A simpler life, grand views - and fudge

August 17, 2008|By Rosemary McClure | Rosemary McClure,Los Angeles Times

MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. - Temptation drifts on the wind in this enchanted island in northern Michigan. Seventeen fudge shops crowd the downtown area, and delectable scents escape every time a door opens. Chocolate, peanut butter, more chocolate.

Each store offers free samples. "Try them all," said a tour guide when I visited early in July. "It adds up to about a pound of the best fudge you've ever tasted."

I would never do that, I thought to myself when he said it. But I tried one. And then another and another. Chocolate cherry. Rocky road. Double chocolate chip. Hand-paddled morsels of heavenly indulgence. I was turning into a fudgie, a derogatory term islanders use to describe summer tourists.

So what? There are worse things to worry about in day-to-day life. Such as the price of gas. Or whether I'll be mowed down by a Harley as I cross the street. On Mackinac Island (pronounced MACK-ih-naw), I didn't have to worry about either of those. The good people of this lovely island banned motor vehicles in the early 1900s. So, my three-day visit brought plenty of opportunity to bike and walk off all that fudge. Leg power or horse power (literally) is the only way to get around.

The island, between "mainland" Michigan and its upper peninsula, is one of those rare places that gives you a glimpse into a simpler life. A little fudge, some healthful exercise, a chance to see beautiful scenery. What more could a summer vacationer want?

Maybe a touch of magic. Mackinac has that covered, too. Close your eyes and you'll swear you've stepped back into the late 19th century. Victorian inns and homes with wide verandas, long wood balconies and conical turrets march up the verdant hillsides. And the absence of cars and other motor vehicles gives the island a dreamy ambience. Horses clip-clop along the street, pulling carriages; couples roll by on bicycles built for two; U.S. flags and bright flower boxes decorate homes and street lamps.

Then, of course, there's the Grand Hotel, a grande dame indeed. The stately hillside property, built in 1887, looms over the town like a royal personage and qualifies as a prime attraction in itself. Tourists stream up the hill to visit but stop short when they read signs near the hotel's entrance. One requires visitors to be dressed appropriately, meaning a coat and tie for gents (and boys older than 12) after 6 p.m.; the other notes that nonguests must pay a $15 fee to look around.

"We'd be swamped otherwise," said a guard near the entrance when I abandoned my fudge quest long enough to check in.

I later learned that visitors who stay for the hotel's expansive $39 luncheon buffet receive a $15 credit.

Part of the attraction here lies in the Grand's sweeping, wide veranda, called the longest porch in the world. It's 660 feet - more than twice the length of two football fields - and graced by 100 white rocking chairs and thousands of bright red geraniums. The 385 guest rooms are equally impressive, with no two decorated alike. And the family-owned hotel offers a host of genteel activities such as afternoon tea, croquet and ballroom dancing.

But the Grand also qualifies as a movie star of sorts. Somewhere in Time, a romantic fantasy, was filmed here in the late 1970s. Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour starred in the time-travel drama set in the early 1900s.

"Every evening at Grand Hotel is an occasion; most of the guests dress in their finest," reads a 28-page guest handbook that's provided when you register.

So what does that mean to a laid-back traveler like me? Break out the wedding-guest dress and the pumps. Not exactly what I usually do on a summer vacation.

But within the Grand's elegant walls, where harpists play, tuxedoed waiters serve dinner and demitasse is poured nightly into fine china cups, it works.

"What we want to do is create a memory," said concierge and historian Bob Tagatz. They succeed.

The Straits of Mackinac, where the island is located, mark the transition between Lake Huron to the east and Lake Michigan to the west. The straits have been called a Great Lakes Cape Horn because of the treacherous gales and waves sometimes found here. But during the summer, these waters become a playground for the Midwestern yacht and country club set. Recently, 430 boats battled thunderstorms during the 100th running of the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac.

I was happy with simpler transportation: a rented three-speed bike. I took it on a circle tour of the island on Lakeshore Road, an eight-mile-long strip of asphalt that runs along the perimeter of Mackinac.

I took off, passing through the scrubbed-clean downtown. It was almost too perfect, I thought to myself, as if Disney had asked Imagineering to create the ideal turn-of-the-last-century town.

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