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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

A Grand time

Courtesy The Grand

From the moment ferry passengers cruise close enough to catch a glimpse of the gleaming white Grand Hotel and its 660-foot-long porch, set atop a hill on Mackinac Island, the Grand experience begins.

They disembark and begin their climb up the hill on foot, by bike or, for a  nominal fee, in an elegant horse-and-carriage taxi. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the island.

On the climb, they pass  topiaries, tulips and some of the 5,200 geraniums, the hotel’s signature flower, planted in beds on the manicured lawn.  When they reach the hotel’s front porch, said to be the world’s longest, 2,500 brilliant red geraniums in 260 planter boxes greet them. American flags flap in the breeze; dozens of white, wooden rocking chairs beckon them to sit a spell and look down the lawn to the Straits of Mackinac.

“The reason people like to meet here is because it is a memorable place,” said Ken Haywood, executive vice president and managing director.

The postcard-perfect setting, with service to match, is memorable for vacationers as well as meeting attendees, who account for 45 percent to 48 percent of its guests.

The hotel celebrates its 125th anniversary this year.  Built when wealthy Midwesterners stayed the summer to avoid the heat, it was one of some 1,200 wood-frame hotels constructed in the U.S. during that era. The Grand is one of about a dozen that remain — with an added sprinkler system.

“Grand is the largest summer hotel [in the world],” said R.D. (Dan) Musser III, president. “No one has ever refuted that, so it must be true.”

Musser’s family has been associated with the hotel since W. Stewart Woodfill became a desk clerk in 1919. Woodfill bought the property in 1933 and sold it in 1979 to his nephew, R.D. (Dan) Musser II, now chairman; he is the father of R.D. III and Mimi Musser Cunningham, who is vice president.

The family has preserved the hotel’s genteel past while they have added modern amenities such as free Wi-Fi.

Guests play croquet and bocce on the lawn, sip afternoon tea as a harpist plays in the parlor and dance nightly to a live orchestra in the Terrace. At dinner, men don jackets and ties, and women wear dresses or nice pant suits for meals in the main dining room.

“It’s part of our mystique,” said Haywood. “It’s an experience to have dinner at the Grand. Why would anyone take a ferry, then a horse and carriage to get to our hotel, and not want to dress for dinner? It’s a special experience that you’re always going to remember.”

At the same time, the atmosphere is not starched. ”It’s not formal; it’s traditional,” he said. “There’s a huge difference. We’re not fashion critics. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

While elegant, the hotel is whimsical, thanks to interior decorator Carlton Varney, who is the decorator for West Virginia’s Greenbrier among other hotels and resorts. Each of the 385 guest rooms is different, decorated with flair by a man who said that waking up in a brand-name hotel where all the walls and furnishings were the standard beige was like being “in a big bowl of oatmeal.”

Rooms at the Grand are more like Froot Loops than oatmeal, and even its meeting rooms are far from neutral. For example, walls of the 7,000-square-foot theater, the hotel’s largest meeting room, have bold pink-and-white stripes. The happy, almost circus-tent mood “works for us because we are a summer place,” said Haywood.

The theater is part of the 16,000-square-foot Woodfill Conference Center in the middle of the hotel. Just off the lobby, the two-story meeting area has six meeting rooms, and guest rooms are nearby.