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A Grand Experience on Michigan’s Famous Mackinac Island

horse-n-coach [1]ferry-dock [2]As I relaxed in my room at the world-famous Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, after a ten-hour journey from Atlanta, I suddenly realized what a challenging day it had been. I had endured a slow ride to Hartsfield-Jackson on the MARTA train early in the morning; a flight to Detroit on Delta; a layover; and then a prop commuter flight to Pellston, Michigan’s 50s-style terminal; a one-hour van ride to the ferry dock; a boat ride across the straits where Lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan join; and finally a horse-and-coach ride from the dock to the Grand’s majestic entrance. All in all, I had been traveling about 13 hours to get to a destination just one time zone away. It was time for a glass of wine on the Grand’s famous 660-foot front porch, to say the least.

Many renowned hotel properties fail to live up to their press releases, but as I would discover during my four-day visit, the world’s largest summer hotel, does not disappoint.

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Forget resort casual attire. It’s coat and tie for men and dresses for the ladies (only recently were pants approved) in the Grand dining room, truly a step back in time when guests dressed for cocktails and dinner each night when on holiday. But I had been invited to the Grand for more details on their wine and food program and to meet Executive Chef Hans Werner Burtscher and the new head sommelier, Sebastian Ruggieri – not to review the dress code. I know of no other single resort that pops more than 50,000 corks in just a six-month season.

I should note that the Grand, built in 1887, stands alone in formality on this historic island summer playground. The island hosts millions of visitors during the short summer season from May through October each year, and most bring shorts, tee shirts and flip-flops in their back packs and duffels. They may pay the small fee to tour the Grand’s lobby, but they won’t be visiting the Grand Dining room.

A stay at the world’s largest summer hotel (385 rooms) is not required for the chance to swim, golf, bike, hike, horseback rider, sail or fish the clear blue fresh waters of this tranquil jewel. There are plenty of hotels, B & Bs and a few other resorts throughout the few square miles of pristine island to fit any family’s budget. It takes just a couple of days to realize the soothing effects of life without the din of trucks and autos. The rhythmic clip-clop of the hundreds of horses passing by each day is truly tranquilizing. Cars have been banned since 1898.

Dining, Entertainment and Wine

With 12 restaurants and bars to choose from, The Grand can be as casual or formal as your mood dictates. Each has its own wine and bar program, and visitors will find various private dining rooms around the resort. A big part of the hotel’s tradition is live music from tea time to midnight throughout the hotel. Chamber music, live jazz, a harpist piano bar, even a full big band orchestra set the mood for dining in the style of a bygone era and at a pace as leisurely as the carriage ride into the village. All food and beverage is overseen by Chef Hans who is often responsible for over 4,000 meals a day – many of which are five courses or more. Chef Hans was trained in Austria and has been with the hotel since 1983 when he began as Chef Tournant. Wine guy Ruggieri has just joined the team for the 2009 season. His goal is to be the first MS from Argentina. And he writes for Vintrust, a slick wine magazine.

The Audubon Wine Room

chef-hans [4]I sat down with the team in the Audubon wine room to get more details on the Grand’s program and how to offer quality service in such daunting numbers during the season. Over a glass of Michigan sparkling (Mawby Vineyards), we discussed the program, which includes supervising 21 wine stewards on the floor in various venues. Later that evening, I would dine in the Silver service room with R.D. Musser III, Chairman of the family corporation that has run the hotel since 1933. The Audubon is the hotel’s landmark wine room, has its own special list and keeps a wide array of wines by the glass not necessarily available in other dining rooms.

“We have two very distinctive customer groups with different wine tastes,” Chef Hans explained.“Our family guests usually order wines, often by the glass, on an individual basis and require more service only when it’s a special occasion – which is actually pretty common. When they come here, it is often to celebrate something…and that calls for a special wine. Our other important customers are corporate groups, which tend to order bottles of wine and our more expensive selections.” Each season, the Grand serves more than 50,000 bottles of wine. From their own private label varietals by M. Trinchero (CA) to a $900 ’86 Chateau Latour and a $900 Chateau d’Yquem 1990 (375ml).

The Audubon, like the Grand itself, has a wine for every guest, from all the major wine regions of the world. And, like the Grand, it never disappoints, in service or in style, of another slower-paced and “Grand” era of the classic American resort experience.

Other Mackinac Island Lodging and Dining

Ron Brown

mack-island-homes [5]In addition to the Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island offers a wide variety of accommodations, including resorts, hotels, bed and breakfast places, historic inns, vacation condos and suites and cottages and homes.  I have stayed at several other places and particularly liked the Hotel Iroquis for its charming, intimate and romantic atmosphere and location very close to the water.  The Iroquis is a small, stylish deluxe hotel with 46 guestrooms and suites, all with waterfront views, a private beach, and one of the finest restaurants on Mackinac Island, the Carriage House.  You can enjoy an upscale medley of classic American cuisine, an extensive wine list, a full bar and nightly entertainment at the piano bar in a glass-enclosed dining room or on one of the outdoor waterfront verandas.  I consider myself a French Fry aficionado and the Carriage House’s French Fries rival those of Nepenthe, the restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur, whose Fries have always been my all-time favorite.

Other hotels I have enjoyed over the years  include the Victorian-style, 61-room Chippewa Hotel Waterfront, for its convenient location in the historic downtown, directly adjacent to the marina, and the 96-room Island House, overlooking Lake Huron, which was the first summer hotel on the island.  The 1852 Grill Room at the Island House is a popular restaurant offering fine regional cuisine.

The Inn at Stonecliffe, a small inn and hotel situated high atop the western bluff of Mackinac Island, offers grand views of the Straits of Mackinac and Mackinac Bridge.  The Edwardian-style hotel, originally a private home, is actually two buildings, Cudahy Manor with 16 guestrooms and Summer House Suites with 29 suites.  The Cudahy Chophouse is renowned for its steaks.

For more information: http://www.grandhotel.com [6], http://www.mackinacisland.org [7], http://www.iroquoishotel.com [8], http://www.chippewahotel.com [9], http://www.theislandhouse.com [10], http://www.theinnatstonecliffe.com [11].