Step back in time at Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel
I grew up hearing tales of Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel, its expansive white porch spanning practically the entire island in the straights between Michigan’s lower and upper peninsulas.
Grand Hotel, built in 1887, was the jewel of the island where cars are forbidden and horse-drawn carriages whisk guests from place to place, where tourists nibble famous fudge, watching the deep blue of the Great Lakes lap against the shore.
We visited Mackinac (The “c” in Mackinac is silent) several times in my youth, but Grand Hotel was well out of our reach. It’s an expensive stay and while you may be tempted to “just go take a look,” even that is pricey. Tourists walk up the hotel drive to look at the massive columns reaching for the sky, American flags waving across the porch where it was said rocking chairs were as numerous as the flowers in its stately gardens. But we could go no further unless we were willing to fork over a good bit of money just to walk across the porch. Five bucks per person then, $10 now. Seemed like such a waste of money.
Our only glimpse of this Michigan treasure beyond that line was from the 1980 movie starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, Somewhere in Time, a romance between two people drawn to each other across unimaginable barriers.
When I was given a chance to visit the hotel, to be hosted for Walking on Travels, my inner child did a somersault.
My husband and I included the Grand Hotel in our short, much-needed getaway, leaving our two daughters with their grandma and aunt.
We drove to Mackinaw City, where we parked our rental car at the ferry docks. Our Grand Hotel check in e-mail informed us that we could receive a discounted ferry trip through Shepler’s, one of several ferry operators to the island. Ferry staff tagged our bags and, for a fee, transferred our luggage to the hotel and we boarded for the 15 minute ride past the Mighty Mac, a five-mile long suspension bridge that connects Michigan’s two peninsulas.
Welcome to the Island
We arrived around 4 p.m. and were told it would take two hours for bags to be delivered, perfect timing to shower and dress for the hotel’s formal, five-course dinner included in the nightly rate.
We took advantage of the time to wander along Mackinac’s coast and through the streets of this walk back in time. Centuries old buildings that once housed soldiers and other posts in this once important hub of the fur trade. Colorful cottages, and noisy tourist shops and restaurants now line the streets along with one unmistakable feature, the smell of horse poop. If you’re blessed with a stiff breeze, thank your stars. Trading car exhaust for horses may look quaint, but the smell isn’t.
Around 6 p.m. we returned to the ferry docks where we’d seen Grand Hotel carriages shuttling guests up the street. Staff there informed us, though, that those carriages were through for the day. He called us another taxi. It took them nearly 10 minutes to arrive and another 10 it seemed to get us up to the hotel entrance. We could have walked there and back twice but I wanted the experience. I think our taxi may have just been a little tired. Another one passed us along the way.
It was nearly 6:30 by the time we arrived, in casual, sweat-infused travel clothes and we laughed that we were already out of compliance with the hotel’s rule that from 6:30 p.m., all guests are required to dress up to wander the shops and porch. Men are required to wear a jacket, pants and tie. Women must wear either dresses, skirts or suits.
Dinner guests are seated through 8:30 so we thought we’d have plenty of time to shower and iron our dinner clothes. But our luggage had yet to arrive. I took the time to look around a little, taking in the experience.
Beautiful room, but tardy luggage
The room was spacious, smelled fresh and was bright as the evening sun shone through the large windows. The bed was a whitewashed four-poster with green accents. In fact, green is one the hotel’s signature colors along with red, often in the shape of geraniums. Ceilings are painted a pale mint green — it looks better than it sounds — including the ceiling covering the behemoth porch. Green and red carpets greet you in the main hallways. Green and white striped chairs fill the dining room. The walls were soft pinstripe, and as we noticed from a little spying into other rooms with open doors, each room is decorated differently.
My husband Dom was quick to find the beer bottle opener on the inside of the bathroom door. Why not crack open a beer while you shave your legs or brew some Starbucks in the in-room coffee pot.
The mattress stood hip high and was topped with an intricate French knot embroidered blanket. There were sitting chairs by the window, which faced a garden. You could even see a bit of the lake.
