Some boaters might not consider visiting their favorite ports when the water’s hard, but there’s something undeniably appealing about an upper Great Lakes town in the offseason. At first glance, it seems flash-frozen, with empty restaurants, shuttered gift cottages and lonely marina pilings hibernating until Memorial Day weekend brings the first summer crowds. But when you look past the ice shoves and snowdrifts, it reveals its soul.

So I leaped at the opportunity to visit Mackinaw City, at the northern tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula, on a breathtakingly cold weekend in January. I love winter travel, plus I’d never been able to forget my first cruise through the Straits of Mackinac.

Most visitors arrive in the Straits eagerly craning their necks to catch their first glimpse of the world’s third-longest suspension bridge as well as fabled, Grand Hotel-adorned, lost-in-time Mackinac Island. When I cruised beneath the iconic Mackinac Bridge, however, I scarcely glanced at the open-grid roadway soaring 200 feet above me, and I certainly didn’t scan the heaving, slate-gray seas for the island. I was looking for that one particular harbor.

Mackinaw City was to be our overnight refuge from relentless 25-knot winds; steep, breaking waves that sent us surfing several miles per hour faster than our preferred cruising speed; and the writhing bout of seasickness that set in somewhere around Grays Reef. Seven rollicking hours after we’d departed Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, I was ready for a hot meal, a warm bed and quiet waters.

Leaving the Mighty Mac’s twin 552-foot towers in our wake, we spotted the castlelike Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse to starboard. Here, where Lake Michigan’s waters officially meet those of sister Huron, we rounded the peninsula’s tip and entered Mackinaw City’s bustling harbor.

We refueled at the Shepler’s Marine fuel dock, remembering to keep a weather eye on the inbound island ferries, and finally slid into our berth at the Mackinaw City Municipal Marina. From May 1 to mid-October, this full-service marina provides restrooms, showers, laundry facilities, WiFi, a picnic area, a marina supply store, on-site mechanic service, gas and pump-out. It accommodates vessels up to 100 feet in its seasonal and transient slips, while trailer boaters can take advantage of the low-incline launch ramp with room for two.

The marina lies within easy walking distance of downtown; if you need a ride, however, marina staff can arrange a grocery store shuttle, a courtesy shuttle and even courtesy bikes. Unfortunately for us, we only had time for a quick bite to eat before lights out. Bound for Georgian Bay, we had a long day ahead of us.

But I definitely didn’t forget Mackinaw City. It intrigued me, from the mysterious wood-palisade walls near the Mighty Mac’s southern foot, to Central Avenue’s broad shopping boulevard, to the warmth and revelry spilling out of the Dixie Saloon. It seemed that this place might be underestimated, that it might be so much more than just a jumping-off point for Mackinac Island or even as a much-needed refuge in a tempest. I simply had to see if the village — “city” is a misnomer — could be a rewarding destination in its own right.

This time, I motored into town with a Dodge Grand Caravan rather than with a 50-foot cruising boat, and instead of tying off the docklines, I fumbled with mittens and an electronic key at one of the EconoLodge Bayview’s cozy one-and-a-half-story log cabins near the waterfront on South Huron Avenue. Complimentary breakfast would be served at a neighboring hotel property, and the delightfully uncrowded Pirate’s Adventure Indoor Waterpark lay within acceptable swimsuit dashing distance across the icy parking lot. Perfect, since our not-quite-2-year-old daughter was in tow.

As daylight faded, a sublime moonrise illuminated the ice-strewn Straits, empty but for a lone freighter making her way toward Lake Michigan and her winter layup. These waters seemed so remote, yet the Straits of Mackinac are an important crossroads for every type of mariner: cruisers, fishermen, Chicago- and Port Huron-Mac racing sailors, day trippers and scuba divers. Then there are the commercial ships, which ply the Great Lakes from March until January.

The Straits have been such a crossroads for thousands of years. Native peoples arrived at the end of the last ice age, drawn by the abundant fishing and the good land to grow corn. When the French arrived in the 17th century, they encountered the Ojibwe, the Potawatomi and the Odawa, who had a village near what would later become Mackinaw City.

The Ojibwe called the area Michilimackinac, or Great Turtle. In their creation story, when a great flood destroyed the earth, the Great Manito recreated it on the back of the Great Turtle. While the Great Turtle was actually Mackinac Island, the name Michilimackinac soon fell to the mainland settlement south of the Straits.

Working with native peoples and relying on their support, the French built a formidable North American trading empire and used Michilimackinac as a jumping-off point for the west. To protect this valuable location from the English and hostile native tribes, French soldiers built Fort St. Philippe de Michilimackinac in 1715. The fort was a meeting place for military men, explorers, fur traders and natives, and its name was well known throughout the New World and even in western Europe.

Following their conquest of French Canada, the English took the fort in 1761 and remained until concern over the American Revolutionary War led them to establish Fort Mackinac on the island. In 1781, with their move complete, they burned the fort at Michilimackinac.

