Monday, October 5, 2015

A Return to the Past at the Les Cheneaux Islands

Les Cheneaux Island fishing
When recently driving along the Upper Peninsula's highways, I saw a few abandoned resorts with their lonely cabins boarded up. I assume that these resorts, which are nothing more than clusters of tiny wood cabins, once were crowded with tourists who wanted to explore the U.P.'s wilderness.

What happened? Did they lose their luster as vacation spots when those tourists bought their own land and built their perfect U.P. vacation homes? Did their modest size and scant amenities fail to keep up with their customers' demands for the modern? Did fewer tourists stop each year, instead driving past in search of something bigger and better?

We chase the newer, the faster, and the more luxurious while discarding the old, the slow, and the modest. We raze perfectly serviceable homes to build state-of-the-art castles with vaulted ceilings and modern kitchens. We have to get a new smartphone every year to avoid being outdated. And we need to stay in the fanciest resorts and hotels that cater to our every need.

The simple beauty of the Les Cheneaux Islands
It's OK to want nice things, but we can miss out on the beautiful simplicity of life when we ignore the old and the modest. We can be consumed by the need for more while forgetting the distinct difference between wants and needs.

But there's a simpler way to live and a simpler way to vacation. Sometimes, the old way of doing things still has merit. Sometimes, simpler is better. Sometimes, an old resort can provide the simplicity that our lives often lack.

Hills Point Resort
Some cabin resorts defiantly resist the winds of change and remain open, including a group of cabins in Cedarville called Hills Point Resort. The cabins' amenities are sparse, but the resort's location on the placid waters of the Les Cheneaux Islands more than compensates for any lack of luxury.

The calm waters of the Les Cheneaux Islands
Hills Point Resort uses the phrase "A Step Back in Time" on its website. For most visitors, the step back in time would be staying in tiny wooden cottages and being mostly secluded from the outside world. For my family, it was more. My grandfather took my dad and his siblings to Hills Point in the late 1950s. Then my dad took me and my siblings in the 70s and 80s.

Despite not having visited in nearly thirty years, everything seemed familiar when I first drove up to the cabins. The pure air. The sound of the gravel crunching under the car's tires. The white cabins with the green trim lined up in a row, perpetually old but never aging. The old dock has a new addition that extends it farther into the water. The old boathouse looks the same, but it belongs to a different owner and is no longer part of the resort.

The inside of the old boathouse
The cabins have some modern updates. We had a TV with cable, an upgrade from the old televisions of my childhood with one or two channels, but I never turned it on. The resorts have Wi-Fi, but I rarely used my phone for internet, and even then it was usually to respond to a rare email from work. They've replaced some of the old kitchen appliances, but the original cabinets and counters remain.

Technology is an afterthought when visiting Hills Point. Why would I want to look at a screen when I could catch pike off the dock, go kayaking, sit around a bonfire on the beach, go for a run along secluded island roads, or sip a cup of coffee on a quiet misty morning and just inhale the serenity?

The evenings brought beautiful sunsets
Hills Point offers visitors many ways to explore the Les Cheneaux Islands, with motor boats to rent on a daily or weekly basis, as well as a collection of canoes, kayaks, and rowboats that are free for the cabins' renters.

The beach at Hills Point Resort
The islands are on the southeast shores of the U.P. along Lake Huron. The islands create a series of channels and bays that shelter their shores from the winds and waves of Lake Huron, making them the perfect place for a relaxing kayak or canoe trip, or a peaceful day of fishing. Although Hills Point Resort is accessible by car, many of the islands are accessible only by boat, and boathouses are the closest thing to a garage that the islands' homes have.

A row of boathouses
These beautiful wooden boathouses, many with antique wooden boats docked inside, jut out from the islands' shores. I was stunned by the pines standing firm along the islands' banks, safely removed from the progress and development that has claimed many of their kind. They seemed ancient, yet vibrant, still towering above me as they had done decades before.

Pine trees lining the shores
For my mom's 75th birthday, my siblings and I offered her a trip to anywhere in Michigan. She chose Hills Point Resort. It was the first time we would all be together since my dad's funeral last October, and the first time we visited Hills Point without my dad. Though I often thought of him, the trip was not somber. It was a celebration of family, and traditions that had not died, even if they had been sleeping for decades.

Danger Pass
On our first evening boat trip, we bravely returned to "Danger Pass," a name my dad coined for the narrow channel that separates Island Number 8 from Hill Island. Though our captain was gone, my seven-year-old daughter had the honor of being first mate and slowly steering the boat under the bridge while looking out for the pirates and alligators that my dad always warned us about. My three-year-old daughter, being the daredevil of the two, wanted to go faster, but my oldest wisely kept us at a safe speed until we escaped unharmed from the marshy pass.

My dad would have been proud.

And he would have been happy to see his four kids and his grandkids spend so much time together. We fished for pike during the day and grilled them at night. The kids played on the beach or fished off the docks for small perch. Each night, we sat around the bonfire with a universe of stars shining down on us, roasting marshmallows, and talking. No distractions. Just the warmth of the fire and the comfort of conversation.



Visit for more information, including reservation information, about Hills Point Resort.  

Visit and for more information about the Les Cheneaux Islands.


  1. Then owner of Hill's Point bought our sailboat The Unicorn this Spring, so it was likely part of someone's perfect vacation this summer!

    1. There was a sailboat docked on the resort's dock. I do not recall the name though. Maybe it was your old boat.

  2. Les Cheneaux Social Director circa 1970October 6, 2015 at 7:51 PM

    Having spent the summers in Les Cheneaux every year since 1952, it moves me to read your story, and to think of what a great honor you paid your father. His memory will always remain with you, when you are up there, as my dad's does for me, and hopefully mine will for my kids and grandkids.
    You've captured what it is all about.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I am happy that you could relate to my story. It truly is a special place for me and my family.