MACKINAC ISLAND, MICHIGAN – Martha’s Vineyard without the traffic
It’s the Seychelle Islands without the bad expensive wine.
It’s Nantucket without the attitude.
It’s the San Juan Islands with warm swimmable water.
Mackinac Island (pronounced “mackinaw,”) is the little (2,300 acres) gem that sits a half-hour ferry ride from the tip of the Michigan mitten. In an ironic twist to the City of Detroit’s former power as the nation’s leading automobile manufacturer, cars are not allowed on Mackinac; transportation is by horse and carriage, bicycle, or foot.
While it’s still the summer haven of wealthy Chicagoans and Detroiters who built lovely (now $3 to $4 million) Victorian vacation homes along the Straits of Mackinac separating Lakes Huron and Michigan and thus very private, it also is home to what is known as the world’s largest summer hotel, the Grand, also known as “America’s Summer Place” and “Majesty on Mackinac Island.”
The Grand Hotel’s front porch, a little longer than one tenth of a mile, is claimed to be the longest porch in the world, and so famous that if you’re not a hotel guest, you must pay $10 for the privilege of stepping onto it.
The Grand, which opened in 1887, is a National Historic Landmark and was the scene for the 1979 film “Somewhere in Time” with Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour and Christopher Plummer. Nowadays, it’s the social scene for the 1,400 guests who gather each summer evening dressed in the required jacket and tie for men, dress or pantsuit for women, before they head into the main dining room which serves, along with its eight smaller restaurants, a total of between 3,000 and 5,000 meals per day. Last year the Grand said it served 26,000 pounds of prime rib and 16,000 pounds of fresh strawberries in the course of its season, which runs from April to October.
But it’s not the size that distinguishes this beautiful old structure that constantly undergoes state-of-the-art updating and maintenance. It’s the spirit of family that permeates the facilities and activities. “Yes, you can touch the antiques,” says Bob Tagatz, resident historian of the hotel, “we’re not a museum.” A children’s program – free to guests – runs throughout the summer every day which, on the Fourth of July weekend ratchets up to an all-weekend carnival climaxing with a family picnic at the nearby Fort Mackinac, complete with Civil-War-era costumed military men and their ladies and lawn games, reel dancing, rifle salutes to the flags of the once just 38 United States, and, of course, fireworks.
“Once you’ve spent a July 4th here,” said J. Todd Possett, a banker from Middleville, Michigan, “you have to return every year after.” He had brought his wife and their four children plus one boyfriend of his daughter Gracie, for their 41st July 4th weekend at the Grand. Similar to the owners of the Grand, four generations of the R.D. Musser family, Possett’s family are fourth-generation Grand guests on the Fourth. “My grandparents brought my parents and me here for the first time when I was five,” he recalled, “and we now know about 40 percent of the guests here.” His children, he said, have made fast friends with children they met at the Grand’s children’s program but their favorite thing about the place, he said, is “getting dressed up for dinner.”
That’s the only time you need to get dressed up here. Wear whatever you want for the swimming in the pool, tennis games, horseback or bicycle riding, croquet in the tea garden, walking the beach along Lake Michigan, or just hanging out on that amazing porch (when we asked the golf pro what the requirement for dress on their 18-hole course, The Jewel, he answered “We prefer you wear clothing.”) On this latest July 4 it seemed that all 1,400 hotel guests – including a bride and groom who had married at the Grand earlier in the day — were staked out in the white rocking chairs to see the fireworks show.
As the 30%-and-growing group of U.S. grandparents who vacation with their grandchildren, according to the Travel Industry Association of America, we traveled to Mackinac with three granddaughters aged 2, 5 and 7, and when we asked them what was their favorite thing about their July 4th weekend, they couldn’t decide between our suite of rooms, decorated in strong floral colors by New York designer Carleton Varney of the Dorothy Draper & Company firm – their mother said “This is the perfect little girl’s dream room” – or swimming in the Esther Williams pool with its resident rubber “caterpillar” and all-day free snow cones, or dressing up for the fancy dinner in the big dining room, or breaking away at one dinnertime for the children’s program which allows parents a quiet and elegant dining experience, or taking a horse and carriage back to the ferry going to the mainland.
What we loved most, in addition to the July 4th picnic at the fort, were the art galleries and views of the lake within the hotel; the hotel policy of “NO TIPPING’ placed prominently at the check-in desk; the indecision between the massive buffets or the menu that was resolved when waiters told us we could do both, no extra charge; and the smooth check-out system that, cruise-ship-style, took our luggage from just outside our hotel room, across the straits and right to the parking area on the mainland so that we could still play un-encumbered on the island before we – reluctantly – headed home.
IF YOU GO:
Hotel, Mackinac Island, Michigan 49757, telephone 906-847-3331 fax 906-847-3259
Prices range for special weekends, different rooms, American plan, etc. Our suite of two rooms and sitting room, most meals included, cost $791 per room for three nights.