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 not only boasts one of America’s most unique getaway jewels in Mackinac Island, it’s a jewel crowned with a hotel that goes beyond expectations. In fact, since opening in 1887, The Grand has become one of the most historically significant hotels in the United States.
Delivering the unexpected could also apply to Mackinac Island itself. 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 per cent of the island’s economy, with fudge exports accounting for the rest.
Originally financed by two railroads and a steamship company, the hotel was, in fact, a cheaper way of using up over 1.5 million feet of island pine than shipping the lumber to the mainland. The idea was to create a cool summer haven for the Victorian elite, and a destination that would appeal to their lavish, over-the-top sensibilities. With summer fast approaching, speed was of the essence so, with some 600 workers putting in three shifts a day, the hotel rose from the ground and opened for business in a record-breaking 93 days. At $3 a night, rooms were deliberately cheap, which encouraged guests to stay the entire season. The Grand is, perhaps, the only hotel in history, to have been built to lose money since the company reveled in the transportation costs (rail and ferry) that were levied against every guest, their entourage of bags and servants as well as their occasional off-island excursion.