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Grand Hotel Mackinac Island, Michigan - Where Time Stands Still

By Jay Clarke, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Jul. 16, 2006 - MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. -- Grand Hotel: Time stands still at this Mackinac Island, Mich., retreat

Somewhere in time, there is a place where the living is leisurely and lovely, where gentlemen and ladies while away summer hours in manicured elegance, where the genteel ways of yesteryear still hold sway.

That place is Mackinac Island, 15 minutes by ferry from mainland Michigan but decades away in ambience and attitude.

You realize that as soon as you step off the ferry dock. No buses, cars or limos await you; they're not allowed on the island. Your taxi is drawn by two horses.

Your carriage plods slowly along Main and Market streets, letting you savor downtown's panorama of turn-of-the-century storefronts. One-of-a-kind shops, restaurants, inns and taverns nestle together in the cozy downtown, some with hitching posts at curbside. A turn and your conveyance heads uphill past stands of blooming lilac trees to the island's premier destination, the Grand Hotel.

Indeed, grand is the right word for this hotel. Suffused with tradition, it is one of only 12 remaining wooden hotels in America. Dozens of rocking chairs line its famous 880-foot-long, colonnaded front porch. American flags dangle from poles along its facade.

Elegance is a Grand byword. A harpist plays for afternoon tea. After 6 p.m., gentlemen must wear coats and ties while ladies dress in their finest. The hotel's own orchestra provides big band dance music in the Terrace Room. A five-course dinner is served nightly by tuxedoed waiters in the lavish dining room, which can seat more than 750. A specialty is the hotel's signature dessert, a Grand Pecan Ball. More than 50,000 of them are consumed each season.


"Grand Hotel is a living, working museum, not history from the observation deck, not art and antiques from behind velvet ropes. It is, as the saying goes, the real thing," says Robert M. Tagatz, the hotel's resident historian.

For guests, the real thing is the step back in time they take when they reach Mackinac Island (pronounced Mackinaw, despite its spelling). Suddenly things seem less frenetic. You can't hurry anywhere because horse-drawn taxis clip-clop at maybe five miles an hour and take occasional equine rest stops. You sit in a rocking chair on the front porch without a worry about what's happening in the rest of the world. You dress for dinner and take your time about it.

But life on Mackinac is not all sedentary. Many guests rent bicycles to tour the island, most of which is a state park. A number go horseback riding or head for hiking trails. Golfers can choose from two courses (the only place where motorized golf carts are permitted).

Shopping is a major diversion. There are five fudge shops, 11 art galleries, three bookstores, a half-dozen jewelry houses and more than 50 other stores selling everything from moccasins and lace to old-time photos of you and your party.

While the 385-room Grand Hotel is the preeminent hostelry on the island, it isn't the only one. Mission Point Resort, with 242 rooms, is the second biggest after the Grand. Add to that another 40 hotels, inns and bed-and-breakfasts.

But the Grand is the island's grande dame, no question. Several presidents have stayed there, and their wives have been honored by having suites decorated in their personal styles. Even the Grand's serpentine swimming pool is touched with fame: It appeared in the movie This Time for Keeps starring Esther Williams. The pool is named after her.


It was another film, however, that really spread the word about the Grand. In 1980, the Christopher Reeve movie Somewhere in Time was filmed almost entirely on the island. While the feature received fair reviews, it became something of a cult film. Today hundreds gather every October at the Grand for a special Somewhere in Time celebration.

History has left its mark on the island in other ways. Fort Mackinac, built by the British during the American Revolution, stands on a hill with a commanding view of town and harbor. Its buildings, some dating to the 1700s, are open to visitors, who also can watch cannon- and rifle-firing demonstrations, attend a court martial reenactment and even take lunch there.

Close by is the Michigan Governor's Mansion, a residence set aside for the state's chief executive but open to the public one day a week.

Most of the island is a wooded preserve. It was chosen as America's second national park (after Yellowstone) in 1875; it became Michigan's first state park in 1895. Carriage tours can take visitors to some sites on the island, but bicycles are the best way to explore its many byways.

More than 500 horses work here during the season; they are taken off island during the winters, when temperatures here can drop to 20 degrees below zero.

The Grand itself, like most of the island, is open to tourists only from May to October, recruiting most of its seasonal help from Jamaica.

But it thrives, and the reason for its appeal, as the Grand's Tagatz says, lies in the island's uniqueness. Mackinac is a throwback in time, a place that has sworn never to have a bridge or cars, a place that covets the modes and manners of yesteryear, that savors and nurtures romance.

As Tagatz puts it, "We're selling a memory."


Copyright (c) 2006, The Miami Herald

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News. For reprints, email, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.

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