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My Trip to the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island

by habituallychic

07 . 16 . 19

I saw photos of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Upper Michigan on Instagram last year and immediately put it on my must visit list. When I asked Michelle Adams who moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan about going to visit the hotel, she said it was a long drive from her house which meant I didn’t know when I’d get to see it in person. So it felt like serendipity when I was invited on a trip to the Grand Hotel for the Dorothy Draper School of Decorating with Carleton Varney in June.

I don’t think I’ve had a bigger response to any of my trips than this one. I heard from so many followers who had fond memories of growing up visiting the Grand Hotel each summer and others who loved working at the hotel during their summer breaks. Almost everyone mentioned the film Somewhere in Time which was filmed at the hotel and I had never heard of before. After my trip, I realized why it’s such a special place and how lucky I am that I was able to experience it too.

In 1886, Mackinac Island had become a summer getaway, but accommodations were limited so the Michigan Central Railroad, Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad, and Detroit and Cleveland Steamship Navigation Company form the Mackinac Island Hotel Company to build the hotel. According to Grand Hotel historian Bob Tagatz, they hired nearly 600 workers to build the 200-room, wood-frame hotel in 93 days. They chose the classic style with the columns that they said would still look good in 100 years and it still looks good over 130 years later.

One of the the most amazing things about Mackinac Island is that there are no cars on the island. There is an ambulance and firetruck but they are rarely ever seen. Instead horse drawn carriages and taxis carry guests around the island and up the hills. The area around the eight mile perimeter of the island is flat so it’s a popular place to bicycle.

One of my favorite things to do while getting ready each day was to watch the Grand Hotel channel that chronicled the history of the hotel. It was fascinating and I learned something new every time I watched the programs.

In 1933, W. Stewart Woodfill, who began working as a desk clerk in 1919, purchased the Grand Hotel and becomes sole owner. It was a rough time in history but the hotel luckily made it through the depression.

The signature Grand Hotel blue paint color is “Dew Kiss” manufactured by Pittsburgh Paint.

In 1947, This Time For Keeps starring Jimmy Durante and Esther Williams was filmed on the island and at Grand Hotel. The pool is now named the Esther Williams Pool in her honor.

Current owner R.D. (Dan) Musser joined the hotel staff of his uncle’s hotel in 1951. His uncle made him spend two weeks working in every department of the hotel so everyone knew there was no favoritism.

In 1960, Grand Hotel owner W. Stewart Woodfill appointed his nephew, Dan Musser president of Grand Hotel.

In 1976, Dan Musser decided the hotel needed a new design like that of the Greenbriar Hotel. His office called up Dorothy Draper‘s office in New York to invite her to the Grand Hotel to discuss taking on the job. They were informed that Dorothy had passed away in 1969 but a man named Carleton Varney had bought the company and would be happy to discuss the project. Carleton worked on the redesign with Dan and his wife Amelia and architect Richard Bos and the rest as they say, is history.

Carleton Varney and his staff at Dorothy Draper have personally designed all of the 397 guest rooms of which no two are alike. Some share the same fabrics and wallpaper but they are all unique. Guests get very excited each year to see their assigned room.

In 1979, the Mussers bought the Grand Hotel which makes it one of the longest running hotels owned by the same family.

Also, the Grand Hotel’s front porch, which is 660 feet long, is the world’s largest and is visible from the ferry as you approach the island.

Ninety-five percent of the 1981 film Somewhere In Time, starring Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour and Christopher Plummer, was filmed at the Grand Hotel while other parts were filmed at the theatre downtown and the island itself. It’s become a cult classic and people visit the hotel each year because of the movie.

Carleton Varney and his team refresh parts of the hotel each year and guests look forward to seeing what’s changed.

This was my room on the second floor facing Lake Huron. I recommend asking for a room as high up as you can and make sure it faces the lake.

The hotel was fully booked during my stay so we couldn’t tour of rooms. I tried to peek into some while they were being cleaned to see the different designs.

I watched part of Somewhere in Time and it was amazing to see how the current hotel looks so similar to how it did in the 1980’s.

The hotel opens the first weekend in May and closes at the end of October each year. It completely closes over the winter and sometimes the Dorothy Draper team have to visit the hotel on snowmobiles to measure rooms and plan for renovations. They stay at another hotel on the island that stays open in the winter.

I forgot to mention how to get to Mackinac Island. From New York, we took a large Delta jet two hours from LaGuardia airport to Detroit, Michigan. From Detroit, we took a Delta commuter jet one hour to Pelston airport in Michigan. From there, we took a shuttle van for a half hour to the ferry dock at Mackinac City. The ferry was 15 minutes to Mackinac Island where a horse drawn carriage was waiting to take us up the hill to the Grand Hotel. Our luggage was arranged by the shuttle and taken to the hotel by another horse and cart and brought to our room. If you don’t want to wait for your luggage, you could take it on the ferry yourself and in a hotel carriage or public horse drawn taxi to the hotel.

There is a small airport on Mackinac Island but it’s only big enough for puddle jumpers. You could park a private jet at Pelston airport and then take a small plane to Mackinac Island or take the ferry. I know this because there was a group of jet owners trying to get off the island on the day we were leaving.

On a side note, there were three of us on same itinerary from New York and we all had to check a bag and they all three made it to the Pelston airport. We had a lot of events and had to dress for dinner so we packed a lot of options so don’t be scared to check a bag if you can’t pack everything in a carry on suitcase.

When we arrived at the hotel, we ate lunch at the Jockey Club and then took a tour of the hotel with Rudy Sauders who works with Carleton Varney as a designer at Dorothy Draper. Rudy was the sweetest and answered a million questions and babysat us for a lot of our trip. It was fun to watch all the hotel staff great Carleton and Rudy everywhere they went in the hotel. They are beloved by everyone.

