The Mackinac Island Lilac Festival promises a second chance at spring. While most Midwest lilac blooms are gone by late May, thousands of them are bursting with color in June on this nostalgic Michigan island.
Simply put, you've never experienced lilacs like this. Those beloved blooms that inspire us to throw open windows for a whiff at home offer a near total-immersion experience on Mackinac Island at the meeting of Lakes Michigan and Huron in northern Michigan.
"They don't grow like this anywhere else in the world," lilac specialist Jeff Young tells a group of tourists encircling the nearly 20-inch-diameter lilac trunk outside one of the island's Victorian cottages. "The island has lilacs that can grow 40 feet tall and are more than 100 years old."
Lilacs arrived here with New England settlers then later with wealthy homeowners who planted the pink, blue, white and lavender bloomers to appeal to tourists. The shrubs took to Mackinac's cold winters, Great Lakes breezes and limestone much like the million annual tourists have taken to the island's century-old flavor, horse-or-bicycle-only transportation and irresistible fudge.
The Lilac Festival celebrates that fortuitous pairing for 10 days each June. But the highlight is simply walking down streets fragrant with pastel panicles. "It's just intoxicating," says local landscape designer Jack Barnwell, who plants hundreds of lilacs with his crew each year. "The town and Fort Mackinac are covered with a canopy of lilacs."
Even if blossoms aren't at their peak (blooms last up to three weeks, with early-, mid- and late-blooming varieties), it's the perfect time to savor the sight of lilacs beside the blue of the Great Lakes without summer crowds.
For information: Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau (906) 847-3783; mackinacisland.org
Mackinac Island Lilac Festival The 66th Lilac Festival will feature live music, lilac tours, the Taste of Mackinac, a dog and pony show, and a grand parade with bands and horse-drawn floats. June 3–12, 2016. mackinacisland.org
Taste of Mackinac Get in line for this popular picnic-style lunch ($20) to sample items from several restaurants, plus Michigan beer and wine. mackinacisland.org
Walk and Talk with Lilacs Hear growing tips and insights on the island's lilac history from expert Jeff Young. The easy walk introduces you to some of the island's more than 250 lilac varieties, including dwarf, weeping and double-flower styles. mackinacisland.org
Mackinac Island State Park Trails in this park, which covers nearly 80 percent of the island, are in full wildflower splendor during the festival. michigandnr.com
Grand Hotel Enjoy a Grand Luncheon Buffet ($45) with hot and cold entrees. Or listen to chamber music and nibble on finger sandwiches at the signature Afternoon Tea ($30). grandhotel.com
Seabiscuit Cafe Named for the champion thoroughbred (one of four TVs plays the movie continuously), this cozy pub's menu is a sure bet. seabiscuitcafe.com
Woods Restaurant Take a carriage ride for casual dining in a Bavarian-style lodge. grandhotel.com/dining/woods/
Mission Point Resort Families (and pets) enjoy this sprawling resort, its four restaurants and activities. Festival packages available for two- to three-night stays. From $109. missionpoint.com
Grand Hotel Experience the best of the Victorian Era in a treasured landmark with a 660-foot-long front porch. From $289 per person, with breakfast, lunch and dinner. grandhotel.com
Hotel Iroquois This luxurious Queen Anne-style hotel is by the water. From $225. iroquoishotel.com
Good spots to stop:
Ste. Anne's Churchyard Forty varieties of lilacs fill this quiet yard, including the strongly fragrant 'Beauty of Moscow', a lovely white double.
Market Street to Cadotte Avenue Some of the island's oldest lilacs line these streets, which take you from the dock to the Grand Hotel.
Marquette Park It's 100 percent lilacs in this waterfront retreat below Fort Mackinac. Sit and enjoy a picnic amid the big groves.