We were greeted with a welcome basket, which can be purchased for guests. Think honeymooning couple or an anniversary gift for tired parents. It will cost $126, but they will be so grateful. Along side a mound of fruit – grapes, kiwi, orange, apple – was a wheel of Danish brie (yum), water crackers and a bottle of a very nice red wine made specifically for and labeled with Grand Hotel. Wine glasses emblazoned with horse and carriage included.
Nearly three hours after we’d arrived on Mackinac, our bags still hadn’t arrived so I called for service, which showed about 10 minutes later.
Formal dinner at the Grand
With our late luggage we had to scramble to get ready, which left my partner a bit frustrated, but we made it in time for dinner. Unfortunately we missed a chance for a sunset stroll on the famous porch. At more than 600 feet long, it’s said to be the world’s longest. We could see through the nearly floor to ceiling windows people sipping cocktails from the bar cart set up outside. Hotel photographers would snap portraits you could view and buy the next day.
We took our seat in the brightly decorated, enormous dining room. Our table, a little wedge of a place, was covered with silverware and china. I don’t think the tables could have gotten any smaller or had one more utensil.
Service from our wait staff was friendly and efficient. It did have a hint of resort feel as opposed to a fine dining experience – hundreds of guests, quick service, not really a place you linger over your meal. I was quite surprised to see some of the wait staff walk through the aisles balancing a tray stacked with bused dishes on their head. Hands free. Wow.
As we settled in for dinner, a question of race popped into our heads. That’s right. Race. The plentiful wait staff was almost entirely black or Asian men and women. In a place that prides itself on historical flare, it raised a question. Slavery was abolished just 20 years before the Grand was built and segregation was in full effect. I couldn’t help but wonder if the hotel embarked on a twisted mission to preserve even a fraction of that history, placing minorities in service to, what seemed to me, its majority white guests.
I asked the hotel about this and was told that since the Grand is a seasonal hotel, closed approximately 6 months of the year, they have a hard time finding and maintaining staff. Their employees, many from Jamaica, work six months at the Grand and return to Jamaica for its tourist season.
It still seemed a little odd to me. I used to work in service in a very seasonal town, Naples, Florida, where I knew plenty of people who worked in Naples in “season” winter and spring, then went north, some to Mackinac, for the summer. In fact nearly the entire island of Mackinac is seasonal and I didn’t notice this majority-Jamaican staff anywhere else. Then again, the Grand employs a massive number of people each season – about 700.
Turning our attention back to the food coming to our table non-stop, we truly enjoyed our meal. In a star rating system, I’d give it a 4.5 of 5. We were served an appetizer, soup, salad, main course and dessert and the only meal that didn’t impress, was the salad, which was a bit more like a slaw. My husband, though, enjoyed it. The food was quite flavorful and the menu, one of three rotating menus, offered unique selections. I was impressed.
The band, which included a trumpet, saxaphone and upright base, stopped before dinner did, which was a shame. They were great, played some fun classics, including a rendition of You’re a Grand Old Flag, which had the whole room clapping along.
Dom loved his shrimp and my ahi appetizer was quite tasty. A surprising highlight was the soup – chilled tomato and blood orange, brought hints of sweet and spicy together perfectly. Dom thought his pork was wonderful and cooked just right and my beef Bourguignon was very tender. Even with small portions, the four courses to that point left me needing a larger belly. Of course this put no stop to the final course, dessert. Dom enjoyed his red velvet cheesecake, which he said the chocolate wasn’t too overpowering. I liked the chocolate mousse as well. It was very light with tart berries. A tasty end to a very good meal experience.
I have to say that sitting at the table in nice dress added a welcome touch of class to dinner. Dom and I met in Naples and enjoyed eating at nice restaurants. But we don’t do that anymore. It’s too expensive where we live and with the little ones, the opportunity doesn’t just appear anymore. You have to plan and often it’s just not worth it. I loved walking around in 5 inch heels, I loved the dress I was wearing. I loved putting on a gorgeous beaded necklace my mom made. It felt special. It gave the dinner an air of importance, and intimacy — a dining experience we haven’t shared as a couple in a very long time.
