On the ferry, a glistening white building dominates the skyline as we approach, the historic Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island on the northern tip of Michigan, one of the last remaining stately wooden luxury hotels which graced the American landscape, during the heyday of the railways a century ago.
I step back in time to a kinder gentler era, an age of horse-drawn carriages, strawberry teas and leisurely strolls around town, not a cell phone in sight. Only 600 people live here year round, although 1 million visitors arrive annually. Since 1898, no mechanized vehicles are allowed to disturb the tranquility; visitors leave cars at the ferry dock on the mainland.
We disembark at the sunny harbour in Haldimand Bay named after General Haldimand, a Governor of Canada. It's alive with sail boats, horse-drawn carriages and strollers along the picturesque main street. A liveried carriage complete with uniformed coachman waits to transport us to the hotel. Two smart black horses clip clop through the town and up the hill, a gracious start to our idyllic visit.
Built 1887 in the post Civil War days of gracious living, when steamships and railways were king and a room could be had for $3 a night, the Grand Hotel flourished for 123 seasons and in 2006, welcomed its five millionth overnight guest.
As we approach the grand facade with its bank of flags and gorgeous flowerbeds, we pass other carriages going down the hill and climb the steps to the grand lobby with its soft sofas and bright Empire style furnishings. The hotel has hosted presidents and celebrities, international government pow-wows, and was a secret hideout during prohibition days. Now it attracts families, golfers and discerning travelers looking for a slower pace. Open annually from May - October, although the hotel has modernized in recent years with several casual eating places in the extensive grounds, golf and other special packages like wine appreciation or murder mystery weekends, it has never lost sight of its dedication to an elegant leisurely lifestyle.
There's plenty to do both within the hotel and on the lovely grounds. Don't miss the historic lecture by resident eccentric and historian, Bob Tagatz. Who cares if history is embellished a little? There are several shops including an interesting garden store, a large sheltered swimming pool, 12 eateries, concerts, dancing with a live orchestra after dinner, extensive gardens and woodland walks, bicycles and horses for hire, croquet and golf.
Lilacs, peonies and a mass of flowers tumble out from the gardens of the colonial style cottages. In the market area, once centre of the fur trade for both Michigan and Ontario, several original buildings survive and provide costumed interpreters. Sample the old style fudge shops, boutiques and bars, or take a carriage tour around the island.
Fort Mackinac is older than the Grand Hotel, built by the British in 1780 during the American Revolution, serving as a strategic location that guarded the Great Lakes for 115 years. Part of Mackinac State Historic Parks, the restored fort is located at the highest point on the Island, well worth a visit where you can take a guided tour, explore the historic buildings and watch troop re-enactments on the Parade Ground during the summer.
There's a strong connection between the Mackinac region and Canada. Once the native Indians crossed the narrow straits to trade their furs, and now, Sault Ste. Marie and northern Ontario is less than an hour away across the scenic Mackinac Bridge. Visitors no longer arrive by steamship and rail; instead it's an easy journey by car
Tess Bridgwater is a travel writer who lives in southwestern Ontario, not far from Oxford County. She writes for the Record and other publications in Kitchener/Waterloo County, national magazines and is a member of SATW, the Society of American Travel Writers.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/