CRUISING THE GREAT LAKES #2: MOTORLESS MACKINAC ISLAND, MICHIGAN

Detroit may be the “Motor City,” but Mackinac Island, Michigan is the motorless city.  Banned by the village council in 1808, automobiles are nowhere to be seen on the island that lies at the boundary of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.  Instead, the less than 11,000 locals get around on horseback, horse drawn carriages, or bicycles. 

Everything on Mackinac (pronounced “Mackinaw”) is done utilizing horse power—literally!  Trash pick-up?  By horse power.  USPS and UPS?  Horse power!  Don’t believe me?  This is how your packages get delivered, even to the Grand Hotel:

A delivery to the Grand Hotel
UPS getting ready for more deliveries

And, this is the garbage “truck”:

Yes, they even haul their own food!

There are 650 horses on the island; however, all but ten horses (including the one pulling the only winter taxi) are transported to the mainland by boat to be kept in heated stables for the winter.  Most are draft horses weighing in around 2,000 pounds and able to haul three times their body weight.  The largest carriages hold 35 people and are pulled by 3 horses.

Only 500 of the residents are full time; the others are seasonal, working in the tourist trade that developed following the civil war, or enjoying their summer homes.

For those hearty full-timers, there is one school for kindergarten thru 12th grade with an annual attendance of 60-80 students.  The senior class has anywhere from 2-10 graduates each year.

There is one word that first comes to mind to describe Mackinac Island: charming.  It’s like stepping back in time while strolling the downtown streets filled with horse-drawn carriages and bicycles, lined with beautiful Victorian-era buildings and colorful lilac-filled gardens; and, a lack of cars or motor noise—just the clip-clop sound of horse hooves.  And, there is not a chain-hotel to be found, just cozy B&B’s, attractive locally owned resorts, and the famous Grand Hotel.

Our home away from home for 14 days!

What you will find a lot of in Mackinac Island are fudge shops!  Bruce and I counted twelve of them on the 4-block Main Street alone!  In 1889, Henry Murdick opened the island’s first “Candy Kitchen,” and by the 1920’s, fudge was THE souvenir to bring home.  By the 1960’s competition among the fudge makers resulted in a “fudge wars,” and now Mackinac is world-famous for its fudge. According to the Mackinac Island tourist bureau, downtown shops make 10,000 pounds of fudge each day during the season!

It’s competitive alright.  Ryba’s has four(!) shops within four blocks, Murdick’s and Joann’s each have two, and then if that’s not enough, there is May’s, Murrays, Sander’s, and Kilwin’s.  Yes, a couple of them—Murdick’s and Joann’s—got my business, as if there wasn’t enough great chocolate on the ship!  As they say, “When in Rome…”  It sure was tasty!

Our day on Mackinac began with an included horse carriage tour of the gorgeous, lush island, our nation’s second national park (after Yellowstone).  A two-horse carriage took us around town and up the hill past the Grand Hotel.  We were then transferred to a larger three-horse carriage to tour the steeper trails of the park and visit Fort Mackinac.

Our tour carriage for the first part of the tour
These troupers hauled 35 of us around steep hills!
The view of downtown and our ship from Fort Mackinac
Fort Mackinac

Rather than ride the carriage back to the Grand Hotel, we opted to walk and enjoy the breathtaking views of the Grand Hotel’s golf course along the nearly vacant path (except for the occasional horse carriage).  Lilac shrubs and trees were growing everywhere, and they were in full bloom.  We felt like we were walking through the pages of Better Homes & Gardens magazine.  It was so lovely and peaceful!

The Grand Hotel is indeed grand, especially its 660-foot front porch, the longest in the world.  Known as the filming location for the movie, Somewhere in Time (Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, 1981), the hotel was also visited by five U.S. presidents, Thomas Edison, and Mark Twain.  Built in just 93 days, the hotel opened in 1887 and was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.  In 1989, it became a National Historic Landmark. 

The hotel’s restaurant had the largest dining room I had ever seen!

After taking the self-guided tour of the massive hotel, we shared some delicious Mackinac ice cream from Sadie’s while rocking in two of the 100 rocking chairs that line the front porch.  Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor was named after the Scottish Terrier that won Best in Show at the 2010 Westminster Kennel Club All Breed Dog Show.  The pooch is owned by the owner of the hotel and her ribbons, trophies, and memorabilia are featured in one of the hotel’s galleries.

The short walk back into town was so pleasant that it was a shock when we returned to Main Street, crowded with the summer tourists that came over on the ferry for the day.  It felt so commercial and touristy that we were relieved when the ferries loaded up to return the tourists back to the mainland. 

Following our dinner aboard ship and the last ferry departure, it was just me, Bruce, a few other passengers from the ship, and a handful of locals strolling the quiet Main Street after dinner aboard ship.  Ocean Navigator didn’t sail until the next morning, so it was nice to be able to go back into town and have it almost to ourselves!

CRUISING THE GREAT LAKES ABOARD AMERICAN QUEEN VOYAGES’ OCEAN NAVIGATOR

Like millions of other avid travelers now clogging the nation’s airports, several trips we had booked over the past two years had been canceled due to COVID.  One of those trips would have been aboard American Queen Steamboat Company’s acquired Victory Cruise Line ships.  Since then, the company was renamed American Queen Voyages (AQV), and the itinerary we had chosen was no longer on the schedule.  We opted for a 14-day Chicago roundtrip cruise on the Great Lakes with three days on our own in Chicago after the cruise.

