Grand elegance on an island of car-free respite
By Chris McBeath
When a hotel bills itself as a living, working museum, you could be forgiven if images of straw mattresses, creaky floors and Great Expectations come to mind. Well prepare yourself. Tucked between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, Michigan boasts one of America’s most unique getaway jewels in Mackinac Island, and crowned with The Grand, one of the most historically significant hotels in the United States.
Barely 4.5 square miles, this tiny island is 80 per cent natural parkland with trails that wind through the forests and around the scenic lakeshore. Add to this, the island’s once strategic location and you find its small acreage packed with stories from the past. There’s the Indian influence - they believed the island was the birthplace of Michabou, god of all waters; as well as waves of different settlers which left behind their missions, churches and forts. There is a restored 18th century British fort, a recreated 19th century Colonial village, and turn-of-the-20th century Victorian architecture housing shops, galleries and beautifully crafted heritage homes.
All this, and not a car in sight.
That’s because when the first motorized carriage sputtered its noisy way onto the peaceful island in 1898, it caused such uproar that vehicles were quickly banned. Remarkably, more than 100 years later, the ban is still in force - horse carriages, pedal power and walking are still the only modes of transport allowed!
Then, as now, the Grand Hotel is the centerpiece of the Mackinac Island, and the main reason for the annual influx of more than one million island visitors. Tourism makes up for 99 percent of the island’s economy with fudge exports accounting for the rest.
Financed by two railroads and a steamship company, building the hotel was a cheaper option of using up over 1.5 million feet of island pine over shipping the lumber to the mainland. It rose from the ground in a record-breaking 93 days, advertised rooms for only $3, thus encouraging guests to stay the season, and made its money in the transportation costs of every guest, every entourage of bags and gaggle of servants, as well as off-island excursions.
The Grand’s history is deliciously colorful, and never more so than during Prohibition when it hosted many a libatious gambling soiree. Police raids always involved a water-crossing so by the time they arrived, rooms had been shifted behind ball bearing walls and roulette tables stowed beneath specially designed stairs, still visible today.
It seems that where ever you go in the hotel, there’s another story or intriguing fact. The Grand’s list includes five standing presidents: Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Gerald ford, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton; numerous movie credits, the longest kitchen ‘dirty dish’ conveyor belt in the country, and a signature dessert that clocks up 50,000 servings each season. Now isn’t that a history worth savoring?
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