The fort was not lost, however. When Mackinaw City was platted in 1857, the northern area was left as a park to protect whatever was left of the fort as well as to provide a location for a lighthouse. In 1909, the state of Michigan created its second state park to preserve the site. And in 1959, the Mackinaw Island State Park Commission began excavating the ruins.

Enter those wooden palisades. Fifty-plus years of excavating and archaeological research have allowed the commission — which manages all the Mackinac State Historic Parks — to accurately reconstruct the fort. Colonial Michilimackinac appears as it would have in the 1770s, with the structures in their exact historical locations.

Kate Arbogast, Michilimackinac interpretation supervisor, gave us a unique winter tour through the fortified village. Open from May 4 to October 8, the living-history site incorporates 13 authentically reconstructed buildings and more than 1 million artifacts. And in season, it comes alive with pageants, re-enactments, children’s activities, a colonial wedding, traditional lacrosse games, fresh bread baking and even the occasional cannon blast.

Professional archaeologists work on site throughout the summer season, which allows tourists to ask questions and learn about the excavations. Best of all, two original ruins survived the 1781 fire: the original French hand-dug well and the powder magazine, where you can still see nearly 230-year-old remnants of charred palisades and flooring.

This year, Colonial Michilimackinac also will host Voyageurs Rendezvous Weekend on August 6-7, the 250th anniversary of the British occupation on August 20, Fort Fright on October 7-8 and family overnight programs throughout the season.

Next, we joined Kate at the lovely Old Mackinaw Point Lighthouse, also part of Mackinac State Historic Parks. Constructed of Cream City brick in 1892, the lighthouse and closed in 1957 when the Mackinac Bridge rendered it obsolete.

Now incorporated into Michilimackinac State Park, it showcases a series of museum-caliber exhibits in its assistant lightkeeper’s quarters, while the main lightkeeper’s quarters are being restored to their 1910 appearance. Also on property are the fog signal building and barn, home to the museum store and “Shipwrecks of the Straits of Mackinac” audiovisual program, respectively.

Since the lighthouse’s original fourth-order Fresnel lens now resides in a protective case within the keeper’s quarters, the lantern room provides just enough room for those on a tower tour to comfortably enjoy the view. For us, it was a crisp winter view of the Straits and its drifting floes of pancake ice.

These have always been dangerous waters for ships. When storms barrel into the region, the Straits act as a funnel for winds and seas, while the deep Straits gorge — 295 feet deep beneath the bridge’s center span — can mean strong, strange currents.

So it makes sense that this is also where you’ll find the Straits of Mackinac Underwater Preserve, a 148-square-mile stretch of water popular among Great Lakes shipwreck divers. The preserve’s myriad wrecks include the 588-foot steel freighter Cedarville, which lies east of Old Mackinac Point in 40 to 106 feet of water.

Interestingly, one of the ships that raced to assist the Cedarville’s crew now makes her permanent home in Mackinaw City. She is the former U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw, now the Icebreaker Mackinaw Maritime Museum; she’s open for public tours at the historic Chief Wawatam dock just south of the marina.

The lantern room also provided a bird’s-eye view of one small portion of the Mackinaw Historical Pathway system, which winds throughout the village and incorporates nearly 40 markers illuminating the area’s rich history.

Of course, if you’d rather not walk, you have options come summer. The Mackinaw Old Time Trolley Company and Mackinaw Trolley Company both provide a wide variety of tours; Shepler’s Ferry Lighthouse Cruises allows visitors to view area lighthouses while also learning about shipwrecks and navigation; and Mackinaw Parasailing will give you, well, the real bird’s-eye view.

The wind had kicked up during our historical tours, and as the wind chill dipped into the single digits, we decided that walking to lunch didn’t sound terribly appealing. A short drive down the road, and we were thrilled to discover that the Mackinaw Pastie & Cookie Company’s bridge location is open seven days a week, year round.

You can’t visit the Straits — or northern Michigan, for that matter — and not sample a piping hot, savory pasty. While the restaurant offered pasties in a rainbow of flavors, from stroganoff to taco to Italian, we opted for traditional pasties and homemade gravy. Our daughter, Jo, nibbled on homemade ravioli; hats off to the Hunt family for their outstanding pasta as well as for their memorable renditions of the traditional miner’s lunch.

            The rest of our Mackinaw City meals were equally memorable. For supper, we tried the Dixie Saloon, another one of the few year-round village eateries. They bring in their whitefish daily from a local fishery, and my husband scarcely uttered a word throughout the entire meal, courtesy of an expertly prepared rack of ribs.

The saloon is named for the Old Dixie Highway, organized in 1914-15 to connect the Midwest with the southern states. It traveled from Miami, its southern terminus, to Mackinaw City, where travelers were known to celebrate at the Dixie Tavern. The original 1890 tavern has been replaced by an airy, welcoming, two-story lodge.

The Old Dixie Highway has been replaced too, along with the railroad and car ferries that carried private and commercial traffic across the Straits for decades. Today, Interstate 75 travels across the Straits on the Mackinac and winds its way south to Miami.

