Quentin stood in front of us in a tuxedo with a white shirt, white tie and a small notebook where he took down our preferences with a pencil completely consumed by his hand. Hot chocolate for my daughter. And a tall glass of sparkling juice. Tea for me. Lemon not sugar. And a glass of sherry.
We’d planned on starting the day early but the rain kept us snuggled in bed until mid-morning. It’s our third trip to Mackinac Island, Michigan in September. We’ve stayed overnight, and September is a good way to enjoy lower rates and the last of summer’s sunshine. But going up for a day seems to be an easy way to fit a trip into our busy lives. Our purpose for this trip was to have a special girls day. The pinnacle point in “special” was afternoon tea at Grand Hotel.
The day had other options that we dismissed without nicer weather including driving a carriage ourselves for an hour to explore the island and lunch outside at the Tea Room inside the Fort. We’ve used both ferry companies. And so this time she told me I could choose whether we rode, “the rooster tail or the other one.” I like using the online ticket buying of both Arnold and Sheplers lines. You save three bucks a ticket and you just flash your receipt at the boarding line.
This time we used Sheplers. We’ve had excellent service with Sheplers and I like their combo package of ferry tickets and carriage ride. The carriage tour takes you by one of the butterfly houses (Wings of Mackinac) and the Fort. If you want to see a good part of the island in an afternoon, this package is a good way to do it.
We got to the island at 2:00 hearing all the way up that sunshine would break through by then. It didn’t. Soldering on past window boxes in full bloom, we headed up to the steep hill to the Fort Mackinac. Walking past us, three soldiers from the Fort descended as the cannon demonstration thundered overhead.
Watching the time, we peaked over the banister to see one stalwart couple lunching outside in the Tea Room at the Fort. Serenaded by a fife, we circled the walls, until we came to the one where moving manikins re-enact the start of the War of 1812. “It looks so real!” exclaims my daughter. We toured the Capitan’s quarters, with special emphasis on the chamber pots. We revisited the fur pelts in the historical exhibit and took our own photo in the mirror display that declared we were now a part of the Mackinac Island history.
We headed down the hill toward Grand Hotel, jumping the puddles and reminiscing about last year’s visit. If our schedule would’ve allowed, I might have booked a room on the spur of the moment.
I was worried about making teatime and we hustled down the hill. It was a cold day for September and my daughter was happy to get the extra pair of her gloves I keep in my jacket pocket. We were greeted with two kinds of warmth inside Grand Hotel. After coming up the red carpet steps, the doorman waved us inside with a deep bow. We were immediately warm. And I noticed all the staff was smiling while they set out tea.
Her eyes as big teacups, my daughter chose a long kelly green velvet couch for us. A slight young woman with long blonde hair and a floor-length silver skirt carried a harp into the room. She made it look like it was made of Styrofoam and she played it with the same ease. Of course she played the theme to Somewhere in Time, the Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour romance movie shot on the island. She also played As Time Goes By (from Casablanca), Moon River and Blue Danube. She started playing at 3:30 and was still playing at 5:00.
Each seating area in the lobby had at least one or two couples. We were inspired to sit up straighter and I even convinced my daughter to use her napkin. It was then that Quentin walked across the room to us, towering. Indeed he must have been 6-foot-4-inches tall.
Shortly, we received great trays of teapots, tiny sandwiches and sweets. Even with the delicate bites, the spread seemed gluttonous and my daughter couldn’t finish all the sweets. (An aside: My daughter, at her tender years, noticed that men took the orders and the women then worked to deliver them. And while I understand the nod to days gone by, perhaps this practice should go the way of the chamber pots.)
Tea is $25 per person. It is included in your room if you’re a guest of the hotel. It includes tea or hot chocolate, a plate of sweets and a plate of savory bites. The savory bites included a cucumber sandwich, a mushroom cap filled with whitefish, locks, a slice of a wrap, a prosciutto and cheese sandwich and an egg salad bite. Sweets included a chocolate dipped strawberry, a chocolate cup with mousse, an éclair, a crème-filled pastry and a fruit tart that was my favorite.
We decided not to wear jeans. With the chilly weather, we dressed in corduroy and wool, and nicely. Many people joined tea in fleeces, jeans and university sweatshirts, coming in from a day biking, hiking and horseback riding—and some power shopping. Some sat in rocking chairs on the porch soaking up the sun, which finally came out for a half hour while we were inside. One couple tried to get a giggle out of their teenage daughter, pointing an exaggerated pinky out while they sipped tea. She was working hard to be unimpressed and I’m sure she’ll look back on the moment as a fond one with mum and dad.
There are a few touchable perfect moments. I’m not talking about the manufactured moments of ceremony like the kiss of the bride and groom, family Christmases or an over-candled birthday cake. Rather the accidental alignment of circumstances and mood to create something auspicious. For me, tea at Grand Hotel was one of those big moments. I still feel butterflies when I think of my daughter sipping her hot chocolate, speaking softly and growing up right before my very eyes.