A step back in time with a few modern twists: The Grand Hotel in Northern Michigan
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Editor’s note: The Grand Hotel extended a complimentary two-night stay for TPG to experience the changes made at the property for the 2021 season. The opinions expressed below are entirely from the author and weren’t subject to review by any external entity.
When you ask someone to think about quintessential American towns for summer vacations, you’ll likely hear a list of East Coast classics.
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While it may not have the name recognition of Nantucket, Newport or Martha’s Vineyard, Mackinac is a treasured getaway for travelers in the Midwest — and especially people from the state of Michigan.
If you’re from the Great Lakes State, like I am, a visit to the island is more or less a rite of passage.
I visited for the first time the summer before seventh grade, when my biggest concerns in life included convincing my parents to buy me new Skechers sneakers and devising a plan to get out of my strict bedtime (even in the summer!).
I was thrilled to visit an island I’d heard so much about from family and friends. A place where cars aren’t allowed and things seem to be frozen in time.
The most exciting part, though, for a travel nerd in training like myself was the chance to see the Grand Hotel, a timeless property with a steadfast devotion to tradition.
Among Michiganders, at least, this resort is legendary, and a chance to stay there is something you simply do not pass up.
Much to my chagrin, I didn’t end up visiting the Grand Hotel during that trip. And I wouldn’t return until the tiny island “Up North” was nothing more than a quaint memory.
Visiting the Grand Hotel in 2021
The Grand Hotel — also known as “America’s Summer Place” — recently completed a significant renovation, including modest interior updates to public spaces and guest bathrooms, as well as a major reimagining of the resort’s pool and surrounding deck. For a hotel fiercely devoted to preserving its heritage, these things are a big deal.
When the hotel invited TPG to get a look at the updates, I jumped at the opportunity.
So, 16 summers later, I finally returned to the island as an adult (I use the term loosely) for my chance to visit the Grand Hotel.
What — and where — is Mackinac Island?
Long before it became a summer resort getaway, Mackinac Island was a hotly fought over piece of land. The French took the island from Native Americans who had lived there for centuries before Europeans arrived, and then the British and Americans fought several battles over it before it finally became part of the United States in 1815.
The island served as a pivotal link in John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company for decades and holds the distinction of being America’s second national park.
By the turn of the 20th century, the island had established itself as a resort destination, and numerous hotels (including the Grand) were built by rail and boat companies to handle the increased demand for travel onto the island.
Getting to Mackinac Island
It’s much easier getting to Mackinac Island today than in the times of arriving by steamboat or rail, but there are still logistics to consider when planning a trip.
There’s an airstrip on the island, which serves private charters and limited commercial service from the nearby town of St. Ignace in the Upper Peninsula.
Most, however, arrive on the island via ferry, from docks in either Mackinaw City (Lower Peninsula) or St. Ignace (Upper Peninsula). There are two main ferry lines shuttling people between the island and either peninsula: Shepler’s and Star Line. Each company has docks in both Mackinaw City and St. Ignace and boats run at regular intervals each day of the week.
If you prefer to fly, Chippewa County Airport (CIU) in the Upper Peninsula is about a 30-minute drive from St. Ignace and maintains daily Delta flights to both Detroit (DTW) and Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP).
There are more options in the Lower Peninsula, depending on how much you’re willing to drive after landing. Pellston Regional Airport (PLN) is the closest commercial airport to Mackinaw City, with a couple of daily flights to Detroit on Delta. From Pellston, you can hop on the Mackinaw Shuttle, which will take you to the ferry docks in about 20 minutes.
Traverse City (TVC) is about a two-hour drive from Mackinaw City but offers more service. That airport has been a major winner as a result of the pandemic, with nonstop seasonal flights to cities including New York (LGA), Boston (BOS), Philadelphia (PHL), Charlotte (CLT), Denver (DEN) and Dallas (DFW) in addition to year-round service to major hubs including Chicago (ORD), Detroit (DTW), Atlanta (ATL) and more.
The ferry docks in Mackinaw City are between a three- to four-hour drive from the major metropolitan areas of lower Michigan, including Detroit, Grand Rapids and Lansing, and can be reached in about six hours from Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee (via the Upper Peninsula) and about eight from Minneapolis (also via the Upper Peninsula).
You can purchase ferry tickets in advance or once you reach the docks. The boat ride is about 15 to 20 minutes each way from both Mackinaw City and St. Ignace, and treats you to some spectacular views of the Mackinac Bridge and Lake Huron.
