Grand Hotel – Mackinac Island, Michigan :: Hotel Review

Admit it. There’s something irresistible about a luxury hotel that’s designated as a National Historic Landmark and situated on an island that’s home to the oldest state park in the US. And so I find myself taking a 20 minute ferry ride across Lake Huron to Mackinac (pronounced Mackinaw) Island in Michigan to experience the Grand Hotel.

Opened in 1887, when rooms went for $3-$8.50, the Greek Revival-style building is one of the few remaining wooden monolith hotels (in good company with the likes of the Greenbrier Resort in Vermont and The Breakers Palm Beach). Expanded 33 times over the years, it now claims to be the world’s largest summer resort (brutal weather on Mackinac Island only allows the resort to operate between May and October).

Today, the hotel–which was named on the 2006 Travel & Leisure list of 500 Top Properties–has 385 uniquely decorated rooms including 97 deluxe rooms and 52 named suites (to furnish them all, the hotel buys a steamer crate full of antiques to add to the property each year). There’s also a bowling alley, an 18 hole golf course, 50 acres of manicured grounds and a meandering, secluded pool where Esther Williams filmed scenes for This Time For Keeps in 1949.

The sprawling, stark white hotel manages to feel light and airy thanks to interior designer Carleton Varney’s touches throughout. A protégé of Dorothy Draper (and now president of the Dorothy Draper Company, Inc. and author of In the Pink, about Draper’s iconic hotel style), Varney was hired in 1976 to “warm up the place” (rooms were all originally the same austere white as the facade) and his festive eye can be seen in every nook and cranny. He seems particularly fond of honeydew colored sofas, sky blue ceilings and raspberry tinted walls. Even the elevator doors are painted the color of papaya.

Despite the fact that the island is covered in lilac bushes (the charmingly quaint annual lilac parade was going on the morning I arrived), the hotel displays an obvious preference for geraniums which feature in everything from carpet patterns to wallpaper motifs (most of which are designed exclusively for the hotel) to the slightly overpowering scent of the products in the bathroom to the 1,400 Yours Truly geraniums planted along the hotel’s famous 660’ long porch. This is Varney’s work again. Inspired by summers spent in New England, he chose the geranium as the official symbol of the hotel.

Cosmetic updates aside, change does not come easy to Grand Hotel, as evidenced in my room by the 12” TV (a recent nod to the times) and lack of air conditioning (something the hotel’s owners are reluctant to add anywhere in the building). But any homesickness for modern amenities is more than made up for by the fact that my open windows let in a lazy breeze from the lake along with the sound of horse hooves clomping along the town’s streets. Motorized vehicles were banned from the island in the 1920s and to this day everything—from tourists to UPS deliveries–is transported by horse-drawn cart, wagon or buggy (there are 500 horses on the island and only 600 year-round residents).

To further ensure that the traditions of the past live on, Grand Hotel hosts a formal high tea and enforces a strict dress code: skirts or dresses for women and jackets and ties for men after 6pm. Word to the wise: Be sure not to forget to pack a tie or you’ll be stuck wearing the garish navy blue polyester loaner with pastel horses running across it that the hotel keeps on hand, just in case.

As was customary of resorts in the past, full breakfast and a five-course dinner are included in the room rate and served in a massive dining room which can seat up to 1,400.  Three menus rotate through the week and feature choices like lobster bisque, syrah braised lamb shank, roasted eggplant lasagna and the Grand Hotel’s famous Grand Pecan Ball dessert, which is ordered by more than 50,000 guests a year.

Meals are saved from feeling like well-dressed cafeteria experiences by the attentive, but never-rushed service of the hotel’s dining room staff, 96% of which are brought in from resorts in Jamaica that are closed during Grand Hotel’s season. I was tempted to leave a little something extra for the waiter who graciously and discreetly bent a rule and produced a Riedel wine glass for me even though they are technically reserved for guests who order far more expensive wine than I did. Then I remembered the hotel’s strict no tipping rule.

