By Mollie Jo Swendrowski
I firmly believe that when a place leaves a profound imprint on your life, you leave a piece of your heart wherever that may be. If you have read any of my previous pieces it may have been clear that Walt Disney World holds quite a large piece of my heart, but there is a place a little closer that has a chunk as well: Northern Michigan, and more specifically, the Straits of Mackinac area.
Confession: I didn’t always love “Up North”. One bad camping experience in the U.P. post high school graduation (black fly season, anyone?) made me think I hated everything to do with being Up North. So when I first took a summer job in Mackinaw City during college most of my friends and family couldn’t believe that I, MJ, hater of all things Up North, was willingly going to spend an entire summer there. (I didn’t have a choice, really. Turns out college textbooks are expensive.)
My mind was changed about Up North after spending my first of three summers on the Straits of Mackinac. That first summer I worked for one of the ferry lines and lived and spent every day on the shores of Lake Huron with the Mighty Mac to the left of my house and a view of Mackinac Island straight ahead. I experienced so much growth that summer and re-discovered a fierce independence in myself, that that led to another summer on the boats and a subsequent one with Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. Whenever I am struggling in life, I have found that there is not much that being near water can’t cure, but the Straits seem to have a particular healing power for me.
Fast forward to a few months ago when I started writing these pieces with the idea to shed a funny light on being a single girl in her late twenties who lives with her parents in a small town (hi Mom and Dad, thanks for housing me!). So, naturally, within a month of that idea I met a boy, because that’s just how my life works.
One weekend Adam (the previously mentioned boy) and I took an impromptu trip to Harbor Springs, just because it sounded fun and we had nothing else to do. While there we met up with one of my greatest friends Up North, Ellyce, and her also new boyfriend, Mitch. The four of us visited Pond Hill Farm for...
...lunch and a little wine tasting. (Side note: if you have NOT been to Pond Hill, finish reading this piece, go immediately, and get the Garlic Pepper Jelly Cream Cheese Dip and thank me by bringing a jar back.) It’s rare, I have found, to find “couple friends” that click, but the four of us did and we were all glum that Adam and I had to head back downstate.
In fact, we had such an enjoyable time in those few short hours that we decided to take an overnight trip to Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island within three weeks. We added another couple to the fun, Nick and Carly, and booked the stay.
Now, if you are unfamiliar with Grand Hotel, let me fill you in on some fun facts. The hotel just celebrated its 130th Anniversary a few weeks ago, and has been owned by the same family for 85 of those years. It is home to the longest front porch in the world, and visiting is literally like taking a step back in time due to some of the traditions at the hotel. At 6:30 pm a dress code is enforced (gentlemen in suit coats and neckties, ladies in dresses, skirts, or a blouse and slacks) for the delectable five course dinner. Following dinner the orchestra plays in the Terrace Room and you can enjoy dancing, or if that is not your cup of tea, watching others dance. Not one of the 393 guest rooms in the hotel are decorated the same, and the Cupola Bar is host to one of the greatest views I’ve ever witnessed.
Even though I spent a summer working at the hotel, I had never stayed overnight as a true guest so leading up to the trip I was beside myself with excitement at the prospect of finally being able to do just that.
After what was arguably one of the busiest weekends I have ever experienced, Adam and I packed the car early Sunday morning and hit the road. We made it to Mackinaw City and met our crew at what will always be known as “The Clubhouse” to me, O’Reilly’s Irish Pub (dubbed so for the embarrassing amount of hours I’ve spent there), and then we all caught a ferry to the island. Seeing the Mackinac Bridge while crossing the Straits never fails to be exhilarating, and this trip was no exception. It is always fun to experience the island with people who have either never been, or haven’t been in many years.
Another fabulous thing about staying at the Grand and taking Shepler’s for transport is the fact that you leave your bags with the dockhands in Mackinaw City and then they magically appear in your room a few hours later. Since we didn’t have to haul luggage
with us, we trekked it up the hill to check in and enjoy the pool and some northern Michigan sunshine before dinner.
Once most of us received a sufficient sunburn we all dispersed to our rooms to prepare for dinner and reconvened on the front porch looking quite dapper for photos and drinks. (Grand Hotel photographers are available to take your photos, and then they are printed and available for purchase in the lobby the next day, which is quite convenient to avoid too many selfies.) Drinks on the porch led to the decision that we should partake in more drinks and we moved our party to the Cupola Bar to take in the aforementioned view while it was still light out. The Cupola provides a 180 degree view of the Straits, including the Mackinac Bridge, Round Island Lighthouse, and the occasional freighter, and it is positively breathtaking.
By this point we were all pretty hungry (Adam and I hadn’t ate since we left Grand Rapids so ravenous may be a better term for us), so we made our way down to the Main Dining Room. There are three rotating menus, and each night you choose an appetizer, a soup, a salad, an entree, and dessert from the available menu.
Now, ask anyone who knows me well: I love food. But, this is a copious amount of food. The kind of amounts of food that you don’t realize how much you’ve eaten until all of sudden you feel like a busted can of biscuits in a flowy dress.
I could go into detail on the menu, but it will only make me hungry. Just rest easy knowing that not one of us left that table hungry. I would dare to say most of us left uncomfortably full, but with no regrets.
The rest of that evening passed in a blur of classic Mackinac bars, live music, and a small amount of koala-ing, which is running full speed at a light post and wrapping yourself around it. (Koala-ing is not endorsed by myself, Near North Now, or probably anyone that has ever done it for that matter, so attempt at your own risk.)
The Grand is about a ten to fifteen minute walk from “downtown” Mackinac that is normally littered with tourists walking and not paying attention, tourists behaving erratically on bicycles and horses, locals just trying to get places without running over said tourists, and of course horses and carriages. But, if you ever find yourself staying overnight on the island, try to head out into the streets or to the lakeshore a bit later when most of the tourists have departed on boats and the ones staying are in bed (or a bar). The quiet is hauntingly beautiful and for a moment you are able to forget the current issues in the world and are transported back to a simpler time. Seeing the Grand lit up and still for the night with the backdrop of the bridge is a sight I have seen, but something about that picture on that mid-summer night will stay etched in my memory.
The next morning, I can’t lie, was a little rough, but most of us managed to fumble our way to breakfast. In my humble opinion, breakfast is the best meal of the day, and it is no different at Grand Hotel. You can choose from a menu, or a buffet, or both, which is a dream come true, really. Sadly after our meal it was time to pack up and leave our strawberry wall-papered room, but it was slightly easier knowing we were about to embark on a bike riding adventure. Before that could occur we naturally had to stop at the Pink Pony to enjoy a famous Rum Runner (or two) to get us back on track for the day.
Since it was still technically vacation, Ellyce and I picked up some libations and the crew took off. Tandem biking is not for the faint of heart, and definitely not if I am your back-up driver (sorry Adam). Also not for the faint of heart are the stairs to Arch Rock from the road, but again, the view is hard to beat. Sometimes when you look out into Lake Huron you have to remind yourself that you are not in the Caribbean.
We biked and basked in another perfect Northern Michigan day before it was inevitably time to board the boat back to the mainland and real life. Sigh.
That trip, while short, was one of those great blessings that makes you stop and appreciate the gift of living life freely with wonderful people surrounding you. It was proof that sometimes great friendship and companionship is not based on the time you’ve known a person, but rather the experiences you have together and the quality of the time you share.
For a girl who used to hate being Up North, it sure holds a big piece of my heart now.
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