You may associate this wallpaper with the Beverly Hills Hotel but it was designed by Dorothy Draper first.

You can have a late breakfast or afternoon drink here in the Geranium Bar that also has seats outside on the porch.

I gasped when I saw the grand dining room. While the columns are mirrored, the room is not and it really does go that far back. It can seat 1000 for dinner and often does each night. You can also eat breakfast and lunch in this room. You do need to dress for dinner and men are required to wear a jacket and tie but there are other more casual places to eat on and off hotel property.

This back room can be closed off for a private event but it also seats guests during meals.

Carleton Varney manages to put so many bold colors and patterns together and make them work perfectly.

The Audubon Wine Bar has the most interesting history. During prohibition, the hotel was never dry because it sits 50 miles from Canada and boats would bring alcohol to the docks during the cover of darkness. They would hide it in the sewing room because they thought authorities would be less likely to search a dress shop. They used to hide bottles of hard alcohol in the coffers of this ceiling.

“Peacock Alley” leads to the ballroom and event space. If you check out my stories from the Grand Hotel, you can see wonderful videos of the performers and guests dancing.

The Cupola Bar has panoramic views of the Straits of Mackinac and the Mackinac Bridge.

The view from the Cupola Bar.

The Cupola Bar is two stories and allows casual dress.

The Jockey Club offers indoor and outdoor seating and also allows casual dress. We ate two lunches and two dinners here.

Honestly, you should take your own tour of the Grand Hotel to experience all the design details. I loved the artwork and jockey helmet light fixtures inside the Jockey Club.

We were so lucky that the weather was perfect during our visit. The lilacs also happened to be in bloom all over the island. I’ve never seen or smelled anything so beautiful. I will post my photos of Mackinac Island separately since I took so many and I know some of you may stay elsewhere on the island.

On our first full day on Mackinac Island, we took a long walking tour of downtown and up across the island. We made a stop at the Grand Hotel Stable and Carriage Museum which is definitely worth a visit.

I was surprised to learn that all the carriages in the museum are actually used at the Grand Hotel.

Carleton Varney also designed the interior of the Grand Hotel Stable and Carriage Museum and it shows in the colors. You can’t see it in this photo but there is an enormous red light fixture in the center of the room. Carleton bought it after the Dorothy Draper cafeteria at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art was removed to make way for the new Greek and Roman Galleries. I think they need to bring it back somewhere else in the museum.

Even the pool house received the Dorothy Draper treatment. It’s filled with movie posters of previous celebrity clients including Esther Williams and fun fabrics.

This greenhouse grows all the signature red geraniums on the hotel property. The geraniums on the porch are deadheaded every two days which is why they always look perfect.

If you’ve seen Somewhere in Time, you’ll recognize the tennis clubhouse. You can also play pickleball in addition to tennis.

Because Mackinac Island is so far north, it stays light until almost 11:00pm. I should also mention that the island is spelled Mackinac but it’s pronounced Mackinaw. Apparently it’s due to the the French and the British who occupied the area and spelled the old Indian name for the island in their own way.

On the Saturday of the trip, we attended the Dorothy Draper School of Decorating with Carleton Varney and his associates who all gave presentations.

Carleton is beloved by his clients and attendees because of his wonderful stories and talent.

I try to always think of this Dorothy Draper quote now when I want to skip an event in New York.

On Sunday morning, we started off the day with a tour with the Grand Hotel historian Bob Tagatz and Rudy Saunders who is a designer at Dorothy Draper. Bob figures prominently in the videos on the Grand Hotel television channel and tells amazing stories. One of the stories is that they found old guest logs and and in one of them was the name of the men involved in the World Series fix who was sent to the Grand Hotel to hide out.

After the tour, I took a walk up the West Bluff behind the hotel where some of the most luxurious homes on the island are located.

Cairngorm is a Victorian Cottage built in 1888 that is currently for sale for almost $6 Million. If you buy it, please invite me for a weekend.

Some of the private homes have their own stables and carriage houses.

Everyone tells you that visiting Mackinac Island is like stepping back in time but it really feels like stepping back to a more wholesome time. It’s a great place for families because they spend time biking and eating fudge and enjoying carriage rides.

In the afternoon, we ate lunch at the outdoor tearoom at Fort Mackinac which is also part of the Grand Hotel.

It’s another great place to bring kids of all ages.

And the view of the harbor is amazing.

We were also at the Grand Hotel to celebrate Carleton Varney’s new book Rooms to Remember: A Designer’s Tour of Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel which will be released on August 30, 2019.

Another highlight of the trip was our final dinner at The Woods which is another off property restaurant of the Grand Hotel. The Bavarian style restaurant is located back behind The Bluff in an “entertainment cottage” of another old house on the island.

There were so many beautiful details in The Woods included painted floors and wooden chairs.

The most special part of The Woods is Bobby’s Bar on the right side of the building. It features old blue ribbons won by the Musser’s prize winning Scottie dog Sadie. The ice cream shop at the hotel is also names after Sadie.

The pièce de résistance is the duckpin bowling alley which is the oldest operating in the United States and they actually let you play.

The saddest part of my stay was packing up my bags. You leave them outside your door and have them picked up and they are magically waiting for you when you arrive off the ferry.

It was slightly less depressing to leave Mackinac Island in the rain than it would have been on one of those bright blue sky picture postcard perfect days. The Grand Hotel and Mackinac Island were the prettiest places I’ve visited in a long time. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to return and I can see now why so many people have such wonderful memories of magical hotel and island.

All photos by Heather Clawson for Habitually Chic.

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