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130 Grand Years on the Straits of Mackinac
By Tom Adkinson

straits of mackinac
Guests enjoy a game of bocce ball on the expansive front lawn of Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. Proper pronunciation is “Mack-in-aw.” Image by Tom Adkinson.

MACKINAC ISLAND, MI – In a world that has gone digital, chrome and glass, and high-tech, Grand Hotel in the isolation of northern Michigan has remained analog, white pine and decidedly low-key – and that’s just fine. It is celebrating its 130th year of hospitality in 2017.

Grand Hotel, which the hotel’s historian (yes, there’s an actual historian on staff) describes as “a little spot in the middle of the Great Lakes,” is a throwback not just to another decade, but to another era. It was built in a mad rush in 1897 to cater to the ultra-wealthy of the Gilded Age, and vestiges of that time remain.

Examples are the fact the island of which Grand Hotel is the crown jewel has no motorized vehicles (horses and bicycles reign), you dress appropriately for dinner (meaning jacket and tie for men) and musicians perform somewhere on the property from noon until midnight. The builder said he “wanted to hire more musicians than any resort on the Great Lakes” and that spirit lives today.

ken salmon
Grand Hotel maître ‘d Ken Salmon has been greeting generations of hotel guests for 43 of the hotel’s 130 years. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Grand Hotel is a massive structure – a gleaming white four-story edifice with 393 rooms built of Michigan white pine and dominating a ridge overlooking the Straits of Mackinac that connect Lake Michigan and Lake Huron and separate Michigan’s Lower Peninsula (think Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing) from the Upper Peninsula (think lots and lots of trees).

horse drawn wagon
A horse-drawn wagon (the island’s conveyance of choice for many) departs the portico of Grand Hotel. Image by Tom Adkinson.


For the uninitiated, there’s a great friendly rivalry between the few who live in the Upper Peninsula – they’re called Yoopers – and the many from the Lower Peninsula. The engineering marvel known as the Mackinac Bridge joins them, and Yoopers call those who live south of the bridge trolls.

If nothing else, guests of Grand Hotel remember the views of the Mackinac Bridge and the Straits of Mackinac from the hotel’s 660-foot-long front porch. It is said to be the longest porch in the world.

“Grand Hotel is a product of the Gilded Age, when money flowed like water for the leisure class that needed escapes from city life,” said historian Bob Tagatz, explaining that the hotel’s original 200-room configuration was built in 93 days by an army of 400 carpenters, not all of whom were particularly masters of their craft.

“Crooked but solid” was acceptable in the rush to open the doors, Tagatz said, which explains some of the hotel’s physical oddities.

Resort hotels of this nature, most built by transportation companies, were common when Grand Hotel opened. Tagatz said 1,200 of them existed in 1900. Today, Grand Hotel is one of only 11 to survive, which makes its 130th anniversary this year all the more special.

Getting to Grand Hotel is an intentional act. The closest metro airport is Detroit, almost five hours away, and there are smaller airports at Pellston and Traverse City. Even when you get close, the last leg of your journey is on a ferry. From the dock, it’s a 15-minute walk or a leisurely ride in a horse-drawn carriage to the hotel.

mackinac ferry
A high-speed ferry pulls out from Mackinac Island. In the background is the five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere. Image by Tom Adkinson.

While Grand Hotel was built for the ultra-wealthy, it’s within reach of a much broader swath of travelers today. You can golf, bike, ride horses, drive your own carriage, take nature walks, go kayaking, play bocce ball or simply sit on that expansive porch and admire the water.

grand hotel
Getting dressed up for dinner is not a burden at Grand Hotel. It’s an extra touch on a special evening. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Whatever activity you choose prepares you for Grand Hotel’s food. There are 14 restaurants, including a main dining room where maître ‘d Ken Salmon, a 43-year hotel veteran from Jamaica, is likely to greet you. A five-course meal awaits you, and you’d be foolish not to try the resort’s signature dessert at least once. It’s a simple dish of rich vanilla ice cream, glorious chocolate and chopped pecans served in a chilled pewter dish. The chefs make 50,000 of them each season.

Grand Hotel operates from the first weekend in May through the end of October and is staffed by 750 employees from 26 countries, all intent on helping you enjoy a respite from the pace of modern life.

“This is an idea that shouldn’t work, but it does,” Tagatz said.

Trip-planning resources: and

Published August 17, 2017

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