Mission Point Resort on Michigan’s Mackinac Island
By Brian E. Clark
When I met Liz Ware a few years back, she told me she’d fallen in love with Mackinac Island the first time she visited as part of a 333-mile sailboat race from Chicago to the island.
Her affection for this lovely outpost in the northwest corner of Lake Huron has only grown since then.
“It was and is a magical place,” said Ware of the car-free island, a throwback of sorts to the 19th Century. “It captured my imagination.”
Ware didn’t compete in the sometimes grueling sailboat race herself, but was part of the organizing committee as a member of the Chicago Yacht Club. Since her first visit nearly a dozen years ago, she’s returned numerous times to help run the club’s storied nautical competition.
“When I step off the ferry, I feel like I’m disconnecting from the modern world, in part because of all the horse-drawn wagons and carriages and many, many bicycles. In fact, Mackinac Island has the only state highway where cars are forbidden.
“History truly comes alive here in the town and at Fort Mackinac, which dates to the 18th century,” she said. “The air is crisp and clean and there are flowers everywhere. It’s hard to beat. That’s why generations of families keep coming back here. And I have to say that when I leave here, I feel sad.”
Ware, who has a home in Grosse Pointe, Mich., said she had no idea during her first visits that she would one day move to the island and be in charge of renovating Mission Point Resort’s 241-room hotel, which her family purchased in 2014. Since then, the Wares have spent several million dollars on upgrades, she said.
The hotel – set on 18 acres of lovely grounds – is the second largest property on the island after the Grand Hotel, which was built in 1887 and is a National Historic Landmark.
“My father is a native of Michigan and in a sense, restoring Mission Point is his legacy for the island and the state,” said Ware, who grew up in Indianapolis.
Ware, who is also restoring the Silver Birches property on the northeast side of the island, said the Mission Point hotel was built in the 1950s by the Moral Re-Armament (MRA) group.
This pacifist organization, which was set up before World War II and later started Up With People, used the property for conferences and other gatherings.
In the late 1950s, the MRA built an extensive training center on the site that included a theater and soundstage. The soundstage was used for the production of movies, including “The Crowning Experience,” “Voice of the Hurricane” and “Decision at Midnight.”
From 1966 to 1970, the hotel was home to a nonsectarian college with programs in statesmanship and leadership, as well as more traditional curricula. After the school folded, the property was purchased by John Shufelt, who ran it as a hotel until he sold it to the Wares.
“One of the things that is unique about this island is that all the hotels are family run,” she said. “There are no chains here like Hyatts. Mr. Shufelt was very interested in finding people who would be custodians of Mission Point and maintain its feel.”
The hotel opened on April 29 this year to pent-up demand and has been busy ever since. It will close at the end of October, when many of the leaves have fallen and winter is drawing near. She said fall is an excellent time to visit because crowds are down and Monarch butterflies are migrating through the island.
“We also have a butterfly house several blocks from Mission Point that is open during the summer and is especially popular with kids and families,” she said.
For many people, Ware said Mackinac Island is about the history, the carriage rides, dining, relaxing and watching the huge freighters going by on the straight from one of the resort’s Adirondack chairs spread about the great lawn.
“But there are also 70 miles of hiking and biking trails throughout the island that are well worth exploring,” she said. “Taking a picnic lunch into the interior is a special experience.”
During the quiet season, when the island’s population drops to less than 500, the Wares have unleashed squads of workers on the hotel, which she said was “tired” when her family purchased it.
Improvements have included major deferred-maintenance work, a million-dollar kitchen, repainting the hotel white (from a dark green), redoing all the rooms and putting local artwork on the walls. They also added shops on the lower level, built a new garden cafe and added a 5,000-square-foot spa that is now the largest on the island “all to help create a better guest experience,” she said.
“We’re continuing a multiyear renovation,” she said. “There is always something.”
Ware said summer is the busiest time for the hotel and the island, when thousands of guests disembark daily on ferries from St. Ignace on the Upper Peninsula and Mackinaw City on the south side of the Straits of Mackinac.
Come fall, when the leaves are turning and children are back in school, the pace on the island slows down and the clientele is older with more retired visitors and couples whose children have flown the coop.
When I visited last summer with photographer Tish Lafferty, we stayed in a pleasant suite and dined at the Bistro on the Green – one of four restaurants at the resort.
One balmy afternoon, we went sea kayaking with a guide from the Great Turtle outfitter on Main Street who took us to Arch Rock and gave us a primer on the island’s geology. We also got a history lesson up at Fort Mackinac, where soldiers in period uniforms told us about life at the fort and then fired their rifles. Later they shot off a big canyon (with blanks) out over the yacht harbor.
On our last day, we rented a tandem bike at the hotel and did an eight-mile spin around the island. We also admired sailboats in the harbor, which made me ponder what it would be like to compete in the yacht race that spans the length of Lake Michigan.
And we watched families and couples taking horse-drawn carriage rides that took them by the Mission Point Resort, the island’s numerous fudge shops, historic buildings, the Grand Hotel, stately mansions and the summer home of Michigan’s governor, which is open to the public on Wednesdays for tours.
More information: Mission Point Resort is on the east end of the island’s downtown shopping district, roughly a 10-minute walk from the ferries. If you are staying overnight, a shuttle will take your luggage to your hotel. You can also hire a horse-drawn carriage.
The resort runs specials and packages for families, golfers, pet owners, couples and more. See missionpoint.com or call (800) 833-7711. The resort is open through the end of October. For more things to see and do on the island, see mackinacisland.org or call (906) 847-3783.
Getting there: From Milwaukee, St. Ignace is a 365-mile drive via I-43 and Highway 2 via the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Once there, you’ll have to leave your car behind and take a ferry to Mackinac Island. For even more of a nautical experience, travelers can take the Lake Express High Speed Ferry (lake-express.com) from Milwaukee to Muskegon, Mich., then drive north. Or board the S.S. Badger (ssbadger.com) from Manitowoc to Ludington, Mich. From Chicago, Mackinaw City – a Lower Peninsula ferry departure point – is a 420-mile drive north.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.