September 24, 2020

Mackinac Island, After the Shutdown

What a trip to one of the best summer destinations looks and feels like now
By Ross Boissoneau | June 27, 2020

Mackinac Island — the four-square-mile spot Condé Nast readers named one of the best islands in the U.S. and that Trip Advisor ranked the No. 1 summer destination in America (both in 2018) — officially re-opened to visitors June 19.

The grand re-opening began with a majority of the island’s businesses and all the attractions that are part of Mackinac State Historic Parks, including Fort Mackinac and Mission Church. The Grand Hotel began welcoming guests on June 21, and Mission Point Resort followed on June 25.

But with a later-than-usual start and the novel coronavirus still impacting travel, can a place that depends almost exclusively on tourism survive? Tim Hygh is optimistic. He’s the executive director of Mackinac Island Tourism, and he has an up-close look at the action. “Right now, it’s looking good,” he said of the island’s outlook for summer business.

Given the fact 90 percent of the island’s businesses close for the winter before reopening in late spring, he said, the March shutdown didn’t much impact island business. In fact, the timing allowed the hotels, shops, and restaurants to prepare for what lay ahead, rather than try to figure everything out on the fly, as happened most everywhere else.

“It takes time to get the island going every year,” said Hygh. “We had the advantage of getting back slowly. It’s not a switch that got turned on.” 

That said, there are a handful of businesses that won’t be open this year: Millie’s On Main, the Seabiscuit Café, Cloghaun Bed & Breakfast, Dreamcatcher Cottage, and Lakebluff Condos. The annual Mackinac Policy Conference on the island, hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce has been canceled.

For the rest, however, all systems are go. Hygh said virtually everything else on the island will have opened by June 25, though he admitted things don’t necessarily look the same. Just like mainland Michigan, people on the island are wearing masks. Open restaurants are at reduced capacity. Public hand-sanitizing stations are available wherever possible. And plexiglass dividers have been installed between the seats of the island’s horse-drawn carriages to lessen the transmissibility of the novel coronavirus.

Hygh said that, as elsewhere, he anticipates less business on the island this summer. “I know we’ve lost some significant segments,” he said, pointing to the aforementioned Mackinac Island Policy Conference and the island’s marquee event, the Lilac Festival, which typically takes place in early June. While the Lilac Festival Grand Parade and Mackinac Island Dog and Pony Show were canceled, other things associated with the Lilac Festival are still on, such as the Lilac Festival Poster contest, which sees the winning poster available for sale in stores throughout the island. The event’s planning committee is working on virtual events for fans, enabling them to take part in an online version of the 72nd Annual Lilac Festival, which does broaden its reach to a global audience.

While he bemoans the loss of such events, as well as the Great Lakes cruising season and the influx of bus-tour vistors, Hygh remains philosophical. “If we had to lose a month, May is the one you’d want to lose,” he said.

The two ferry lines serving the island — Shepler’s and Star Line — are, of course, open and making multiple trips back and forth daily, from both Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. Not only are the massive Grand Hotel and Mission Point Resort open, but most of the island’s three dozen hotels, bed and breakfasts, condos, and cottages are, too. Likewise with most shops, restaurants, and attractions — including the island’s many bike and walking trails, open-air gardens, and other fresh-air activities.

So is this the worst time to visit Mackinac Island? Or is it the best? The reality is likely somewhere between. Hygh believes there will be fewer visitors this year, especially right now as things return to (the new) normal. “There won’t be as many carriages” lined up back to back, he said.

He’s hopeful that the new normal will entice visitors to explore the island, maybe with a different mindset. “The good news is we’re open. I can’t predict the look, [but] I think it will feel the same. We’ll continue to innovate,” he said.

Its historic charm, with the many Victorian-style buildings, the presence of horses and the fact there are no cars, make a trip to Mackinac Island something completely different. Indeed, Hygh said such a unique experience can’t be duplicated. Add the fact it will likely be less crowded, and you have what may be the perfect recipe for an unhurried vacation — or even just a day.

 “Everyone needs a respite. People can come to Mackinac Island and unplug.”

In 1875, Mackinac Island was the second designated National Park, after Yellowstone. When the federal government left the island in 1895, it transferred all of the federal land, including Fort Mackinac, to the state of Michigan; it was quickly designated as Michigan's first state park. 

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the island has a year-round population of 492 people. That’s down from a peak of 524 in 2000; the population in 2018 was measured at 471. Of course, that number swells a bit in the summer, when the island — in a typical year — welcomes hundreds of short-term employees, summer residents, and as many as 15,000 visitors each day. Due to travel restrictions and national mood, numbers this year will likely be significantly lower.


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