When you arrive at the ferry docks, you’ll leave your bags with the workers of whichever company you choose to ride with. Since I was staying at the Grand Hotel, some magic happened behind the scenes and the next time I saw my bags, I was in my hotel room.
The island enforces a ban on motor vehicles with the exception of emergency services. Once you arrive on the island, you can either walk, rent a bicycle (if you don’t have much luggage in tow) or take a horse-drawn taxi or hotel shuttle to bring you to your accommodations.
The story of the Grand Hotel begins in 1887 with the completion of the Queen Anne-style resort.
It was originally conceived by a group of Midwestern railroad companies as a retreat for wealthy families of major cities in the region.
Five U.S. presidents — Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton — have visited the Grand, along with American luminaries including Mark Twain and Thomas Edison.
In 1947, it was the setting for the film “This Time For Keeps,” starring Jimmy Durante and Esther Williams (the resort’s pool is named after her) and was a backdrop for the 1980 movie “Somewhere in Time” with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.
The hotel was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989.
History is an integral part of the Grand Hotel’s identity — even to this day. It’s purposefully designed and presented in a way that transports guests to a bygone era.
It’s a place where change happens slowly and methodically. The hotel wasn’t fully air-conditioned until 2007, for example, and updates are made to rooms (no two are alike) individually or in small groups, ensuring each maintains its charm. And the hotel still enforces a dress code in the evening in parts of the property.
At any rate, any change made at the Grand is painstakingly considered before implementing to guarantee it doesn’t fall out of line with the hotel’s carefully guarded traditions.
Take a trip back in time
From your first glimpse of the Grand Hotel from the ferry ride across the Straits of Mackinac, you know you’re in for a treat.
The hotel sits prominently in the middle of a small hill. Its famous white facade and green roof emerge from the trees and set up a magnificent contrast with the deep blue waters of Lake Huron.
Pulling up to the hotel, whether on foot, by bicycle or by horse, you realize the enormity of the property and marvel at what a feat it was to construct such a magnificent building in the late 1800s in such a short amount of time (it only took 93 days).
You’ll be drawn immediately to the expansive porch — the hotel claims it’s the longest in the world at 660 feet. It’s outfitted with white rocking chairs, which make for the perfect place to read a book, sip a cocktail or simply gaze at the lake views ahead.
Unlike the megaresorts of today, the majority of the property’s public spaces are contained to two floors in the main building of the hotel. On one floor, you’ll find the Parlor, which is where you’ll really begin to feel as if you’ve stepped back in time.
The walls are painted a rich green, ornate chandeliers hang from the ceiling, intricate murals adorn walls on each end of the space and sophisticated drapes hang from the large windows.
There are rich jewel-tone velvet sofas and chairs, flower prints and cabinets containing pieces of the hotel’s history, from newspaper clippings to models of sailboats that used to ply the Great Lakes.
In the evenings, guests gather in the Parlor, dressed to the nines, to enjoy after-dinner drinks, listen to the soothing melodies of the hotel’s harpist and perhaps play a game of cards or backgammon with friends or family.
During the day, though, it’s a more relaxed occasion with guests congregating for coffee or tea before (or after) a morning bike ride or a stroll around the island.
The hotel has its own orchestra (yes, that’s right) that puts on a show each night in the Terrace Room. People gather after dinner and can partake in ballroom dancing or simply enjoy the music.
Peacock Alley sits directly in front of the Terrace Room and is one of my favorite spaces. I loved the gorgeous white-paneled doors set off by a ruby-red carpet and sofas clad with tropical foliage-print upholstery that span the entire length of each wall.
Tucked in a corner next to Peacock Alley is the Audubon Wine Bar, a quiet, cozy space to unwind with a cocktail or glass of fine wine after a day spent enjoying the balmy summer weather in Michigan.
The hotel’s Main Dining Room is also on the Parlor floor. It’s a massive space that features multicourse meals at set seating times, just like how it was done a hundred years ago.
Take the stairs (or elevator) down one floor and you’ll find a row of shops selling everything from bouquets of flowers to high-end resort wear, a cafe with grab-and-go snacks and an ice cream parlor.
It’s on this floor where you’ll find a room devoted entirely to the hotel’s Hollywood history, with memorabilia from both movies filmed here.
The hotel sits on a (very large) prime piece of real estate on Mackinac Island.
