Century-old elegance on Mackinac Island Michigan: Access is by ferry, transportation is by horse and buggy, and the Grand Hotel, dating from 1887, is still grand.

Travel Q&A

January 11, 1998|By Jean Allen | Jean Allen,SUN-SENTINEL, SOUTH FLORIDA

Years ago, when we lived in the Midwest, we spent a weekend at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan. It was our first stay at a resort hotel, and we remember it as being very posh and elegant and the island as an old-fashioned place with no motor traffic.

The Grand was not new even then, so I suppose it is no longer so grand and we would be disappointed if we went back, although we talk about doing so. Can you tell us anything about the hotel and the island as they are today?

You wouldn't be disappointed. Mackinac Island is still old-fashioned, cars are banned, and the Grand is as grand as ever.

I visited last May. The Grand, beginning its 111th season (it opened in 1887), looked better than many new hotels I've seen and hardly showed its age at all. The white frame building's 660-foot porch was lined with rocking chairs and adorned with big pots of geraniums. In my room, one of 19 renovated for the 1997 season, red geraniums, the hotel's signature flowers, were stenciled on drawers, wardrobe and headboard.

Getting there is the same as in the 19th century: Take a ferry from the Michigan mainland, then climb into a horse-and-buggy taxi for the ride up the hill to the hotel. The Grand has a revolving schedule of redecorating some of the public rooms and 325 guest rooms every year. It's closed now for the winter but you can bet that a crew of decorators is at work.

The island is a hilly little limestone outcrop, three miles long and two miles wide, which sits on the Lake Huron side of the Straits of Mackinac, between lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. Guests at the Grand seem to do a lot of rocking on the porch, browsing through the lobby shops and visiting the Victorian-flavored downtown, the little community around the docks that has other hotels and guest houses, cafes, stores, and a fudge shop on every block.

You can see the island on a rental bike or on horseback, or you can take an island tour, as I did. Marvin Hubbard drove our carriage, which was pulled by two big Belgian horses named Jerry and Bill. It takes visitors up and down roads that are narrow and sometimes steep.

The golf course is worth writing home about. After playing the nine-hole Grand course, golfers hop on a carriage that takes them and their clubs a mile and a quarter to the back nine, the Woods.

We visited Fort Mackinac, restored and open for visits. The island became a frontier outpost in 1780 when the British moved an old French-built garrison on the mainland to the more strategic island, and it remained the stronghold of the Straits of Mackinac for 115 years.

Back at the Grand, there's a choice of croquet, bocci, duckpin bowling, horseshoes, softball and swimming. The Grand has beautiful gardens to tour, and high tea includes a concert.

All old-fashioned stuff, as is the Grand's strict dress code after 6 p.m.: "Dresses or very nice pantsuits for ladies, gentlemen ages 13 and over must wear a jacket and tie." In daytime, Bermuda shorts and slacks are OK and men can wear sport shirts "with collars." And like many older resort hotels, the Grand's modified American plan means that a big buffet breakfast and multicourse dinner are included in the room rate. An 18 percent surcharge replaces tipping.

I expected a mostly older crowd, but plenty of young families, most with kids, were there as well.

The Grand and most other hotels are open only from May through October, when the island's population shrinks to its winter norm of about 600. When the straits freeze over in the hard winter, supplies and people come and go by snowmobile from St. Ignace and Mackinaw City, the ferry ports. Oddly, snowmobiles are OK on Mackinac Island roads in winter. The only other motorized traffic are fire and utility vehicles and ambulances.

Arnold Transit Co. ferries operate frequently all day from both ports during the season. Mackinaw City has grown into a busy town with a long motel row and, coming soon, a gambling casino operated by Native Americans. Many visitors sleep there and take day trips to Mackinac Island. For information or reservations about the Grand, call 800-33-GRAND (334-7263).

Awhile back I read that some cruise liners were going to have single cabins at no extra charge. I am a caregiver for my wife and would like to take a vacation, and I think a cruise would be better than going by car. My wife has Alzheimer's disease, so if I go on a trip I would have to place her in a nursing home for a week. It would be expensive, so if I could get a single fare for a single room for a cruise, it would help. Do you have any information?

According to Cruise Lines International Association, which represents most major cruise ships, all or some of the ships of these cruise lines have single cabins: American Hawaii, Carnival, Celebrity, Commodore, Costa, Cunard, Delta Queen, Dolphin, Holland America, Norwegian, Orient, Princess, Regal and Seawind.

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