Mackinac (pronounced Mack-i-naw) Island is a 20-minute ride by ferry across Lake Huron from the Michigan mainland. At every landing the boat is met, as it has been for the past century, by a red-liveried bellman who calls out, “The Grand Hotel. All guests for the Grand Hotel!” And that’s when the real trip begins—back to an America of lazy summer days, endless green lawns and folks fanning themselves on front porches.
Back, in short, to the Grand. A beautiful 286-room Victorian wedding cake of a hotel, the Grand sports a front porch that lives up to its name—at 682 feet it’s the world’s longest and one of the reasons the hotel has survived to celebrate its 100th anniversary this summer. The Grand is the largest and oldest summer hotel in America. Celebrations, pyrotechnics and special events will mark its centennial, including the Democratic Governors’ conference this week, for which the party’s presidential contenders will be carried up the hill to that famous front porch in a horse-drawn surrey (no cars being allowed on the island even now, not even for them).
They’ll find a Grand made grander by a recent renovation—and no doubt bump into the man responsible, owner R.D. “Dan” Musser Jr., 55, who presides over the hotel’s 500 acres as his late uncle, W. Stewart Woodfill, did before him. Musser, notepad in hand throughout his 14-hour days (his scribbles are typed into an average 50 memos daily), oversees every detail at the hotel, checking the golf course, noting dusty light bulbs, supervising the 1,200 dinners that are served in the hotel’s six dining rooms. He does it all with the same sense of awe he felt when he first came to the hotel as a 7-year-old. “I had come off the farm and I had no sophistication,” he recalls. “It was incredible to me to see a whole dining room full of men in ties.”
Musser started out as a cashier in the hotel when he was a teenager, then worked his way through the kitchen and laundry to the registration desk. After he graduated from Dartmouth, Musser and his wife, Amelia, settled into a cottage near the grounds and raised their three children, who worked at the pool or the front desk or in the shops, in the Grand tradition. (Mimi, 27, now runs the hotel’s ten shops. Danny, 24, is reservations manager. Only Robin, 29, moved away; married, she works at the Northstar Hotel in Minneapolis.)
Hundreds of famous people have signed the register, including four Presidents (Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, JFK and Gerald Ford) and some more amusing types (Mark Twain and Jack Benny). Even Hollywood has recognized the seasoned glamour of the place. Esther Williams swam in the hotel’s serpentine pool while filming 1947’s This Time for Keeps; Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour filmed 1980’s Somewhere in Time there, though the hotel got better reviews than they did.
Over the years, fear of destroying the hotel’s nostalgic appeal made management postpone improvements and even repairs. Recalls Dan: “There were bare bulbs with pull chains in the middle of the ceiling. There were old iron beds with lumpy mattresses and bathrooms down the hall.” Adds Amelia: “The exterior was wonderful, but the inside was tawdry. There was not a pretty thing inside.” When the Mussers became full owners in 1979, they began a $15 million renovation, masterminded by celeb decorator Carleton Varney, who gave each room a period theme—and a bath.
Though the Grand Hotel now caters as much to the convention as the carriage trade (and boasts a 99 percent seasonal occupancy rate), it once more exudes a lazy air of refined elegance. The first guests shelled out $3 a night. It’s more expensive now, about $150 a night (including two meals a day), but many think that’s still a bargain. How much should it cost to visit a time before world wars and pollution and assembly-line hostelries? Have a Grand 100th birthday!