We finished our dinner and I carried a cosmo with us out onto the porch where we sat for a few minutes in the classic white rocking chairs before mosquitoes sent us away. We walked down the stairs into the gardens for a quick look, still beautiful at night. Turning back, the hotel lit up looks like a cruise liner, hulking. We made our way back to the hotel and stood for a minute in the background of the lounge, whose band worked its way through big band and contemporary pieces. A few brave feet cut loose on the dance floor. But it was more than we needed. We were ready to crash.
Comfy beds, snoring neighbors
We slept well in the comfortable bed, though we could hear someone in a room near us apparently in desperate need of a tonsillectomy. Perhaps they didn’t insulate as thoroughly in the 1800s. The air conditioning worked well, but Dom woke up with a bit of a sore throat as the AC blew directly onto the mattress from its position high on the wall and I was warm and too stubborn to turn it down.
Our breakfast the next morning was as good as dinner the night before. Each table is set with a basket of pastries and breads. For the meal I opted for the apricot cream stuffed French toast and to my surprise, it was not excessively sweet, but airy and perfect. It does get to be a bit much about halfway through, but well worth it. Dom’s rosette of smoked salmon topped with caviar came with a nice herb infused cream cheese. We were both impressed. I’d also recommend trying the sparkling wildberry juice, it’s bold and refreshing. Perfect for breakfast.
We rounded off our morning perusing the Grand’s lower floor, which contains its shops and historical displays – old-time weather stations, children’s play room, candy and tea shops, china hutches, grand pianos, beautiful sitting rooms with views of the Straits. Then we checked out for an afternoon of more of Mackinac Island’s famed activities – an 8-mile bike ride around the island’s coast, viewing caves and arches and rock covered beaches of crystal clear water, a walk up to the old Fort where we could walk through its buildings and enjoy lunch overlooking the entire island at a restaurant actually operated by the Grand but not included in the stay. We picked up some thank you gifts, fudge and artisanal soaps, for the family watching our little ones. We washed our trip down with a cold beer by the water with a view of the lighthouses and kite flyers before we headed back to the Ferry and on to our next adventure – a beer tour in Traverse City.
Our stay at the Grand Hotel was quick, enjoyable, refreshing and well worth it. We didn’t stay long enough to take advantage of some of their amenities, such as the Esther Williams pool, tennis courts, movies, etc. And while I’d never recommend paying for a family to just walk the porch, I would recommend going for a meal – you can eat there without staying a night and while the meal isn’t cheap, and you do have to pay the porch fee to access the restaurant — it’s a stunning property that is an experience along with the food, which is quite good. And if you can catch a special rate, I’d absolutely recommend experiencing at least one night at the Grand Hotel. It’s a great way to get away from the hectic life of parenthood and treat yourself to an occasion of dress up, good food, beautiful scenery on a unique island. And if you’re game for a family stay, there is plenty to occupy the kids either together as a family or off on one of the several children-only activities (yay, parents can get some alone time, including for meals). If you like historic hotels, you’ll love this little trip back in time.
Know before you go
- Name: Grand Hotel
- Address: 286 Grand Avenue, Mackinac Island, MI 49757
- Phone reservations: 800-334-7263
- Season closing 2015: November
- Season opening 2016: April
- Nightly rate: Including full meal plans for breakfast, lunch and dinner $289 – $785 per person, per night for general rooms. You can also inquire about named rooms, suites and cottages.
- Children: 11 and under Free, 12-17 $59, 18+ accompanied by adult $139
- Special rates: Check the hotel website for specials such as an October night stay on specific dates for $128 per person, per night
- Web site: www.grandhotel.com
- Ferry: Shepler’s ferry offers discounted rates for Grand Hotel guests www.sheplersferry.com
- Children’s activities: www.grandhotel.com/activities/children/
- Stroller friendly: yes