October 22, 2008

Mackinac Island's Grand Hotel: The $10 Porch

From Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America:

We said goodbye to Judy and boarded the Arnold Ferry that took us out into Lake Huron and delivered us in a half hour to Mackinac Island. The place was gorgeous, privileged, and overflowing with history and tourists. We rode big, fat-tired Schwinns, ate ice cream, bought postcards, and walked the streets, marveling at the boys whose summer job it is to shovel horse crap from the streets of this auto-free island into yellow plastic wheelbarrows. Where do they put it all? The great blooms that blossom all over the island, in gardens and window boxes, must be helped along because tourists ride horses and horse carts through the roads and lanes of Mackinac Island, a beautiful fake fairyland, so stunningly perfect and impeccable that it hurts. Teams of Belgian draft horses delivered Pepsi, Fruit Loops and bottled water to the island’s inns and hotels. Hotel valet boys pedaled bicycles, piled high with luggage precariously perched in baskets, from the docks to the inns.

At the Grand Hotel, grand in this case being understatement, I tsk-tsked all the travel writers I’d read who’d written about this place, because they’d all left something out of their stories. The Grand Hotel, built after the Civil War in the opulent manner of resorts and refuges for the movers and shakers of the gilded age, boasts the world’s longest front porch. I’d read about and seen photos of the porch for years, and Dana, Adam and I walked up the loftier than thou hill the hotel commands for the sole purpose of sitting in a rocking chair and looking out over the Straits.

But a quick rock in a wooden chair on the world’s longest front porch costs 10 bucks a head if you’re not a Grand Hotel guest, something the travel writers failed to report. The approach to the Grand is regal and, if you’re not chic, moneyed, or willing to blow a chunk of your children’s inheritance on a few nights in this place, intentionally and successfully intimidating. American flags and mango-yellow awnings lined the broad, tree-lined, uphill approach which was dotted with signs that, among other genteel but firm directives, told ladies they weren’t allowed to wear “slacks.” (Yikes! The planning of a trip here involves the packing of skirts!) The horse carriages of the rich and wish-they-weres clopped by, the carriage inhabitants wearing a hint of smile as they looked down on those of us on foot. The ye-who-do-not-belong-amongst-us-must-pay-10-dollars-to-sit-on-our-porch signs started early, so you had the chance to hang it up, declare yourself a poor boor, and turn around, to forever wonder what lays at the top of that hill.

We made it, unimpeded, to the top of the driveway. The Grand truly was. We looked down on the garden lawn at the topiary and the registered guests playing croquet, the green Mackinac Bridge sitting beyond the lawn in the Straits, looking like the ultimate croquet hoop. We looked up at the great porch, most of the chairs empty and lined up, waiting for someone to sit in them and keep them company.

I saw two people in matching polo shirts. They were not smiling. I kept walking, looking at the superlative porch. I wanted to sit on it. I geared up for a challenge.

A polo shirt stopped me.

“Excuse me. Are you guests of the hotel?”

“No. We’d just like to sit on the porch for a minute.”

“If you’re not registered guests, there’s a ten dollar per person fee to enter the property.”

“Do you mean I really have to pay thirty dollars for my kids and I to just take a quick walk up there to the porch?”


“When I saw the signs along the driveway, I wondered how close we’d be able to get before someone stopped us. This must be the spot. From this point on, it costs ten bucks a head to walk on the hotel property?”


“So, this is the official line of demarcation. You’re the border guards. On this side of you, free. On that side of you, ten bucks a head.”


I laughed. We left. I loved and hated Mackinac Island.

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