Mackinac Island's Grand Hotel

Grand Hotel and Golf Course, Mackinac Island, circa 1915.
Mackinac Island's Grand Hotel Offers a Delicious Summer Vacation
by Gregory Speck


In case you sometimes yearn to return to another more civilized era, the remote and atmospheric Grand Hotel on Michigan's tiny Mackinac Island might fulfill your quest.  The imposing but sedate grande dame quietly preserves an elegant but simple 19th-century lifestyle, when local transport meant arriving at the dock, far below the isle's hilltop Civil War fort, on a sail-powered vessel from across Lake Huron. 
 
Fort Mackinac was founded during the American Revolution.
Today as then one rides a horse-drawn carriage up the hill past the quaint village and manicured gardens toward the enormous 660-foot columned facade.  Over a century ago guests generally stayed for two months each summer, when the fabled Grand Hotel was patronized by the newly wealthy class that had been spawned by the Industrial Revolution. 
 
Those nouveaux riches vacationing tourists (by today's standard "old money") gladly paid the then princely sum of $5 a day for high-end room and board amid bracing fresh air, brilliant sunshine, and other sophisticated guests in search of romance, comfortably removed from their winter homes in the smoke-stack studded factory ports of the Great Lakes. 
 
Today one might spend the night for around $500, with superb dining in a glorious setting, dipping in the Esther Williams swimming pool, where in 1947 she and Jimmy Durante filmed This Time for Keeps, and all sorts of veranda games among the rocking chairs included.
The trailer for This Time For Keeps (1947), where
Mackinac Island's Grand Hotel and its pool play a starring role.
The trailer for Somewhere In Time. The Grand Hotel was immortalized in the 1978 film.
So swift was their rise to riches that from the 1830s until the 1870s, it is said, America had no true middle class, only the super rich and then all the rest of the people, who by financial comparison were simply lower class. While such titans as John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and J. P. Morgan were themselves driven to amass great fortunes, their sometimes profligate progeny preferred instead to spend it, thereby introducing the Gilded Age. 

Avidly pursuing the resort life of the leisure set, in 1887 they began arriving at Grand Hotel, some by sumptuous private railway cars to Mackinac City on the mainland peninsula, where they could take the ferry to Mackinac Island.
Steamer Algomah II, Railway Ferry Flying Between Mackinaw City And Mackinac Island Mich, 1937.
Others disembarked right in front of the Grand Hotel from gigantic and luxurious ships, having arrived aboard Great Lakes liners busily steaming among the regional cities. Fleets of these extinct leviathans once served Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago, and rivalled the British and French ocean liners in imperial scale and lavish decor. Indeed, it was the owners of the D&C Shipping Line who decided that building a great hotel at this very location would serve their business interests, and so it was undertaken out of strategic necessity, to accommodate in a social setting of the highest standards their upscale clients, who were travelling aboard their trains and ships during these boom times.
 
Astonishingly, Grand Hotel almost did not happen, for the contract to build it was put up for auction, and only one bidder at last emerged to seize the chance, as well as the crushing debt, since no one believed it could ever make a profit (that event at last took place in the 1940s).
One's first view of Grand Hotel is aboard the ferry from Mackinaw City, where the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan meet.
Upon arrival at the dock on Mackinac Island one boards a horse-drawn carriage for the leisurely ride to nearby Grand Hotel.
Above the little town sits historic Fort Mackinac, seized by the British during the War of 1812, and then used by the Union forces during our Civil War.
One's next view of Grand Hotel while riding, walking, or biking up the hill above the lawns and gardens.
One very daring Mr. Cassky bet the borrowed money, bought the mountain of lumber with which to build the wooden superlodge in the fall of 1886, and then slid it over the frozen lake ice that very winter, in order to have it all in place in the spring of 1887 for the 600 laborers he had hired to erect it by July 4.  
 
His contracted labor force threatened to go on strike if their wages were not tripled, but Mr. Cassky, ever the ruthless entrepreneur, called their bluff, pointing out that he could not then be forced to house or to feed them, or even to let them leave the island. Triumphant, he then put them to hard work 24 hours daily on three shifts around the clock for 93 days. Against all odds, Cassky's Bluff sprang into a 440-foot-long wooden palace ("it's not plumb, but it's solid"), which went up in time for his guests, who have never stopped coming. 
The eastern portico at the end of the 660-foot-long porch, reputedly the longest on earth.
Gardens abound around the grounds, this one in front of charming cafes and seductive shops.
The imposing but welcoming edifice towers above one.
The red carpet is always rolled out at the front door. The scale of the front porch is quite breathtaking.
The magnificent facade above the carriage porte-cochere.
Strolling or rocking on the stately veranda is almost upliting. Gaming of all types is enjoyed around the resort.
Grand Hotel cost $250,000 to build back in 1887, and another $60,000 to furnish, though the vast interior was originally very basic and unpainted. When during the 1930's Depression the management introduced the Presidential suite, in order to lure FDR, they had to borrow the furniture from other rooms elsewhere in the huge hotel to appoint the empty space. Now it is 660 feet long, with 250 opulent rooms and suites decorated by legendary designer Carleton Varney, whose taste in the Dorothy Draper tradition turns every room into a gift-wrapped garden party birthday present. Then there are the lobbies and dining rooms, and ballrooms and terrace salons, and nightclubs and private restaurants, and massage parlors and heated pools ...
 
Gracious owner Dan Musser and his family, whose roots at Grand Hotel go back to 1919, keep this beautiful monument as the last privately held great American resort (there once were about 1,200 across the nation). Cinephiles know it was immortalized in the 1978 film Somewhere in Time, which after Gone with the Wind claims the second largest fan club in cinematic history. In that dreamy if ghostly movie, Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour tempt fate alongside Teresa Wright and Christopher Plummer, and their doomed love affair vividly captures the flavor of this vintage destination. 
Left: Carleton Varney, owner of legendary Dorothy Draper Design, has decorated the entire hotel in a triumph of self-expression. Above: The very hospitable Dan Musser family, who own and operate the wonderful Grand Hotel.
The lawns below Grand Hotel invite one to play croquet.
High tea is a favored ritual down by the enormous shrubbery.
The fountain at one of the rose gardens near the topiary garden.
One glimpses the garden cafe above the swimming pool.
The celebrated Esther Williams swimming pool.
The aquatic screen goddess filmed scenes here.
From the historic harbor Grand Hotel is a gleaming white neo-classical edifice that has somehow survived repeated threats of receivership, bankruptcy, and demolition long after the robber baron age. Even today it maintains a very special ambiance and station within the fading scene of grand old American resort hotel destinations, among which one might count The Greenbrier, The Homestead, and The Breakers, but how many others?
 
Along the way live musical entertainment was added to the high society mix, to complement the famously lavish cuisine and spirited athletic competitions, and during the Roaring Twenties wild dancing went on as if it were ritual. Prohibition represented yet another opportunity for the management, who soon established Grand Hotel as a renowned and classy playground for bootleg booze, which was delivered in baby carriages to fool the authorities, who thought they were outsmarting the bosses by searching the wagons. 
The main entrance lobby of Grand Hotel.
The same public foyer looking east.
One of several atmospheric restaurants of Grand Hotel, this one in a nearby golf lodge.
The main dining room.
The cuisine is superb, the service is splendid, and the atmosphere captivating.
One is constantly surprised by the glorious colors festooning every space.
The elegant Pontiac Room, the scene of private affairs.
The chic arcade of shops and cafes downstairs allures one with indoor/outdoor ambiance.
This comfortable lounge is popular for people watching with cocktails.
It was said that liquor flowed more freely than water in the pipes, and then there was the gambling, with roulette wheels concealed behind secret panels with peep doors monitored by anonymous eyes who knew the membership of the gaming club. There was even a decoy seamstress, who pretended to be sewing monograms onto towels, to deceive the police during their frequent raids of the private casino, which guests found irresistible.  
 
For those who might like to check out the unique and enchanting Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan, info is at 906-847-3331, while reservations can be made at 800-334-7263. Their website is also quite comprehensive.