This post, as well as the next several, will be about our (thankfully!) COVID-free journey, and the wonderful people, places, and experiences we shared along the way.

As was the case with past American Queen cruises, the first night was spent at a hotel before boarding the ship.  We were put up at Chicago’s downtown Hilton, a beautiful hotel located on a beautiful park-lined stretch of South Michigan Avenue. 

Following our mandatory COVID tests, we were cleared for our cruise aboard the Ocean Navigator (previously named Ocean Victory) the following day.  Whewww!  All 131 of the passengers tested negative, so we were free to roam the city until our bus ride to the ship the next day.  We ventured out to walk the parks, see Buckingham Fountain, stroll along the lake, and then head to Lou Malnati’s for the deep-dish pizza I had been craving over the past two years!  It was just as I had remembered it when I visited Chicago with my best friend, ten years before—awesome!

Unfortunately, Chicago authorities decided shortly before the summer cruise season they didn’t want cruise ships coming and going in their waters during the busy summer weekends, so AQV was forced to bus us up to Milwaukee to meet the ship. It was all a bit of chaotic mess, because the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing (thanks to a lack of communication from the home office), but once we got on board it was (almost!) all good!

Let’s get the “(almost!)” out of the way first.  If you have poor hearing, wear hearing aids, and remove them at night, I HIGHLY recommend this ship.  If, on the other hand, you have excellent hearing and wear industrial-grade ear plugs at night to prevent inconsistent noises from waking you, think twice before cruising on this ship—at least until they resolve the pipe noise issue.  Even a white noise ap couldn’t mask the loud sound of pipes rattling when water was being pumped throughout the ship for the showers.  The water tanks were located below our cabin, so Alex, the wonderful Hotel Director, moved us in hopes of resolving the issue, since the problem couldn’t be fixed.  Unfortunately, the “upgrade” from the first to third deck didn’t make a difference; the rattling was throughout the ship.  This wasn’t a big deal during the day or evening, but the first shift of officers (housed in the inside cabins; passengers had outside cabins windows or balconies) showered around 5 am!

Our cabin on Deck 1 before we were moved.
Bruce and Alex (Hotel Director) with me

Otherwise, I can’t begin to tell you how much we enjoyed everything else about the ship, its crew, and this cruise!

Unlike American Queen’s U.S.A.-registered paddlewheel river boats, the Ocean Navigator is registered in the Bahamas, allowing the company to hire foreign crew.  Although most were Filipino, many nationalities were represented, including our charming and funny Scottish captain.  Alex and the chief purser were from the Ukraine, and our cabin steward, Jose, was from Honduras.  All were friendly, hard-working, and eager to please.  They made our cruise!

Our Scottish captain

Meet Marisol and Sarah:

Whenever I went to the gym, located across from the Purser’s desk, I would hear, “Hi, Miss Elaine!” They told me that after seeing my passport and comparing my birthdate to the photo, and then to me in person, I was their inspiration, and that I couldn’t possibly be 60!  They decided right then and there to give up unhealthy foods and start exercising, so they could look good at 60, too.  Made my day!

This is Chef Ross, a skinny chef you can trust! 

Of all the 56 cruises I have worked on or been a paying passenger, Ross and his staff prepared the best cuisine.  Like other AQV cruises, lobster tails were available every night; however, these were absolutely the best.  We ordered seafood every night and often asked for a lobster tail to be placed on top; we were in seafood heaven!

Ross didn’t mess around when it came to chocolate either.  He budgeted for a block of expensive, top-rated Valrhona chocolate, from France, for Gladwyn to use for baking his desserts.  His Valrhona Chocolate Tart was just as good as Nancy Silverton’s chocolate tart that I had enjoyed when Nancy was considered one of the best pastry chefs in the U.S.A.  After raving about it to Ross and Gladwyn, they surprised me with more that Gladwyn made special the following night.  Pure chocolate heaven!

Another Gladwyn masterpiece

This ship doesn’t offer the production shows like AQV’s river boats have at night, but we enjoyed listening to the band—especially Tim’s saxophone, flute, and harmonica solos.  We enjoyed sharing a few dinners with Tim, too.

Johnny (Piano & Vocals), Tim (Sax, Flute, Harmonicas), Bruce, and John (Drums)

After a full day at sea—uh, make that “at lake,” we docked at our first Michigan port…

Next up:  Motorless Mackinac Island

Until then, how about a virtual tour of the Ocean Navigator?

Ocean Navigator
Forward deck below the bridge
Bridge Tour
Top deck behind the bridge
Top deck looking aft
Top aft deck looking forward
Port side of The River Grill, located below the top deck. This was a casual dining restaurant where we enjoyed breakfast and lunch, rather than dining more formally in the dining room.
Starboard sie of The River Grill.
Promenade deck
This is how calm the water was on Lake Superior, a notoriously rough lake where the Edmund Fizgerald (and hundreds of other boats) sank.
The tavern was located forward on Deck 2 with the lounge mid-ship.
Our crew (and their adorable towel creations!)
Jose, our cabin steward
Diane, the shore excursion manager was one of my favorite people on board.
The dining room as located on Deck 1. This was the lobby before entering the dining room, and I thought Ross and his staff made great use of it! Every night, they lined up every single item on the menu, beginning with the appetizers. I had never seen this done on a cruise ship, and I thought it was a great idea! Being able to see the item with a description eliminated the need to ask questions of the service staff and to better decide what to order.

Just in case you weren’t tempted enough by the main entree’s I showed you earlier, here are a few of the appetizers I ordered during the cruise: