr. sleeping in his bike buggy!)
— We ate pre-made salads (didn’t have to buy all the ingredients) for quick sunset picnic dinners.
Sure, we could have saved more money by eating PB&J and not drinking any alcohol or buying a coffee at the local cafe, but we were also on vacation. We wanted to eat good, nutritious food, enjoy a cocktail or two, have adventurous picnics and avoid stressing about the details.
And honestly, the outdoor picnics were wayyyy more fun that eating in a restaurant with a toddler all week!
In total, our food budget broke down to $75/day for 3 people (all inclusive of food, alcohol, snacks, fudge/treats, and coffee). Not too shabby for a vacation at an expensive food location!
Grand Total…. $1,122.19!
Our 5 day 4 night excursion to Mackinac Island totaled $1,122.19. Looking back at the trip, I think the vacation was a great value and an excellent use of our money.
Our goal in booking our vacation on Mackinac Island was to have a simpler, slower vacation. No cars, limited options of activity and unplanned time to explore and adventure as a family. That is exactly what took place and we look forward to returning to Mackinac Island in the future!
Alright, have I tempted anyone to go look up Mackinac Island and see if it would be a fun place to visit? Any other frugal family vacation tips or experiences?
Always an Adventure,
Mrs. Adventure Rich