MANCHESTER, NH - SEPTEMBER 05: Former Massachusetts governor and Republican candidate for president Mitt Romney (R) and his wife Ann speak to supporters during a Labor Day pancake breakfast on September 5, 2011 in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) (Justin Sullivan/GETTY IMAGES)

Here was a fitting homecoming.

Mitt Romney piloted his own ferry, cruising 25 knots an hour across a foggy Lake Huron, to this island of horse-drawn carriages, colorful cottages and manicured lawns. He was met portside with a banner, “Welcome Home Mitt,” and throngs of supporters chanting his name.

Mackinac Island was the playground of Romney’s youth, which he recalled as he reminisced aboard the ferry. It’s where he learned to water-ski, ate lots of fudge, rode around on bicycles and horses and took his high-school sweetheart on a date celebrating her 16th birthday.

On Saturday morning, Romney returned to Mackinac with Ann, that sweetheart who became his wife, to inject some new momentum into his 2012 presidential campaign.

Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the front-runners for the Republican nomination, are here to address hundreds of donors and party leaders at the biennial Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference. Michigan is likely to host one of the early 2012 primaries. Romney is widely considered the favorite in this swing state, having a deep reservoir of support that helped him win the 2008 primary.

During a breakfast visit to Driftwood Restaurant on the mainland in St. Ignace, Romney spoke of his roots growing up in the state, where his father, George, was governor for three terms.

“It feels very much like home, coming to the place where you’re born and raised,” Romney said. “And, I must admit, every place I go, I see my mom and dad,” he added, recalling his father’s power-walks across the Mackinac Bridge and the “click, click, click” of the highways in these parts.

“Obviously, Mitt and I are Michiganders,” Ann Romney told the breakfast crowd. “Our roots and our families, we’re just imbued in Midwestern values. The memory of George Romney, I tell people, if you really want to know why we’re in this race, it’s because of Mitt’s dad. It never would have occurred to us to even do politics. Mitt was a private business guy, and it never would have occurred to us to run for politics. And here we are. And now I have the opportunity of I believe being married to the next president of the United States.”

After the Romneys boarded the ferry, the deckhands invited Mitt to take the ship’s command. Behind the wheel, Romney told stories of summers on Lake Huron. When George was governor, he took the family here several times each summer for vacations. The governor’s official residence is on the island — “it is an absolutely lovely home,” Romney said.

The Romneys also had a small lakefront cottage on the mainland about 10 miles away.

“We got lost in the fog coming home,” Romney said of one fishing outing with his dad. “It was fog over the lake, but on shore, it was sunny and bright. And we had in the front room of our cottage a great big round mirror and we’re going along and all of a sudden there was this flash of light and my dad turned and kept following the flash, and it was our mirror from the front of our house. . . . Suddenly the flash of light brought us right in.”

Romney said he fished and swam in the lake — and learned to water-ski, too, at age 8, when he said he was “a little, little guy.”

“Before that, we had a board that we towed behind the boat,” Romney added. “And we stood on the board and held onto a little rope.”

When he was a teenager, Romney invited his girlfriend, Ann, to Mackinac to celebrate her 16th birthday with him.

“We biked all the way around the island,” Mitt recalled. “We leased some horses, and we rode around the island. We had some fudge, which Mackinac’s famous for. And I had a little boat — I had a 15-foot boat in high school, that I bought, and we took that boat around this island, around the other islands, we were out on the beaches there, we went underneath the Mackinac Bridge in that boat.”

Ann said staying at the governor’s mansion was “a real thrill.”

“For a 16-year-old girl — can you imagine?” Ann said.

“It’s a thrill for the date, too, I’ll tell you,” Mitt said, laughing.

Then Ann chimed in: “Separate bedrooms!”

“It goes without saying,” her husband replied. “We’re from the 1960s.”