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Wander the fragrant streets of Mackinac Island

Bike, stroll or take a horse taxi to annual Lilac Festival

By Alison Engel
Cottage Living

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Mackinac Island's Lilac Festival runs June 9 through June 18.

WHAT TO BRING HOME

Fudge. No question. The shops turn their daily task into storefront theater. My favorite: vanilla pecan at Murdick's Fudge (906/847-3530). Also try samples at May's (800/785-9277), Joann's (906/847-6357), and Ryba's (800/447-9227).

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(Cottage Livingexternal link) -- My first morning on Michigan's Mackinac Island, I thought I had wandered onto a Hollywood back lot.

Horse-drawn carriages paraded down Main Street, driven by men in top hats and tails and carrying beaming brides and grooms, waving as they passed. Often they were trailed by a perspiring photographer furiously pedaling a bicycle, camera cases strapped to his basket. Every once in a while a young man in vintage military regalia would stride by, all gold braid and epaulets and shiny boots.

The bustle of commerce was everywhere. A florist made a delivery on a bike. A young man wearing a striped apron pushed a cart piled with new mattresses. Guests drank coffee on the gingerbread porches of bed-and-breakfasts, talking over the pleasant clip-clop of horses' hooves and the faint jangle of harness bells. Wafting over this soundtrack was the powerful aroma of bubbling sugar, mixed with the heady fragrance of lilacs in bloom.

But it wasn't make-believe. There was a logical explanation for everything.

Mackinac (MACK-in-awe) Island, between Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the rest of the state, is famous for prohibiting (non-emergency) motorized vehicles. That explains the array of alternative transportation: bicycles, pushcarts piled high with boxes reined in by bungee cords and horse-drawn carriages and taxis. There's even a horse-drawn shuttle that ferries golfers and their clubs between the Grand Hotel's Grand Nine course and its Woods Nine a mile away.

Costumed soldiers spend their days at Fort Mackinac, built by the British in 1779 on a cliff perched above Haldimand Bay, at the eastern end of the island. Fife and drum playing, cannon firing and guided tours are daily events, requiring a cadre of period-perfect actors. Five buildings downtown that played a part in Mackinac's early-19th-century history are also open to visitors. John Jacob Astor made his first million dollars trading furs here.

And the lilacs? The island boasts hundreds of varieties, and their blooms are celebrated for 10 days each June. This year's festival runs June 9 through June 18. The festival includes a low-key parade with homemade horse-drawn floats, walking tours, children's activities in the park and purple lights twinkling on boats in the marina.

While you can stay on the mainland and ferry over for the day, I opted for full immersion in the festive atmosphere. Charming hotels and inns are everywhere downtown. Most famous of all is the Grand Hotel on historic West Bluff with its sweeping front porch, the largest in the world. The grounds are fastidiously groomed -- the floral displays are replanted three times a year -- and the hotel charges nonguests $10 to enter, to discourage hordes of sightseers. I chose to stay further afield, in a rental cottage "up island," as locals say.

The first thing to do was rent a bicycle. Bike shops abound, but the island is not about competitive racing or fancy rigs. Most bikes are strictly utilitarian, and no one locks them in the racks downtown.

Once I had my wide-tired beauty, I rode around the entire island, which wasn't nearly as daunting as it sounds: The trip is only 8.2 miles, and the terrain is blessedly flat. Pedaling steadily, I did it in only an hour. I admired the lady's slipper orchids, the lilies of the valley and the lilacs along the way, but I stopped short of picking them. (I knew that I should leave them for others to enjoy, plus I wanted to avoid paying a stiff fine.) As a sign posted along the way admonishes, "Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints."

Within a day it seems completely natural to ride or walk everywhere. It's no wonder there aren't any street addresses; I already knew my way around. After a memorable dinner at Woods restaurant, a quirky, secluded hunting lodge complete with a one-lane duckpin bowling alley, I walked back to my cottage by starlight, feeling I was now on the set of a different movie, "The Last of the Mohicans," as I glided silently through the pines. I followed the footpath, my senses alert in the darkness. Slowing down to a carless pace on an island full of blooming lilacs was as motion picture perfect as it sounds.


Copyright 2004-2006 Cottage Living magazine. All rights reserved.
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