Breakfast lovers will have a field day at the appropriately named Pancake Chef on Central Avenue. Although the buffet looked inviting, I couldn’t resist the array of pancake options on the menu — pumpkin for me, chocolate chip for Jo.

The Pancake Chef is in the perfect location for visitors who want to fuel up for a full day ashore. From here, it’s easy to reach Colonial Michilimackinac, the lighthouse, the Mackinaw and the historical pathway. It lies at the foot of the Central Avenue shopping district, which comprises every imaginable type of gift shop and candy kitchen; Animal Tracks Adventure Golf is just down South Huron Avenue; and it’s a stone’s throw from Mackinaw Crossings.

This development is actually a shopping and dining destination in itself, as more than 50 businesses make their homes here. The younger crowd will get a kick out of attractions such as A-Maze-N-Mirrors, Freaky’s Funhouse and the Mackinaw Manor Haunted Mansion, while adults will enjoy browsing Jim Wehr’s Mackinaw Outfitters and sampling local Michigan wines at the Mackinac Trail Winery. There’s a full-service day spa, a five-plex cinema and a nightly laser show as well.

If you have enough time and have access to appropriate transportation, you might want to take a few day trips. Just 5 miles south of Mackinaw City on Highway 23 is Mill Creek Discovery Park, also part of Mackinac State Historic Parks. Established in 1790 and abandoned in the mid-1800s, the mill was rediscovered in 1972 and reconstructed after extensive archaeological work. Visitors can watch the sawmill in operation and explore the natural history of the area through trails, exhibitions and naturalist programs. Or try the Adventure Tour with its forest canopy bridge, zip line and climbing wall.

If you follow Central Avenue and head 3 miles west of the village, you’ll reach The Headlands, a 600-acre county park with trails and walkable Lake Michigan shoreline. Roughly 4 miles west of the village is the municipal bathing beach known as “First Beach.” Both it and nearby “Second Beach” are great spots to enjoy sunbathing, swimming and lake sunsets.

Then there is Wilderness State Park, home to a 12-mile trail system and pristine Lake Michigan beaches. It’s located 8 miles past The Headlands.

Finally, of course, there is Mackinac Island. Visit Fort Mackinac and the island’s historic downtown, rent bicycles and circumnavigate the island, take photos at Arch Rock, savor high tea at the Grand Hotel and don’t miss the new Richard and Jane Manoogian Art Museum at the Indian Dormitory, which opened in July 2010.

Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry, Arnold Transit Company and the Star Line Mackinac Island Ferry traditionally have offered service to Mackinac Island. Last year, with their franchise agreements drawing to a close, Arnold Transit and the Star Line announced plans to merge and create the Northern Ferry Company. They requested exclusive franchise rights to the island; Shepler’s, however, requested its own 20-year franchise agreement.

While discussions are ongoing, 2011 schedules for all three companies had been approved at press time.

Once you dig into Mackinaw City, however, you may find that your time has run out for excursions to other destinations. There’s so much to see and do, particularly if you’re in the village for one of its annual events. The official kickoff to the summer season is the Fort Michilimackinac Pageant and parade on Memorial Day weekend, which includes a foot race across the Mighty Mac.

Bicycle enthusiasts converge on Mackinaw City in mid-June and mid-September for the annual spring and fall scenic bike tours, and the golfers arrive in July for the Mighty Mac Golf Outing. That’s also the month to catch the Fourth of July fireworks from the deck of the Mackinaw, courtesy of the maritime museum.

The Corvette Crossroads Auto Show will land on August 27 this year, and the famous Mackinac Bridge Walk is scheduled for September 5. Each year, thousands join Michigan’s governor on a Labor Day stroll across the Straits.

On October 7-16, visitors will revel in the Fall Shoppers’ Fest and Color Tours, and seasonal merrymaking will kick into high gear on December 3-5 for Christmas in Mackinaw. Of course, none of this includes the many additional special events and activities at hotspots such as the Mackinac State Historic Parks, the Icebreaker Mackinaw Maritime Museum and Mackinaw Crossings.

Then there’s Winterfest. In the depths of winter, crowds line South Huron Avenue to watch amateur and professional snow carving. They wait patiently outside Marshall’s Fudge for free sleigh rides. They dash in and out of local businesses on a poker run. They ice skate, ice fish and play ice hockey with brooms. Rumor has it, they toss frozen fish and bowl frozen chickens. And they race outhouses.

On our last afternoon in Mackinaw City, we admired the snow carvings, particularly those contributed by area schoolchildren. We gave Jo a ride on a mechanical horse at Devon’s Delight and tried to peel her away from the make-your-own-teddy-bear section in Marshall’s. We ate steaming bowls of chili in the overflowing Dixie Saloon, and we cheered uproariously for the inspired souls tugging creatively decorated outhouses across Shepler’s parking lot. Toilet paper fluttered gaily in the breeze, and barking dogs joined giggling children as they tumbled down snowbanks and dashed across the racers’ path.

The marina still lay quiet and empty, but Mackinaw City was far from lifeless. It teemed with energy, vigor and good humor, proving once and for all that it’s worth the trip, regardless of season.