Before and/or after you head to the dining room for dinner, find your way (getting lost is half the fun in this hotel) upstairs to the Cupola Bar for a cocktail or aperitif and gaze out across Lake Huron to Mackinac Bridge (the longest suspension bridge in the world until 1988) across the Straights of Mackinac and all the way to Lake Michigan beyond. It’s a view that will never go out of style.

Rates start at: $210 per person (open May to October)

Grand Hotel 
Mackinac Island, Michigan 49757 
Phone: (906) 847-3331

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The Mansion on Delaware Avenue – Buffalo, New York :: Hotel Review

“Allow me to explain why you won’t have to worry about a thing while you’re here…” With those soothing words, I am checked into The Mansion on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo, New York, where it soon became apparent that I certainly would not need to worry about a thing during my stay as every hotel staff member delivered the kind of attention to detail, pride in service and knowledge of the area that allowed them each to act as a Staff Butler—which is what they’re called.

The Mansion on Delaware Avenue is, indeed, on Delaware Avenue, right in the heart of one of the city’s most vibrant shopping and arts areas. And it is, indeed, a mansion. Built as a residence in the 1800s, the building has had a storied and somewhat checkered past (one theory has it that the building operated as a brothel for a while, complete with a discrete tunnel connecting it to one of Buffalo’s most distinguished men’s clubs). 

In 2001, after millions in renovations, the building, which is registered with the Historical Society, opened as a 28 room luxury hotel. The result is a carefully orchestrated blend of contemporary and classic. The original molding and ceiling details have been painstakingly restored but the rooms are decorated with carpets featuring big bold designs and thoroughly modern paintings and sculptures on loan (and for sale) from local galleries. The only time the proprietors seemed to misstep in their dance with contemporary and classic was with the cutlery, whose handles were so hiply curved that it was nearly impossible to use the knives, forks or spoons.

When I arrived at my Fireplace Premium room (unfortunately some of the fireplaces in the hotel are non-working) I was greeted by two awe-inspiring solid wood doors so massive that I could barely open and close them. The bathroom, which was big enough for a vanity stool to fit neatly by the sink, sported two types of Frette robes (one terry and one waffle weave, take your pick) plus a three-head shower, jet tub and one elegant snapdragon in a curved vase. And the eucalyptus, peppermint and rosemary scent of the hotel’s Essential Elements bath products was so addictive that I must confess that I took a bottle of the body lotion with me when I checked out and I’m hoarding it like the ambrosia that it is.

Other in-room features, like 18’+ ceilings, a motion-sensing light in the closet (that automatically turned on when the door was opened and turned off when it was closed), live plants, an insulated coffee maker and extremely flattering full-length mirrors (note to other hotels: the secret is to hang them or prop them against the wall so that the bottom comes out toward you slightly) were enough to make up for the huge portable A/C unit noisily working away in one corner of the room.

Rates include an eclectic breakfast buffet. One morning bagels and lox and yogurt and granola were on offer along with spring rolls and broccoli rabe, and breakfast is served on the pool table in The Billiards Room, one of the two ground floor drawing rooms. There is no in-hotel restaurant but the kitchen will happily deliver room-service 24 hours a day and  produces food so good that many of the area’s most elite weddings, reunions and other functions are booked and catered in the hotel’s event spaces. Perhaps because they don’t have an on-site restaurant, the hotels butlers will transport you to and from area restaurants free of charge–after they’ve made the reservation for you, of course.

Other charming complimentary touches include personalized stationary and calling cards and overnight pressing and shoe shine (a service I’m glad to see more and more hotels offering). Not to mention homemade cookies at turn down and cocktails on the house from 5-7 pm, though a few snacks to go along with the libations would make this event even more enjoyable and relaxing.

