Despite having grown up only 60 miles as the crow flies from Mackinac Island (pronounced Mackinaw), I have never seen the cult-classic movie Somewhere in Time, starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, that was filmed there in the eighties. However, the feeling of having stepped “somewhere” back in time is precisely what you get when you step off the ferry. Perhaps it’s to do with the clip-clopping of horses hooves on pavement as they pull their carriages, the occasional cannon fire from Fort Mackinac, all the bicycles with their chrome fenders and wide handlebars with baskets in front, or the sight of Victorian hotels and summer homes sprinkled along bluffs. Mostly I think it’s simply the sense of time slowing down and the complete lack of rush. This setting would be ridiculous if it were contrived, but Mackinac Island comes by its character honestly, steeped in history that long predates the Revolutionary War.
Mackinac Island, for the uninitiated, is located in the Straights of Mackinac between the lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan on the Lake Huron side. Motor vehicles are prohibited on the island and have been since 1898. Methods of transportation include bicycles, horseback or horse-drawn carriage, or your own two feet.
I visited Mackinac many times growing up, but almost always as a day trip. In fact, the only time I spent the night was after partying with some friends who were working there for the summer (but that’s another story). I have only fond memories of visiting the island: as a child with my parents, riding in a horse-drawn carriage for the first time, on my eighth grade class trip, with my first boyfriend in high school, with friends at the aforementioned party, with Phil when we were still dating, and then finally, last week with Phil and the kids. I always knew I would take my kids to Mackinac one day. As a girl, I dreamed about seeing it for the first time through their eyes, and once again, Mackinac Island did not disappoint me.
Soon after arriving at the docks, Phil and I bought the kids an ice cream cone and waited for a “taxi” (carriage) to take us to the Grand Hotel, where we would be spending the night. I’m sure I was more excited than the rest of the family put together. Staying at the Grand Hotel had been on my Bucket List since I first laid eyes on it as a child. The childhood longing I had to wander the halls, dine in the Grand style and take a dip in the Esther Williams swimming pool was no doubt magnified by the fact that, when I was a kid, non-guests were only allowed on the porch of the hotel. Now you can pay an entrance fee to tour the lobby, parlor and gardens (not including the pool), but back then – oh to stare down at that pool on a hot day from so far up. It was torture!
Finally, I got to walk through the doors and go deep into the hotel, which is literally a feast for the eyes. John Singer Sargent portraits hang cheek by jowl with historical photos and newspaper clippings detailing the visits of the Grand’s many famous guests. Dozens of crystal chandeliers hang above plush green carpet adorned with geraniums in the famous parlor, while every window provides a sweeping view of Lake Huron. The long white porch is lined with glowing red geraniums and American flags and is furnished with dozens of white rockers perfect for taking in the view. Look down and you see the impeccable lawn and gardens, and yes, the jewel of a pool that tempts (taunts?) with its serpentine shape. Every room in the hotel is unique. Ours was decorated like a old-fashioned peppermint candy and had a magnificent carriage-style balcony overlooking a bluff and Lake Huron beyond. So far so good.
Things unraveled a little that evening, however. Part of the “Grand” experience is dressing for dinner (our dinner photo is here), which Em had been looking forward to for weeks. Coat and tie for men and dresses or suits for women are required. We rarely dress up, living in “casual country” out West, so it seems almost quaint when we do. We had high hopes.
The Grand Hotel operates on an “all-inclusive” program. Your room and three meals are included in the price, no gratuities permitted. The end result of this system is a cruise ship atmosphere. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” to quote Jerry Seinfeld. That is, if a cruise ship experience is what you’re looking for. The cavernous dining room, while gorgeous, holds hundreds of people and turns over at least twice each evening, which leads to service that is abrupt, impersonal and rushed. You do not get the sense that is okay to linger over your meal, nor do you want to since the setting is anything but intimate. The meal itself was pretty decent considering how many people they feed, but the overall experience left us a little flat. And by “us” I really mean Phil and me. The kids were oblivious. We got similar clipped service from the porters and front desk staff or basically anyone of whom we asked a question.
So, would I stay at the Grand again? No. It’s definitely one of those things you do once for the experience. Am I glad I finally did? Absolutely! I still had that childhood sense of privilege to be a bona fide guest, and there is no denying that it is one of the most beautiful hotel properties anywhere.
The real treat came the next day when we rode with the kids on tandem bikes around the island (although the irony of denying them a swim in the pool did not escape me). Did I mention the spectacular weather we had? In fact, it was probably the best day in the history of best days on Mackinac. A cloudless sky draped over jeweled water so blue you’d think you were in the Caribbean. (Or you’d think that until you put your feet in the water and realized that the Great Lakes are a long, LONG way from the Caribbean Sea). Warm enough to take a dip in the cool clear waters and emerge with feeling still remaining in your limbs. We armed ourselves with a picnic that included lots of famous Mackinac Island fudge and made many stops along the way to enjoy the water and the scenery.
At one point, full of gratitude to bursting, I sang Bicycle Built for Two to Em as we pedaled together. The lyrics fit the day and the mood perfectly:
Give me your answer do!
I’m half crazy,
All for the love of you!
It won’t be a stylish marriage,
I can’t afford a carriage
But you’ll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two.
In fact, I think this picture of Jay captures the Mackinac trip perfectly:
As our ferry pulled back from the dock that day, Em sighed and said, “Someday I’m going to have a house here.”
I know the feeling.
The magic of Mackinac lives on, and I am grateful that I had the chance to share it with my children.Childhood, Family, Summer, Travel · Tags: Childhood, Family, Grand Hotel, Lake Huron, Mackinac Island, Summer, Summer Vacation, Travel, Vacation