Outside and down a few dozen stairs you’ll find the resort’s lawn, which is where the property hosts wedding receptions and other events, with spectacular views of the lake and the Mackinac Bridge in the distance. When the space isn’t occupied, there’s a full range of lawn games available for guests.
It’s also where you’ll find the hotel’s “Secret Garden,” which I’m told is a popular place to pop the question to your special someone.
Here, you can get a reprieve from the hot summer sun, admire the stately property in front of you and even find special touches like depictions of the area carved into tree stumps by a local artist.
Closer to the water, you’ll find the Esther Williams Swimming Pool, which was the focal point of the hotel’s most recent renovation project.
Updates for the new decade
As I’ve mentioned, change isn’t something that comes often at the Grand Hotel.
Sure, the hotel makes improvements and enhancements, but usually, they don’t have a noticeable impact on the property.
This year, however, the hotel made the most significant update to its pool area in decades.
Before this season, the pool area was relatively cramped, lacking a sizable deck and somewhat enclosed by trees. Chairs were arranged on a grass lawn and guests had to descend a set of stairs almost directly into the pool. Food was served from a small gazebo.
After the renovation — which maintained the original shape of the pool — everything has changed. There’s now a waterslide, which is sure to be a hit with the many kids who frequent the resort throughout the summer. And now there’s a proper pool deck — and a very nice one at that.
One side has a tiered-deck arrangement, with several rows of comfortable loungers — some with Bimini tops — while the other has multiple rows of loungers and even proper tables and chairs at which you could share a meal with your family or group of friends.
The hotel added an infinity-edge, adults-only pool, which looks out over the main pool below and Lake Huron in the distance.
Also, there’s now a completely new building that houses the pool’s restaurant (which wasn’t yet open during my visit) as well as space for events.
Grand Hotel purists will say this renovation spoils the charm of the Esther Williams pool, which first gained fame after the filming of “This Time for Keeps” and has remained more or less the same since.
But, as the hotel moves through the 21st century and tries to widen its appeal to more travelers, I suspect the changes at the pool will be warmly embraced.
Back inside, there were more changes unveiled with the start of the 2021 season.
The aforementioned ground floor got a makeover, with a rethinking of the hotel’s boutiques and the addition of a new grab-and-go shop called Grand Coffee & Provisions that stocks everything from beer and wine to picnic baskets and blankets.
You’ll find a place to get coffee in the morning or prepackaged salads, sandwiches and wraps for a more casual lunch back in your room or on the go.
The decor on this floor is noticeably more modern than the Parlor upstairs, but it still fits in with the resort’s Victorian aesthetic.
Finally, the resort’s guest bathrooms received an update. While on the smaller side, I appreciated the brightness in mine, as well as the rainfall showerhead.
Despite changes, the charm remains
Of course, there’s never too much change at the Grand Hotel.
It’s built its reputation on its enduring charm and fierce commitment to maintaining the traditions started on the hotel’s opening day in 1887.
And for anyone worried that the changes introduced this year would feel like overkill, rest assured the hotel still stays true to its roots.
But perhaps nowhere is the commitment to keeping the turn-of-the-century feel more apparent than the hotel’s guest rooms.
Each room and suite is uniquely designed (no two are the same) to present a specific theme.
In 1976, the hotel hired Dorothy Draper & Company to complete a full restoration of the hotel and to decorate it in such a way that would reflect the history and grandeur of the property.
As a result, guests find rooms with ample color; historical memorabilia; whimsical, historically appropriate furniture; and specially curated artwork.
I was given Room 146, which turned out to be one-half of a very large presidential suite. As expected, there were nods to presidential history scattered around the space, starting in the foyer with letters and photographs of presidents and their wives.
In the main room, there was a gallery wall featuring presidents including John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. There was also a portrait of Woodrow Wilson and even a bust of our good friend Mrs. Roosevelt.
My room was large, with two (very tall) beds resting under canopy frames. There was a small seating area with a side table and two chairs as well as a couple of dressers and a closet — and absolutely no minimalism to speak of.
This style isn’t my personal cup of tea, and I would say there is room for some modernization that wouldn’t jeopardize the hotel’s commitment to its history, though I do appreciate the dedication to keeping the charm of the property alive to this day — it really did feel like I was staying in a different century. And its loud design choices make the hotel so special and keep people coming back summer after summer.
