Mackinac Island's Grand Hotel - Travel Writing Workshop Central
Magical Mackinac Island: Enjoy the Culinary Delights of The Grand Hotel as You Try Travel Writing
By Kim Schneider
It’s just past 6:30 p.m., and a well-choreographed dance is evolving around the dining room of Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel in Lake Michigan.
On the pillared porch just outside, a hotel photographer snaps a quick last-minute picture of a couple waiting to come in—she in a red halter dress, he in a fashionably dark suit—laughing with friends as they pose.
As a horse-drawn carriage clip clops past (no cars are allowed on this island intentionally stuck in the elegant Victorian era), two men sitting in suits make a quick finish of their flutes of champagne and start up from their Adirondack porch chairs, while inside, a small boy in a white seersucker suit and blue bow tie sits tall under a gilded chandelier at a family table bedecked with a white tablecloth and fine china.
A waiter in tuxedo and white gloves presents a bowl of heirloom tomato bisque, a dish that looks as lovely with its center heart shape-in-cream as had the chosen appetizer of crispy jumbo shrimp.
“Anything else?” he asks with a huge grin and Jamaican accent, as live orchestra music wafts from the other end of the room. “Your wish is my command.”
If this is not a dream, it is clearly an occasion, and that has been the case here for 126 years and counting.
The hotel’s trademark five-course dinner is a centerpiece of the every unforgettable evening at The Grand Hotel, and it’s just one highlight of a first-ever weekend getaway package offered this October, the Try Travel Writing Weekend. This package isn’t just for foodies—though writing about food is one of the topics covered in the travel writing/photography learning vacation.
Fine dining is part of the Try Travel Writing weekend at The Grand. The workshop allows guests to experience travel at its finest and most story-worthy, but also to learn how to capture that experience like a pro.
Those who’ve wondered how professional travel writers and photographers begin a career or hobby writing for magazines, newspapers or blogs will learn how they could do that, too, as they travel alongside expert instructors and access island experts and experiences generally only available to the working travel media, says instructor Janis Turk, a full-time travel writer and photographer and a contributing editor at GoNOMAD.
The three-night, Friday-Monday long-weekend package, booking now at www.trytravelwriting.com
includes helpful workshops on travel writing, be it for a career, hobby or simply a peek into the travel journalism lifestyle.
The weekend includes a hands-on workshop with a professional travel photographer, who will share secrets on how to get the best travel shots and accompany guests on photo shoots around Mackinac Island.
Also included are several activities on the Island in addition to The Grand’s formal dinners, full breakfasts and champagne welcome reception.
The price for the workshop weekend of covers everything but transportation (via ferry and horse-drawn carriage) and includes a three-night stay with meals at the posh Grand Hotel.
The package makes a luxury stay with unforgettable meals and an interesting writing workshop a good value for all travel aficionados, says Turk—not just today’s equivalent of the Victorian elite, for whom the Grand Hotel’s renown culinary tradition began.
The root of the hotel’s tradition of luxury hearkens back to the era when the newspaper society page could dictate destination’s success, notes hotel historian Bob Tagatz, one of the scheduled workshop speakers.
Score a mention of a visit by a Vanderbilt or other wealthy industrialist to your hotel and your continued existence was pretty much guaranteed, for so was a visit the following season by their high-society friends.
At the Grand, those lengths from its inception revolved around food and the formal dining experience preferred by that crowd but not expected in a region presumed rustic and wild. One historic menu lists a full 90 items available for order.“Competition for wealthy Victorians during summer season was intense,” Tagatz said. “To attract the cream of the crop, you had to go to incredible lengths.”
Keeping quality high, often a challenge then, was assured by having employees work in stockyards, Tagatz said. They inspected, then branded the meat, searing the initials GH into the best cuts, then placing them on lake ice in railroad cars for transport to Michigan’s north. A menu from July 1890 included dishes popular at the time such as tenderloin of beef, larded with mushrooms, salt pork with spinach and mutton with capers.
An early general manager, James Reddington Hayes, further evolved the romance by adding live music, dancing and lectures by the likes of Mark Twain.
The formal dress code persisted through even the free-spirited 1960s, when a legendary Barbara Walters interview on the front porch included a suggestion that then-owner W. Stewart Woodfill “get with it.” His reply, Tagatz said, was: “I spend thousands to decorate the place. I have a simple rule. Guests will decorate themselves.”
At the center of today’s dining experience Burtscher is not just a working chef; he’s a teaching chef, too. is Executive Chef Hans Burtscher, who has headed the hotel kitchen for 30 years. Each night, he and a staff of more than 100 execute one of the more challenging dining feats anywhere — preparing 5,000 courses, much of it fresh fish or produce that arrived that morning on a horse-drawn dray.
And the Austrian-born chef with smiling eyes says he wouldn’t have it any other way. “It keeps you happy. I don’t get bored!”
After recruiting chefs and culinary students from around the world—this year, the Philippines, Mexico, Thailand and India—he has just a few weeks to train them on the workings of the kitchen and the unfamiliar foods.
They prepare meals on electric stoves—gas had to go because of the potential fire hazard in the wood-framed hotel. And that’s done only after he accomplishes a task akin to crystal ball reading.
From a list of guests in the house, particularly the groups, he must predict what to order. If a hospital association is in the house, he says, he typically gets 350-400 orders of fish; a normal night, half the diners tend to instead opt for the prime rib.
Seasonal quantities are staggering. In its 2012 season, the Grand served 9,000 pounds of prime rib; 102,500 pounds of potatoes; 6,400 pounds of bacon; 42,500 pounds of strawberries and 6,000 pounds of pecans—most of that crafted into the 60,000 Grand Pecan Balls served as dessert.
He’s learned some lessons the hard way—such as not adding poached lobster to the menu unless you’re prepared to poach 700 in a couple of hours. What hasn’t changed, he says, is what he most loves about the job—that the dining focus is all about the customer.
“People who come here want to get dressed up,” he said. “That feeling of being important when you come into the dining room, that’s the difference. This hotel, we want our guests to feel they’re No. 1.”
HOW TO BOOK THIS GRAND WEEKEND
The Grand Hotel is home to this year’s fall Try Travel Writing workshop weekend—its best value offer—at the height of the autumn color season in Northern Michigan this October. That month is a quieter time preferred by many island travelers and still great for outings such as golf, downtown boutiques, art galleries and fudge shops, or an excursion to Fort Mackinac.
- What: Try Travel Writing workshop weekend at Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel www.trytravelwriting.com
- Where: The Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island, Michigan www.grandhotel.comReservations: Book at www.trytravelwriting.com Did you know? Mackinac Island is pronounced MAK-IN-AWby locals. The name may have come from the Menominee American Indian word for turtle, Maehkaenah.Some websites claim that Native Americans in the Straits of Mackinac thought the shape of the island looked like that of a turtle, so they named it "Mitchimakinak" meaning "big turtle."
Kim Schneider is a full-time travel and food writer whose writing has appeared in Parade Magazine, Midwest Living, AAA Living, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Newhouse News Service, Midwest Wine Press and several other newspapers and lifestyle email@example.com