Michigan’s Summer Palace

Kristin Bienert, Michigan Travel Ideas editor, experiences the timeless classic Grand Hotel on tranquil Mackinac Island (no motorized vehicles allowed) for the first time during the Pure Michigan Governor’s Conference: Driving Tourism 2010.

As waves crash over the bow spraying the ferry windows, I’m glad I opted for a seat below deck. A voice comes over the speaker, but I’m too busy taking in the sights to listen. From here, the imposing five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge looks small against the vast blue water.

To the east, on an uninhabited island, I spot the red-and-white lighthouse seen in the 1980 movie, Somewhere in Time (filmed at Grand Hotel) starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. Mackinac Island comes into view. Summer cottages line the shore; on a bluff, the Grand Hotel stands out among the trees.

In less than 20 minutes, I’m on the island’s main street where horse-drawn carriages await passengers. Rental bicycle stands, gift shops, fudge shops, galleries, restaurants and lodgings fill pastel-colored buildings.

A courier whisks away my luggage. I wonder, how do they know which red suitcase is mine (no barcode tags/hand-held scanners here!)? Within minutes of checking in, my suitcase arrives. I’m beginning to understand why the Grand Hotel, the world’s largest summer place, has wowed vacationers for 124 years.

Each of the 385 guest rooms is individually decorated; I like mine, it matches my personality. Bold shades of emerald green complement the brightly colored flower wallpaper, which adds a subtle feminine touch. Even better, it’s on the third-floor above the main entrance with incredible views that include the Straits of Mackinac. Below, a few evergreen trees partially hide the 220-foot long Esther Williams Swimming Pool (she made her famous swimming movie there). It’s too cool to swim, but ideal weather for a leisurely walk downtown before dinner.

I check my watch and make a mental note to keep track of time; all hotel guests must be properly dressed (coat and tie for men, pant suit or dress for women) after 6:30 p.m. I admire that the third-generation, family-owned hotel maintains this tradition, yet stays modern in other ways (free wi-fi, in-room refrigerators and flat-screen TVs).

Every evening, attentive staff flawlessly serves five-course dinners in the elegant Main Dining Room. The fine china, adorned with red geraniums looks too pretty for everyday use. My dining companion tells the story of how you know it’s time to stop eating when you see the center plate decoration. I heed his advice until the fourth course arrives with almond-crusted Michigan whitefish and scallops. For dessert, I select the hotel’s signature Grand Pecan Ball. I tell myself, just one bite (a taste). I dig my spoon into the baseball-size scoop of vanilla ice cream making sure to catch the pecans that fall into from-scratch fudge sauce. Hmm, the sides are uneven, maybe just one more bite.

After dinner I head outside, where wooden rocking chairs line the world’s longest front porch. For the next hour I listen to the clip clop of hooves, crickets and other sounds of nature, wishing this night could last forever.

Kristin Bienert, Midwest Living’s Custom Media Editor, thoroughly enjoyed her stay on Mackinac Island and plans to return next month for Lilac Festival (June 11–20, 2010).