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Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel: Just May be Your Father’s Hotel

Published in the Chronicle/Advisor

Mackinac Island is magical. The blue waters stretching between Mackinac City and the Island provide a buffer zone between everyday and holiday. We’ve made the trip four times in the past few years, mostly day trips including a very memorable trip with two busloads of fourth graders. Once, we stayed the weekend at a cute bed and breakfast. This time we booked a room at The Grand Hotel, and we were all a tingle with anticipation. This resort has hosted five U.S. Presidents, and now it was our turn to stay at the self styled “world’s largest summer hotel.”

Disembarking from the ferry and walking to the street, we started looking for The Grand Hotel taxi—horse drawn, of course. No cars allowed on the Island, adding to the time traveling sensibility. The antique wooden carriage, driven by a red coated driver complete with black top hat, was as advertised, except it was already filled. So we had to take just a regular horse drawn taxi. They meet all the ferries. In the summertime there are more horses on the Island, some 600, than full time Island residents (around 500). It wouldn’t have been a bad walk either, just up the main street with its six different fudge producers and through a charming residential neighborhood.

The Grand looms above the town, featuring the world’s largest front porch, where imposing columns frame dozens of white rockers and a multiple of American flags complete the pure Americana postcard. Built in 1887, the first view of the Grand is something special. From the porch, the view back to the Bridge is nothing short of spectacular. From the Cupola Bar at the top of the hotel, you can see all the way to tomorrow.

The Grand’s lobby was filled with folks who looked like my parents, those young 80-somethings, with a few 60 and 70 year olds thrown in to bring down the median age to 72. Don’t get me wrong, AARP sends me membership cards every month. I still throw them away without opening. I am closer to 80 than 20, but I still wasn’t ready for the overwhelming number of seniors standing in line to check in for their Grand Hotel package.

The grandmotherly feel continued in the décor of our room. White chenille bedspreads with large floral patterned wallpaper were supposed to remind the visitor of the Victorian era; instead it was more of the Grandma Eda era. Clearly our room was not in the Millennial wing where 42 new guest rooms were opened ten years ago. President Bush probably did not stay in our room. The beds were comfortable, and the room was large with a wonderful view out the back of the hotel to the wooded interior of the Island.

Since we were on a breakfast package and we wanted to try the famed Grand Dining room, we made reservations for dinner. All guests must dress for dinner, coats for the men, dresses or nice pants suits for the ladies. At, gulp, $70 per person, we were expecting the five-course meal to be memorable.

A phalanx of tuxedo clad serving staff attended us with care, asking for our menu choices and advising us on the selection of the right wine. Many of them had served in the dining room for 20 years, coming every season. The green striped chairs, white linens and candles set the atmosphere. The appetizers were tasty, and the choices for soups and entrees sounded intriguing.

The meal itself did not wow us.  The size of the dining room and the sheer volume of meals served made our choices seem assembly line like. Nothing was quite hot enough or cold enough, not bad but not spectacular.  It felt like a very elegant stop on a packaged bus tour, which for many of the guests, exactly described their two-day stop t the Grand.

After dinner, a coffee demitasse was served in the Parlor, accompanied by soothing harp music. Dancing ensues from 9:30 to 11:30 p.m. in the Terrace Room with the Grand Hotel Orchestra. Lovely silver haired couples cutting a rug, the very old fashioned away to describe dancing and a fitting way to sum up an evening at The Grand.

The next morning we set off to find the perfect fudge. At Mackinac Island that requires multiple tasting stops. They boast a Fudge Festival every August. We tried all six different shops, and found our favorite at Sanders, plain old-fashioned creamy melt in your mouth fudge. The chocolate mint was a hit at Joann’s. Kilwin’s does have good ice cream. It is impossible to imagine all the varieties from cherry to blueberry to rocky road and white maple at Murdick’s and Ryba’s. Truly your fudge fantasy can realized on the Island and for just a few dollars a half-pound.

For dinner that evening we decided to take a carriage back to The Woods, another restaurant owned by the Grand. The Tudor mansion featured a charming Bavarian vibe with roaring fires and the hint of wood smoke. We tried a variety of excellent German entrees including the Appenzeller Cheese, Beer and White Onion Soup and Käsespätzle, a noodle and cheese dish. The menu features non-German selections, like a delicious rosemary rubbed rack of lamb. The atmosphere is casual and fun. If we’d had time we might have tried America’s oldest operating duckpin bowling alley.

Just to balance all the rich food not to mention the fudge, a trip down to the gym and swimming pool was required.  The Esther Williams pool is a heated 500,000-gallon, 220-foot long serpentine-shaped pool. The sauna and two whirlpools as well as a nice sized workout room with all the necessary equipment and free weights are adjacent to the pool.

Leaving the Island is always bittersweet.  We won’t need to stay at The Grand again but there are so many other choices from the small bed and breakfast to the large resort. For those of you still wanting to try The Grand, they open for their 124th season on May 5, 2011.

The wind blows your hair on the ferry, the sun shines and you think about returning to the real world. Do I have to? Maybe I could stow away. But no, time to get back in your car and head back to reality.

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