One evening, after a lovely glass of merlot in an equally lovely Reidel glass, I called on one of the hotel’s Butlers with a vexing dining question. In a city famous for its Buffalo chicken wings, where should I go to sample them? Of course the Anchor Bar was a must since they claim to have invented the things. But I wanted to conduct a head-to-head taste test. So, on the advice of the Butler, I headed to Gabriel’s Gate after sucking sauce off my fingers at Anchor Bar. My advice? Gabriel’s certainly has more space and a more restaurant-like atmosphere complete with a very relaxing backyard while Anchor Bar is, well, a bar with a restaurant area. But if it’s the food that matters most to you, head to Anchor where the wings were bigger, meatier and juicier. Then head back to The Mansion on Delaware Avenue and sleep it off!

Rates: $169-$325

The Mansion on Delaware Avenue 
414 Delaware Avenue 
Buffalo, New York 14202 
Phone: (716) 886-3300

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Hotel Monteleone – New Orleans, Louisiana :: Hotel Review

Despite what the Louisiana tourism commission might have to say on the subject, the number one reason to go to New Orleans is not Mardi Gras or the Jazz and Heritage Festival. Worthy as those annual events most certainly are, the best reason to visit the crescent city is to see, eat and do things that you can’t experience in any other place on earth, like sucking on piles of spicy crawfish after being invited to a boil by a complete stranger, or sitting next to a famous jazz musician in a tiny club on a Wednesday night and not even realizing it until he gets up onstage and begins to play.

While there’s no shortage of great hotels in New Orleans, the Hotel Monteleone offers something none of the others can: a uniquely New Orleans heritage and spirit that makes it the place to immerse yourself in more than just a deep tub and plush sheets.

Opened as a 64-room hotel in 1886 by an Italian cobbler named Antonio Monteleone, the hotel has spent the past 120 years expanding and glorifying itself into an architectural mammoth in the quaint French Quarter. Along the way, the hotel has attracted an illustrious roster of guests including William Faulkner (whose biographer has written that the Monteleone was the author’s favorite hotel) and Tennessee Williams, who wrote about the Monteleone in his play The Rose Tattoo.

Truman Capote took Monteleone worship one step further when he claimed to have been born there during an appearance on The Tonight Show (in fact, Truman’s parents were living in the hotel while his mother was pregnant with him, but she gave birth in a nearby hospital).

Such literary patronage prompted the Monteleone to name five luxury suites after writers who have stayed at the hotel and the Friends of Libraries USA recently designated the hotel a Literary Landmark—an honor shared only by New York City’s Plaza and Algonquin hotels and San Antonio’s Menger Hotel.

In a city that certainly loves its cocktails (even claiming to have invented the word), the Monteleone, and its famous Carousel Bar, is also a libation lover’s landmark. The bar, which is opulently outfitted to resemble a merry-go-round, makes a languid 360-degree revolution every 15 minutes. While you’re slowly spinning, the award-winning bartenders are busy inventing cocktails including the now-classic Vieux Carre and The Goody.

With all that history, it should come as no surprise that there are a number of  people who are reluctant to leave the hotel—even after they’re dead. Ghost sightings by staff and guests became such a common occurrence (especially on the 14th floor, which is actually the 13th floor), that the International Society of Paranormal Research camped out in the hotel in 2003 and claims to have confirmed the existence of more than a dozen resident spooks.

Too often, hotels with histories as rich (and long) as the Monteleone’s turn out to be fascinating, but faded beauties upon check in. However, the now 600-room Hotel Monteleone recently underwent a $65 million top to bottom renovation that poured an average of $75,000 worth of luxe touches (like marble baths and more square footage) and modern amenities (like internet access and safes large enough to accommodate a laptop) into each room. And it shows. The rooftop pool was also overhauled and is now a relaxing haven in the day, a romantic nook at night. The Aria Spa and a fully equipped gym (with spectacular views of the Mississippi River) polish off the thoroughly accommodating package.

