Great Islands

Islands are something special.

For me there is an allure to an island.  I am drawn to them.

I am not sure what creates this intangible fascination with islands.  Maybe it is the fact that it is hard to reach.  Maybe it is the fact that it is somewhat off the grid.  Maybe it is the challenges that come with it being an island.  For example, how do you get people and goods to it and off it.  how do you get water and electricity.  How do you access the infrastructure you need to build roads, buildings, sewers.  How do you sustain an economy on the island.  These and other questions make islands so intriguing.

What are the greatest islands in the continental United States?

The largest island is Long Island NY, followed by Whidbey Island in Washington State.  But the islands that vie for the greatest island would have to include any one of the San Juan Islands in Washington State, Santa Catalina Island just off Los Angeles, Jupiter Island in Florida, the Florida Keys including Key West, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket both in Massachusetts, Block Island in Rhode Island, Kiawah and Hilton Head Islands in South Carolina, the Golden Isles (Jekyll, St. Simons and Sea islands) in Georgia, Mount Desert Island with Acadia National Park in Maine, Padre Island in Texas, Isle Royale in Michigan, the Outer Banks in North Carolina, and Sanibel Island on the Gulf coast of Florida.

Outside of the continental United States but near by I would have to include all the great islands in the state of Hawaii, as well as the Aleutians in Alaska, as well as Vancouver and Prince Edward islands in Canada, the Caribbean, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and many more I am sure.

But in the continental United States the competition for the best island is stiff.  The list I have created above is impressive.  However, there is one more island that i have not mentioned.  That is Mackinac Island (pronounced Mack-in-naw) located in Lake Huron just off the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Believe it or not, Mackinac Island consistently wins the award as the greatest island in the continental US from all kinds of travel and leisure magazines and periodicals.  And that is where I have been for the last two days.

This is my first visit to Mackinac Island.  I must admit, I am impressed.  And this is coming from someone who has been to almost every single island listed above.  What is it that sets Mackinac Island apart from so many other wonderful islands?

First and foremost, there are no cars or trucks.  None.  Only horses, buggies, carriages and bicycles.  They don’t even allow electric bikes.  What this does is huge.  It is clear that the pedestrian is king, not the automobile.  It changes the whole vibe.  You immediately feel relaxed and calmer.  To my knowledge it has the only state highway in the country that will not allow cars and trucks to use it.  only walkers, cyclists and horse drawn carriages are allowed.

The island has the largest working draft horse herd in the world, with over 400.  When you call a taxi on Mackinac Island, you get two draft horses pulling a carriage.  The garbage is picked up by a flat bed being pulled by two draft horses.

The island registers 85,000 bicycles each year for visitors bringing their bikes to the island, and has more than 1,500 bikes on the island available for rental.  this ratio of bikes to its 500 full time residents compares favorably to Amsterdam, the purported bike capital of the world, which as 20 million bikes for its 17 million citizens.

Second, it is small.  Only 500 year-round residents living in 5 square miles. It is manageable.

It has not been urbanized.  There are no high rises.  The entire island has been declared a National Historic Landmark.  80% of the island is protected as a state park.  The island has recreational opportunities that drew my interest.  Rented a bicycle and cycled around the circumference of the island, some 9+ miles.  Played nine holes of golf on a links course that sits on what was the battlefield between the British and the Americans some 200+ years ago. My traveling companion, Marilyn, had the chance to ride a horse, venturing solo on trails in the state park without any supervision.  Where can you do that anymore?

Mackinac Island has a very interesting history which it celebrates.  The British captured the island from the Americans in the War of 1812.  The battlefield and the fort still stand, available for inspection and tours. The Upper Peninsula was ceded to Michigan as part of a compromise orchestrated during the Andrew Jackson administration, which ceded Toledo to the state of Ohio.    In addition, the treatment given to its Native American history, which is extensive is honest, compassionate, and informative. The Anishnaabek nation were the original residents of the island, and the name Mackinac is a contraction of the Anishnaabek word that means Big Turtle.  This is a picture of me standing in front of the Anishnaabek burial ground which has their symbol of the Big Turtle overlooking and standing guard of the gravesite.

The island may have the best fudge in the world.  There are at least 17 fudge shops.  I did not realize how good fudge is until now.  I have found my favorite shop – Joann’s – and my favorite fudge – double dark chocolate with pecans. You can stop in as many of these fudge shops as you want, and you can ask for as many “samples” as you want.  Not bad.  Oh my goodness.

Finally, and not least important by any means, the accommodation alternatives are just dazzling. Above all, sitting by itself as one of the most spectacular vintage hotels is the 135-year-old Grand Hotel.  This is something to behold.  They still abide by the traditions of yesteryear.  For example, in order to dine with them, or even sit on the extensive veranda for a cocktail in the evening, there is a dress code for both the men and the women.  Men must wear a sport jacket and a tie. Women must wear a dress.  The rooms start at $1,000/night and go up to $16,000/night.  In order to just visit the hotel during the day, you have to pay $10 to set foot on the property.  To eat in the lunch room the only option is a $75 lunch.  Two movies were filmed here – Somewhere in Time starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour and This Time for Keeps starring Esther Williams and Jimmy Durante.

In addition, there are a number of charming Bed & Breakfasts for sure.  Several other hotels have maintained their 18th and 19th century structure and style.  I would count the Island House Hotel where I am staying as part of this group.  Bottom line, there are no Marriotts, Hiltons or Ritz Carltons.

In conclusion, what struck me most – while staying on the island ranked first among all islands in the continental United States — was its relaxed atmosphere. The words that come to mind are calm, casual,  easygoing, informal, laid-back, serene, tranquil, and poised. 

8 thoughts on “Great Islands”

  1. If you like islands, you should watch “Island Diaries”, a fascinating exploration of islands and the people who inhabit them. It’s on KCET here in the valley but it is also streaming on line.

  2. Bravo! Great entry, per usual! I won’t argue “best,” but I’m partial to the OBX, from the Cape to Hatteras Village (with Ocracock thrown in), where we’ve vacationed 3 out of 4 summers since 1980.. Sun, sand, sea, sound, fish, boat, read, relax, drive miles of National Seashore beaches for solitude. When we first visited, electricity/telephone were fragile; all homes-on-stilts came with ample candles. Now, power is sure, and cable, too. But the basics remain. Still relatively undervisited, but development is limited by the Seashore.

  3. Bucolic in the summer but perhaps harsh in the winter. I never made it there, it sounds like a fabulous place to visit. I doubt that the local Equine Uner drivers or packers of fudge are able to afford many nights in their gorgeous hotel. However, one never knows each individuals wealth. Visiting Provincetown Cape Cod there were fudge shops and those fudge packers there seemed fairly well to do.
    Do they have any markers or some such marking the huge defeat the Americans suffered in the War of 1812 against the Canadians, British and Native Loyalists at Mackinac which was one of the precursors to the signing of the Treaty seling the 49th parallel as the border between Canada and the USA (the world’s longes undefended border).
    Were it not for the loss of the War of 1812 and the subsequent treaty Vancouver Island, which is larger than Taiwan,or the country of Belgium would have no doubt have been in US hands.
    Sure enjoying vicariously travelling to this interesting part o f the country. I have spent a lot of time up there with the Yoopers but never in that penninsula.
    Looking forward to your next blog Neil.

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