Dinner is a grand tradition
The Grand Hotel offers guests a whopping 14 restaurants and bars to choose from, each with a distinct vibe.
Of course, two days was not nearly enough to try them all, but I did get to experience the crown jewel: fine dining in the Main Dining Room.
This isn’t a typical restaurant along the lines of what you’d expect today. Instead, expect prescribed seating times, multicourse meals chosen from a set menu and a large, communal space where guests gather at the same time to break bread.
The only time I’ve experienced dining like this before was on Disney Cruise Line when I was a kid, but it felt exactly like what you’d expect from dining in the late 1800s.
Dinner in the Main Dining Room is a formal affair, with men required to wear a coat, tie and slacks and women required to be in a dress, skirt or pantsuit.
During my stay, the Main Dining Room was offering two seating times: 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., but at peak times, they may have three seating times. Each night I put on my Sunday best (and yes, I still struggle at tying ties), strolled downstairs around 6:30 p.m. to enjoy a drink at the adjacent Geranium Bar, which opens directly onto the porch outside, and then sat down for dinner at 7 p.m. sharp.
The dining room offers three rotating menus — the red, yellow and green menus — along with a kids menu and a dessert menu. Each has an appetizer, soup or salad and an entree, and you pick one dish from each section.
After you sit down, you can order drinks from your server or, if you prefer wine, someone from the hotel’s beverage staff will come over to present you with the extensive wine list.
The first night of my stay, the red menu was featured. I ordered the heirloom tomato terrine, roasted curried cauliflower soup and the fennel-crusted lamb chops.
Dishes came out promptly — almost too promptly — and I thoroughly enjoyed everything, though I liked the entree more than the appetizer, a pattern I noticed the next night as well.
For dessert, I chose the Michigan cherry cobbler, which was, in a word, sublime. I’m not even a big dessert person, but I wish I could eat it over and over again.
The next night was the yellow menu. This time around, I chose the hamachi crudo to start, a chicken consommé and the salmon en croute as my main dish. Again, it was all very enjoyable, but I preferred the soup and main course more than the starter.
For dessert, as much as I wanted the cherry cobbler again, I was told by friends who have visited the Grand numerous times that I must try the “Grand Pecan Ball,” a famous dish at the hotel. Once again, I was bowled over at how delicious it was and recommend to anyone visiting the hotel that they try it at least once during their stay.
After dinner each night, I made my way to the fourth floor to the Cupola Bar, set in the highest point of the hotel in its central tower, for a nightcap and to watch the spectacular Michigan sunsets (trust me, they’re incredible).
The Cupola Bar has two floors, and I went straight to the top — which has a new mural painted on the ceiling — to catch the best views.
You can also order bar-type snacks here, and it’s less formal than the Main Dining Room, so if you don’t feel like putting on your formal wear, this would be a great place to dine and take in the expansive views.
Breakfast is also served daily in the Main Dining Room. It was served buffet style, and, notably, guests were able to serve themselves, though the hotel did have plastic gloves set out for guests to use while handling the serving ware. I hadn’t gotten to enjoy a hotel breakfast buffet in well over a year, so I was delighted to see it in operation here.
One afternoon, after a walk around the island, I stopped at Grand Coffee & Provisions to pick up a salad to eat in my room while I cooled off in the air conditioning.
When and if I return to the Grand Hotel, I’d love to try out some of the other dining outposts — especially the Woods Restaurant, which comes highly recommended by many.
As I wrapped up my stay in the Cupola Bar, sipping a beer brewed specially for the Grand Hotel by Bell’s Brewery of Kalamazoo, Michigan, I took a minute to appreciate getting the chance to stay at this special hotel in such a special place.
It had occupied a lot of real estate in my mind growing up, but ultimately it took close to two decades after my first Mackinac Island experience to finally get my time at the Grand.
It was worth the wait. Even though its turn-of-the-century aesthetic isn’t what I’d typically seek out, this hotel just wouldn’t be the same without it. Eating dinner in formal clothing and following it up with listening to a harpist performance and watching ballroom dancing is certainly not something that happens at the new, trendy hotels of today.
But here, it’s just another evening — and it looks similar to just about every other one since the late 1880s.
Despite making some significant changes for this year, the spirit of the Grand remains alive and well. I surely hope it isn’t another 16 years until I get back to America’s Summer Place, but no matter how much time goes by, one thing is for sure: Not much will change.
Featured photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy.
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