MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. -- The best way to get to one course is by riding a bike into the woods, clubs slung over your shoulder.
At the other course, cannon fire echoes above until before you board a horse & carriage that transports you deep into the woods.
There is no golf destination, small as it may be, quite like historic Mackinac Island. In a state gung-ho for its stellar championship golf, it's easy to forget that one of Michigan's most nationally-recognized family vacation spots offers 27 holes that is wonderfully complementary to its 19th century charm.
Mackinac Island is a rare destination where the automobile has been banned for over a century. Bicycles, horses and walking are your transportation options. It makes for an active and healthy getaway, that is, so long as you can control yourself while walking amongst the fudge-y aromas of Bicycle Street. It's not a golf-first destination like say, Harbor Springs or Gaylord. But for avid golfers hoping to introduce their family to the game in a rare and exciting way, there's nothing like Mackinac golf.
Visitors come to Mackinac Island from all over the country. Here's why you should consider bringing your sticks.
18 holes and a pony ride on The Jewel
Riding on the Shepler's Ferry from Mackinac City to the island, the first landmark you'll make out on the horizon is The Grand Hotel, a 393-room hotel, stately perched on a bluff. Remarkably still family-owned since the day it opened in 1887, it's an iconic property that, coupled with the island's commitment to yesteryear, dazzles with old world flair.
The Hollywood motion picture Somewhere in Time (1980) was filmed on property, and the nine holes adjacent to the hotel, here in some form since nearly the beginning, is a throwback. It's a course that families can walk or ride together quite easily with the longest hole playing just 354 yards, but even golfers of the highest ability will have their hands full with scenic but brawny 220-yard, par-3 7th. guarded by water on three sides.
A straightaway, downhill par 4 kicks things gently on The Jewel before other holes that head back up are sneaky long.
The 9th hole plays uphill alongside the road that leads up to the Grand Hotel. On any given afternoon, a steady stream of horse buggies, cyclists and pedestrians look on. Musket shots or cannon fire may go off in your backswing. After putting out, golfers head back towards the clubhouse where a horse & carriage is waiting. That's your shuttle to the back nine, 1.5 miles up the hill, deep into the woods.
It took nearly 100 years for The Grand Hotel to add a back nine to the Jewel The Woods nine opened in 1994 and is located beside The Woods Restaurant, just one of the many superlative dining experiences The Grand Hotel offers (this one is more intimate and rustic than the bustling main dining room). The Woods nine is the island's longest with the option to play over 3,000 yards (barely), and includes a mighty, doglegging 6th hole stretching up to 540 yards.
When you walk off the 9th green, your escort is waiting to take your group back to the pro shop and The Jockey Club, which is a fun late-afternoon hang, featuring live tunes on the patio. I enjoyed a Big Porch Ale (made exclusively for The Grand by legendary Bell's Brewery) outdoors while my daughter, still a bit too young to tee it up, crawled around the putting green.
Wawashkamo Country Club
After a hearty morning breakfast buffet at the Pink Pony, I grabbed a bike rental in town, slung a golf bag over my shoulders and trudged up the hill into the woods. As I passed the airport, a gravely turn-off led me into a clearing in the trees that is Michigan's most historic course, Wawashkamo Country Club.
Wawashkamo dates back to 1898 and is not only one of the north's oldest courses but sits on a property with even greater history. A cannon sits beside The elevated first tee that commemorates a battle waged here in 1814, when American forces attempted, unsuccessfully, to drive the British from this outpost. Today, the battlefield-turned-golf course is state park land leased by club members who have kept the layout, laid out by two-time U.S. Open champion and Scottish American Alex Smith, largely untouched. The narrow and scruffy dandelion-laced fairways aren't irrigated, which gives it further Scottish ambiance, particularly if you choose to rent a set of hickories for the round. Greens are quite small but well cared for by a handful of staff whose salaries are paid by a devoted but diverse membership.
"I've got members who are billionaires and members who are poop-sweepers," said Chuck Olson, General Manager of the club.
You may very well have the course to yourself if you visit one day, as I did. It's a rare place that feels both laid-back, but if solitude is luxury this place is supreme.
Stay and play on Mackinac Island
The Grand Hotel is Mackinac done at its most elegant. The long and bustling main dining room is, hosting both the breakfast buffet and five-course meal included in most hotel packages. Grand as the property is, there are all these little nooks to explore as well. Be sure to seek out the tucked away Cupola Bar on the sixth floor for panoramic views and piano tunes. The 660-foot-long front porch and the main dining room are sensory spectacles to be savored. Bring your fine clothes, gents. Suit-and-tie is required on the grounds after 6pm. And one way to sneak in a round is by sending your better half to the spa for the afternoon.
For digs in the heart of the action, look no further than the Chippewa Hotel, which has spacious rooms and suites in the heart of Bicycle Street. Historic as well (few properties aren't on Mackinac), Chippewa is a fun spot with a large hot tub on the deck overlooking the harbor. The attached Pink Pony is a legendary watering hole and restaurant with live tunes and harbor views.