In the heart of winter, Mackinac Island reveals its quieter, snowier and, yep, more romantic side. We can’t think of a better winter weekend getaway.

This essay about the winter of 2002 on Mackinac Island was featured in the February 2019 issue of Traverse Magazine. Subscribe.

Cross-country skis clamored for space among the bags of winter gear and groceries squeezed into the backseat of the Grand Prix. As Traverse City faded in the rearview mirror, we settled in for a road trip to St. Ignace. With steaming hot coffee and chocolate-covered donuts in hand, we sang along to 50s Greatest Hits.

Newlyweds, married just three months prior, we praised the winter gods for making the drive effortless, as the majestic Mackinac Bridge loomed over the trees in what seemed like moments from our departure. Crossing the Mighty Mac in winter is a rare treat, with very little traffic—mostly locals going to or from the two peninsulas. The bridge attendant reached with fingerless gloves from the booth to collect the $2.50 toll. The well-plowed streets of St. Ignace welcomed us as we made our way to the Arnold Ferry Line.

Mild by contrast, winter 2002 allowed the ferryboats to run beyond the traditional end-of-year schedule from the St. Ignace side. The docks were abuzz in a season typically giving way to the island airport, or even the ice bridge. Together we jostled our gear and groceries onto a large ferry cart and boarded the Mackinac Island ferry, Huron, with only a handful of islanders sharing the warmish cabin.

Our boat captain navigated the icy waters steadily through an unending panorama of ice floes, resembling a quilt of flattened marshmallows that gently gave way to the course of the ferry.

Activity on the Mackinac Island docks was stark, compared to summer sojourns to visit family residing on the island. But on cue we heard sleigh-bells jingling as the Mission Point sleigh, our appointed taxi, arrived. Horses with nostrils flaring, their breath visible in the cold air, waited patiently while the rosy-cheeked driver, clad in layers of winter woolens, helped load our gear. Our fairy tale was officially underway.

Plan your winter escape to Mackinac Island

After settling in our private suite at Mission Point Resort, we decided the hot tub was a respite from the zero temps. Gingerly stepping barefoot across the snowy deck, glasses of wine in hand, we climbed into our own private oasis, curtained off from the rest of the world. If we frightened the ghosts that supposedly occupy the hallowed halls of the resort, they never complained. The far reaches of the island slept.

And we slept. Morning dawned clear, beautiful and cold. Hot tea, breakfast energy bars and fresh grapes provided us with all the nourishment we needed to hit the trails for a brisk cross-country ski. Laden only with bottles of water and a flask of schnapps, we marveled at the beauty that filled our gaze over the village to the icy patchwork of the Straits. We skied to Arch Rock where the sun glistened on the frozen ridges and outcroppings of this natural limestone formation—a major island tourist attraction in summer. We blazed our own path across the virgin blanket of snow as it crunched beneath our skis, stopping only briefly for warming swallows of schnapps. In the distance, we could see the Tudor structure of the Woods, a fine dining restaurant and America’s oldest operating duckpin bowling alley, set in the island’s interior. It was shuttered for the winter.

As the sun peaked high above the trees, our light breakfast began to wear off, so we headed toward town with visions of lunch at the Mustang Lounge. And we’d yet to have a human sighting—until high on the East Bluff we encountered a familiar face. Contractor, renovator and the island’s friendliest guy, Barry BeDour (an island legend, sadly now deceased) shut down his snowmobile and greeted us with his movie-star smile. “I heard you were up here,” he grinned, “want a lift to town?” News travels fast on this little island, especially in winter when life here is nearly exclusive to locals. Through frozen cheeks we chatted a bit and finally declined the ride offer, opting for the quiet of our skis.

Later, our appetites sated, skis wiped down and damp clothes hung near the fireplace; our après ski treat? We nearly raced to get in the hot tub!

We sipped wine and struggled to stay awake. As if in competition for our favor, a waxing three-quarter moon outshone a plethora of twinkling stars while the temperature recorded 10 degrees. Solitude in nature is without loneliness. It embraced our quiet time together as we sauntered to town for dinner.

Thanking our lucky stars—all of them—we fell into bed both exhilarated and exhausted. Morning came too soon.

On this glorious winter weekend, we saw the world at our feet.

Among many hats, Monterey Wheeler once wore the one of office manager/events editor at Traverse Magazine for 15 years. She writes from Manistee. 

Mackinac Island, Michigan

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski