The Grand Hotel: A Trip Back in Time

Built in 1887, the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan has served as the prime destination for the Midwest’s most successful businesspeople for hundreds of years. It sits perched on the tallest bluff on the island, a perfect, central location that allows for a panoramic view of all eighteen square miles and the surrounding Lake Huron. Approaching the island by ferry or personal watercraft — the only possible mode of transportation to the Island — the Hotel is the first thing that comes into view. Its clean white pillars and enormous wraparound porch emerge easily from the background of Northern Michigan forest and a classically colonial town below.

It has been the setting of countless romance novels and murder mysteries. Within its elegant walls, it has hosted the debutante daughters of fur tycoons and giants in the lumber industry. Before air conditioning, high class families traveled north to the Grand Hotel to escape the heat of Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland. It is the definition of affluence, splendor, and excess. Teenage girls clicked around the island in their full skirts and umbrellas, with carriages awaiting their very command. To a degree, the scene remains the same today. Mackinac Island has no cars, no advanced machinery, and a very small permanent population of about four hundred. The residents have worked tirelessly to attempt to maintain the late nineteenth century glamour of the Island as tourists invade in amazing numbers every summer. Heavily influenced by Native American and French culture, Mackinac was intended to become a fur trading base. After the War of 1812, Mackinac fell under American control. Built by the French soldiers during the Revolutionary War, Fort Michilimackinac remains a tourist hub to this day and serves as a reminder of the Island’s real history that has paled in comparison to more recent luxury vacations of the idle rich.

The Grand Hotel is a scene out of a storybook. It is an opulent venue that, in 2018, still offers ballroom dancing, polo, and afternoon tea. The only way around the island is on a bicycle or horse, and, as a guest, you are expected to dress the part. The Grand Hotel is romance, curiosity, and grandeur married on a single property, on a remote island in the middle of Lake Huron. It is the heart and soul of the island, and it is impossible to ignore.

In a story I read hundreds of times as a pre-teen, Donna Winters used the Island, and specifically the Grand Hotel, in a novel in her series “Great Lakes Romances”. The book specifically taking place on Mackinac Island is called “Mackinac”, and within it she details the romantic summer adventures of Victoria Whitmore, daughter of a wealth furniture maker from Grand Rapids, Michigan. She travels to the Island with her mother, intending to stay the summer to take advantage of the cool northern Michigan breeze up on the bluff where the Hotel sits. Shortly after settling into her spacious and elegant room, she meets her new love interest. The story goes on to describe a summer full of picnics on the grassy hills, horse-drawn carriage rides through the forest, fine china at brunch, and elaborate, expensive dresses that are changed by maids four times a day.

It was this story specifically that first attracted my attention to the potential of the island. Although I had traveled there on many an occasion as a toddler and elementary school student, my middle school self became enlightened by the romantic, opulent nature of its history and the traits that the Grand Hotel still worked to maintain. At age twelve, on the ferry ride back to the mainland, I tugged on my mother’s sleeve. “Mom, I’m going to get married at the Grand Hotel,” I informed her. She let out a good-natured laugh and replied, “Are you sure? Don’t you think it’s a little old-fashioned?”

But “old-fashioned” was exactly the adjective that drew me in. At twelve years old, I had fallen in love with the idea of a wedding party posing on the bright white veranda overlooking the town hundreds of feet below, the deep blue Lake Huron on the horizon but still clearly visible in the background of photos. Thousands of lilacs bloom and frame the Hotel from all sides. The incredible gardens with their tall grey fountains added to the careful, symmetric design of the grounds. It was a postcard setting, and I was determined that it would be my setting. I started to keep a journal that detailed all the components of my wedding, regardless of the fact that it was probably twenty years away, if even taking place at all. The Grand Hotel has a way of making its admirers think more about the tiny, seemingly insignificant details than more realistic parts of life you live every day. It removes you from your reality and places you into the alternate century it has saved through the years.

Lavish. Sophisticated. Grand. The Grand Hotel lives up to its name every day with their commitment to maintaining the past magnificence of life on the island for guests. They did it to me, at twelve. At seventeen, I still daydream about throwing that wedding reception under the crystal chandeliers in the ballroom of the Hotel or down in the soft grass of the gardens, under oversized white tents that flawlessly match the exterior of the building. The Grand Hotel doesn’t let you forget about it. The legacy of its founders lives on through the thousands of lives the Hotel touches each summer during high season; if you visit, there is no doubt you’ll be sent back to the 1890s, just as the little girl who first walked the manicured grounds and planned her wedding was and remains each summer at the sight of the regal structure that is the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan.

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