The Grande Dames
America's greatest destination resorts balance the charms of the past with modern amenities
From the Print Edition:
Camilo Villegas, July/August 2006
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"We're not for everyone," admits Musser, 42, a third-generation proprietor of his 119-year-old throwback property, which is located on Mackinac Island between Michigan's lower and upper landmasses. "But those that enjoy it here really do. And as the world shifts away from all of that, the more unique we become."
It works here because of the setting. Mackinac, accessible only by boat and private plane, looks and feels like a Midwestern town on a July afternoon in 1900. Cars are prohibited, so horses fill the streets with the clip-clop of a bygone era. Bunting is everywhere, and fudge is the leading comestible. It seems like a Disney set, until you realize that Mackinac's inhabitants and guests are living it, summer after summer.
As a consequence, what might seem cartoonishly old-fashioned in another place suits the Grand. There's no real pressure to modernize because a thoroughly modern resort would seem out of place. By definition, the pace is slow. Sitting on what is billed as the world's longest porch is a major form of recreation. "The high-tech people come in and get stressed," says Bob Tagatz, whose duties at the property include serving as its official historian. "They say, 'Where's that taxi? This is like waiting for a horse-and-carriage.' That's because it is a horse-and-carriage."
This isn't the place for the à la carte mentality. Even the sundries shop doesn't open until normal business hours. The pool closes precisely at 6 p.m., though the Grand's position—an hour's drive from the Canadian border, and on the western edge of the Eastern time zone—means that early evening can be the hottest part of the day. For anyone setting foot in the lobby after that, semiformal dress is mandatory.
The Grand's clientele skews regional, with the vast majority from states that border the Great Lakes. These aren't world travelers, but families from Kankakee and Massillon and Muskegon, stepping back in time for the summer—or else conventioneers attending their Rural Electrical Cooperative or Railroad Maintenance & Industrial Health & Welfare Fund annual meetings. "We have people who come here and say, 'This has to be the most luxurious hotel in the world,'" Tagatz says. "I tell them, 'You don't get out much.'"
In truth, luxury at the Grand takes a back seat to verisimilitude. Televisions weren't added to guest rooms until 11 years ago—and they remain the size of those usually found in hospitals. When a new wing was added in 2001, Musser and his staff took pains to match as many details as possible to those in the existing rooms. It must be the only structure since the Kennedy administration built with exposed sprinkler pipes across the ceiling.
Unlike the vast majority of resorts in North America today, the Grand remains seasonal. (Last year's experimental March opening was the earliest ever, by two months.) Guests eat on the Modified American Plan, with everything but lunch included. Most guests still choose the formal dining room, a long, narrow hall that runs half the length of the hotel. There is something wonderful about gazing down the room at couples and families dressed in their finery, eating prime rib and Lake Michigan perch and vanilla ice cream with pecans, getting emotional as the band plays "Give My Regards to Broadway" and "God Bless America." It's the Music Man, come to life. If the dinner menu seems less ambitious than some, consider the restrictions of cooking for 900. "It opens at 6:30, and it's one push," says Hans Burtscher, who has served as head chef at the Grand for 12 of his 22 years there. "They're looking for quality. But when you do 900 a night, that's not cooking, that's catering." Burtscher notes that he has no gas stoves at the property, only electric.
And the Mackinac atmosphere also tends to limit his creativity. "We had a Mexican restaurant downtown, and it closed," he says. "Same with Italian. It doesn't fit with this island. I'd love to do sushi here, or really upscale Italian, but it's just not going to happen. This is a different world, and it has not changed in the more than 20 years I've been here."
That's not precisely true. When Musser started at his family's hotel in 1986, he expanded the wine list "to maybe 30 bottles," he says. Now there are that many selections available by the glass. He has discreetly added more than 100 rooms without altering the character of the property. This year, he instituted a dignified version of a breakfast buffet, with smoked salmon, Amish ham and other specialties. "Some of our old guests don't even like that it's there," Musser says, but enough do that it will return next summer. Cigars, while always available, really took off in 1996 when a humidor was added to the Audubon Wine Bar. (The selection includes 1940-vintage Gurkha Select Robustos from Cuba at $79 a stick.)
The seasonality of the property gives Musser and his staff ample time to consider every aspect of the operation. Most often, they decide to stay with how things are. The wooden-decked swimming pool, for example, has the feel of a Midwestern swim club during an innocent summer. Freckle-faced boys scoot underfoot, slurping Sno-Cones. It could serve as a microcosm of the entire hotel. "We looked at rebuilding the pool, doing the water park thing," Musser says. "And we ended up saying, 'Why?' We've got something that's a great experience that they're just not going to get anywhere else. And that's exactly what we're trying to do."
