Mackinac Island offering remote learning escape for families

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A Shepler's ferry heads towards the dock near Main Street in downtown Mackinac Island, Michigan on July 1, 2020. - Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press/TNS

Dave Sullivan has gone from working quietly alone at his Ann Arbor, Michigan, home to spending every minute of every day alongside his wife and three young kids with remote learning schedules.

“We’ve been cooped up for six months and just to top off 2020, the fantastic year it’s been so far, we’re now doing full-on virtual school,” he said. “We’re tired of seeing the same walls or computer screens. It’s not sustainable.”

When Sullivan heard about special family remote-learning getaway packages on Mackinac Island, he planned to discuss the option with his wife, Kristy, immediately.

Imagine, he said, taking the kids on an extended field trip as a celebration to end a year that has offered little to celebrate.

Two popular hotels on Mackinac are capitalizing on the idea of virtual learning in an American vacation wonderland, offering parents a place to work and escape with their children.

Lesson plans have been created to help parents explore the island and apply math and geography and history in conjunction with the state parks. Schools won’t be offering those fields trips this year because of COVID-19 concerns.

This is the first time the island has promoted the idea of an educational escape for families, in September and October. If not for the coronavirus, hotels would be packed with meetings and conventions and major events, all of which have been canceled.

Internet and cellular connections have recently been updated on the island. Tourism officials said working executives at conferences expect it. Now all that conference space and all those rooms are available to families. This is the first time hotels have organized major family events in the fall.

Educational resources, now available to download in PDF format, have been refreshed by state parks workers to help guide children on island at this time of year. They include reading, activities, lesson plans, music and games.

Lesson plans include topics such as the Straits of Mackinac, the fur trade and its voyagers, how a sawmill became Michigan’s first industrial complex, a day in the life of a soldier stationed at Fort Mackinac, native American contributions, archaeology, 18th and 19th century games, folklore tales, diets of native Americans, fur traders and soldiers of Mackinac and vocabulary lists.

“The island is breathtaking but also interactive,” said Liz Ware, whose family owns and operates the Mission Point Resort. “There are 70 miles of hiking and biking on the island. It’s 8 miles around the island. The interior is magical. The leaves are changing. This is a wide-open space, a historic destination, with turquoise water that looks tropical. We have biking and horses and history. It’s a perfect destination to bring your family for remote learning.”

The hotel has completed more than $12 million in renovations over the past six years, most recently updating its conference center to offer families space to work with their laptops. After parents finish their work and children finish their studies, families can do real-life learning, Ware said.

There is a library area in the lobby with books about the island and its topography, offering visitors an opportunity to learn about science and rock formations and water levels and the history of lakes. There are garden and history tours run by hotel staff.

At Mission Point, which sits on 18 acres of the sunrise side of the island, the two-day family package starts at $316 a night per adult, $160 per child ages 13 to 17 and $60 for children 12 and under. The package includes daily breakfast and a two-course dinner including a glass of wine for adults, half-day bike rentals, a round of golf at the Greens of Mackinac, Fort Mackinac tickets, Butterfly House tickets, round-trip ferry tickets on Shepler’s and luggage transfer and handling.

“Being outside and having a place to go that has a feeling of safety, this is what we offer,” Ware said. “Mackinac Island is 80% state park. When you are out of the downtown area of the island, there are places to spread out.

“The island is committed to face masks in public places and staying safe,” she said. “As a parent myself, it’s really important.”

Ware’s three children, a college student and two high school seniors, are learning remotely at home in Grosse Pointe for now.

On the island, her father, Dennert Ware, is the owner of the hotel and her brother, Mark Ware, is the CEO. Liz Ware handles sales and marketing.

“Once you get on the ferry, the mainland distractions are left behind,” she said. “You can relax and get away. It’s so important when kids have all these things going on in their heads and they can really relax and focus on school and enjoy everything the island has to offer.”

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AT THE GRAND

Doug Dean, executive vice president of operations at the Grand Hotel, said life feels a lot like Groundhog Day and the Grand wants to help.

“The things people love about the island, especially Michiganders, seems to be even more special to them during this unique time,” he said. “People don’t want to leave. It’s just calm and serene and relaxed. Families are connecting with nature and the beauty of the island, and the slower way of life seems to be particularly appealing.”

The Grand Hotel is offering a family package of two adults and three children up to age 18 starting at $718 a night. That includes full breakfasts and white linen tablecloth dinners. If a family wants to extend beyond two nights, then the price is reduced. If a family stays three nights, the fourth is free.

There are golf discounts and children 17 and under play for free. And the pecan ball dessert draws raves.

“It’s a real chance to turn what is a stressful and challenging time for the entire family into something I hope people will come back and say, ‘Remember the time we went to Mackinac Island and we did this,’ ” Dean said. “We’re open until Nov. 2. It’s just nice to be able to get outside and unplug.”

Tim Hygh, executive director of the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau, is tickled by the idea of harnessing a new approach to what might be considered a crisis with all the island cancellations, including a fudge festival that was forced to go virtual.

“This is something we’ve all kind of collectively come up with,” he said. “This is about taking family field trips. You probably, as a child in the fifth or sixth grade, took a field trip to the island. Schools won’t be offering those fields trips this year. But it’s a great thing to do on your own. This is about turning a traditional vacation destination into an education spot. There’s just a boatload of history.”

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HISTORY 101

Dominick Miller with Mackinac State Historic Parks has created many programs for children; he welcomes people to head to the island and check it all out.

Fort Mackinac was built by the British starting in 1779, right in the middle of the American Revolution, Miller said. “It puts you right in the middle of history.”

There are island links to the War of 1812, too, he noted, as one of the very first battles of the war occurred there.

“We’re looking at new ways of presenting our wealth of resources to the public,” Miller said. “By re-imagining the way we present our resources, we’re hoping we can reach a broad audience, especially in the current environment.”

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©2020 Detroit Free Press

Signs pointing out the new normal due to COVID-19 can be seen before boarding the Star Line ferry to Mackinac Island on July 1, 2020. - Mandi Wright/Detroit Free Press/TNS
Vacationers walk up and down Main Street in downtown Mackinac Island, Michigan on July 1, 2020. - Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press/TNS
Horses pull a carriage on the grounds of The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. - ELLEN CREAGER/Detroit Free Press/TNS