Service is also a priority at this family run hotel and that became apparent as Cori, the most helpful bell hop I have ever encountered, happily hauled an embarrassing number of bags up to my room in record time (and remembered my name and greeted me with a smile for the duration of my stay). The cheery, knowledgeable, fast and efficient service continued when I called the concierge to get the phone number of the nearby Acme Oyster House. She immediately informed me that a private party was being held there that night then called the restaurant and confirmed that, despite the party, I would be able to get a table in the front room—and a dozen of their spectacular raw oysters.

The Hotel Monteleone may not offer each and every one of the services and amenities that global stars like the new W in the French Quarter (which looks and feels like it could be in Miami Beach or Chicago) or the New Orleans Ritz-Carlton (which has been closed since Hurricane Katrina and plans to open its doors in December, 2006),  but if it’s the total quirky, freewheeling, sometimes dark one-of-a-kind New Orleans experience you’re after the Hotel Monteleone is the only address in town—the perfect cocktail of luxury accommodation with more than a dash of authentic local flavor.

Rates start at $169

Hotel Monteleone 
214 Royal Street 
New Orleans, Louisiana 
Phone: (504) 523-3341

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Townsend Hotel – Birmingham, Michigan :: Hotel Review

If there’s one thing that’s sure to change your mind about the accommodation, food, and shopping options in the slowly-but-surely-reviving city of Detroit, it’s a night or two (or four) at The Townsend Hotel.

In the 16 years since its grand opening, the 150 room hotel has become the place to stay for visiting celebrities and sports stars (whom the professionally discreet staff refers to as “those really tall people”). It would be fair to say that the elite are attracted to the 2006 Conde Nast Traveler Gold List award-winning property because it’s a luxe, private haven in the swanky Detroit suburb of Birmingham.

But you don’t have to be trying to elude the paparazzi to appreciate the hotel and its location, especially if you’re a shopper.

The tidy, tree-lined, village-like blocks surrounding the hotel are home to a weeks’ worth of shopping for everything from chic and cheeky baby clothes to heirloom quality jewelery to gorgeous additions for your home and your closet. Think Lily Pulitzer, Design Within Reach, Nicole Miller, Waterworks plus dozens of locally owned boutiques bursting with charm.

All that credit card swiping and shopping bag hoisting is sure to work up an appetite. When hunger strikes, one of Detroit’s most passionately-loved local hamburger joints is just a few blocks off the main shopping drag. The tiny, no-frills Hunter House Hamburgers (you’ll eat sitting on a stool at the counter and don’t expect anything but burgers on the menu) attracts quick-snackers like you, flirting teenagers, harried moms grabbing take out for the gang and older couples who seem to have been eating there for years. Or grab a Greek salad and a Coney Dog (a Detroit invention, not aConey Island specialty) at nearby Leo’s Coney Island diner-style restaurant. Either option will have you fueled up and back in the shops in no time.

For a more elegant—but not stuffy—meal, don’t miss The Townsend Hotel’s Rugby Grille, recipient of a 2006 Best Restaurant award from the Zagat Survey. I’m still dreaming about the grapefruit segments stewed in lavender infused honey that I enjoyed one morning for breakfast.

Back in your room, the hotel has thoughtfully lined all the drawers so you can chicly unpack your new clothing purchases. And speaking of chic, bathrooms feature a Jacuzzi tub and L’Occitane and Bulgari bath products that let you soak in style. But the best part of the room is saved for last. In a world where hotels seem to have gone bananas for beds, the Townsend’s takes the cake with an extra-deep mattress dressed in Egyptian cotton sheet that can best be described as creamy (not too silky, not too stiff) and topped off with a  custom-made Italian duvet from Linea Roma.

You don’t so much get into this bed as melt into it, which makes it dangerously tempting to never get out again. But complimentary coffee with your wake up call helps—as does the lure of all those shops just waiting for you a few steps away.

Rates start at: $265

The Townsend Hotel 
100 Townsend Street
, Michigan 48009 
Phone: (248) 642-7900

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