The Greenbrier White Sulphur Springs, WV
Nestled in the West Virginia woodlands behind a line of Georgian columns, the resort complex now known as the Greenbrier was already being billed as America's most historic hotel when the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway spent $150,000 to purchase it in 1910. Nearly a century before, when the resort was accessible only by stagecoach, the going rates at what was called the White Sulphur Springs resort were $1.15 to $1.50 a day.
Tom Cruise paid a visit in 2003, but the hotel—set near the Virginia border, just a short plane flight from Washington, D.C.—is far more likely to play host to senators, cabinet members, even presidents, than movie stars or other celebrities. History suffuses the halls of this 228-year-old institution. The original outdoor pool, since replaced, was built in the 1950s at the behest of Vice President Richard Nixon, whose daughters, Tricia and Julie, wanted to swim after sunbathing. During the Second World War the hotel was requisitioned for use as an Army hospital. And had nuclear fallout threatened Washington at any time from 1960 through the end of the Cold War, members of Congress would have reconvened inside a secret bunker underneath a wing of the property.
But for the occasional guest, none of this is nearly as important as the role the Greenbrier plays in local history. For generations, it has been the most prestigious—and dependable—employer in a downtrodden region that still looks much as it did in the 1940s. Gardeners, maids or waiters fortunate enough to get a job here don't merely want to hold it, says Ted Kleisner, the hotel's president. "They want their kids to have a good job at the Greenbrier, just like their own mom and dad did." Of the 1,800 employees, more than 250 have been working there at least 25 years. About the same number still have a relative on the payroll. Eighty percent were born and raised in the area.
That gives the Greenbrier a local feel. Your server at breakfast is far more likely to be named Brandi than Pierre. "One of the old traditions that permeates this resort is that of Southern hospitality," says staff historian Robert Conte. "This magnificent place is filled with pretty homey folks, who say things like, 'Need some more coffee, honey?'"
The continuity of staff means that returning guests are greeted by familiar faces, no matter how long they've been away. That helps mitigate the feeling of change in the air. For make no mistake, the Greenbrier is changing. "The pace of change has picked up in the last few years," says Conte. "It used to be that the way we presented ourselves was as a timeless place. Well, that doesn't work anymore."
The old swimming pool was replaced last year by an infinity pool—with underwater rock music—that directly abuts the 18th green of one of the golf courses. New homes built along the course and beyond are part of the Greenbrier community. Even the 1830s-era cottages, which line the lawn behind the stately main building like the world's most appealing writer's colony, have wireless Internet access. The integration has been seamless. "Time has greatly changed the White Sulphur; doubtless in its physical aspect it never was so beautiful and attractive as it is today, but all the modern improvements have not destroyed the character of the resort," wrote Charles Dudley Warner in his 1886 novel Their Pilgrimage, and the same sentiment remains true in 2006.
The feel of the hotel continues to evolve as the clientele changes. Today's executives are more likely to come with spouse and family—and are less inclined to wear a business suit on a weekend evening. "The Greenbrier remains a very formal, very genteel resort," says Conte, sitting in an ornate side parlor that has hardly changed since the 1940s. As he says it, however, a guest clad only in a bathing suit and sneakers walks through the room and out onto the second-story porch. "You never would have seen that even a few years ago," Conte admits.
After more than a century of welcoming guests on the Modified American Plan, à la carte dining arrived at the beginning of this year. "I believe we were a bit behind the curve when it came to that particular element," says Kleisner. "We intend to fast-forward rather quickly." Kleisner envisions a half dozen or so restaurants of varying types, offering varying levels of formality. Not having to serve hundreds of guests simultaneously from the same kitchen can't help but raise the level of the food, though it's likely the existing formal dinner service—offered to guests in a Carleton Varney dining room festooned with nineteenth-century portraits—will survive in some fashion. "For many guests," Conte says, "part of the whole Greenbrier fantasy is the idea of dressing for dinner."
Conte has been employed by the hotel for a quarter century, in part to insure that the rate of change isn't too rapid. The resort remains the property of the railroad, which is now called CSX Corp., offering a continuity of ownership all but unmatched in North American resorts. Each month, Kleisner meets with a group representing employees of 25 years or more of service to make sure that the hotel's long-term interests are being prioritized.
In addition, consumers are constantly polled for their reaction to every aspect of the Greenbrier experience. Stay just once, and you'll get questionnaires on why you came or why you have stopped coming for five years. Within the first few hours of each first-timer's arrival on the property, a member of the concierge staff will call to facilitate any needs. "We're trying to be all things to all people over a 12-month season," Kleisner says.
Not that you'd call the clientele eclectic. Recently, a dozen or so Republican senators convened for a political strategy session. After dinner, several of them—including Richard Shelby of Alabama, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia—wandered upstairs to the Old White Lounge.
You had to be a C-SPAN junkie to know which ones they were, however. Nearly every man in the room that night was middle-aged, with white or gray hair, and wore a conservative business suit. If each wasn't a Republican senator, he sure could have passed for one.
Bruce Schoenfeld is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.
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