Grand Hotel: How to save money while savoring the landmark resort

high-tea1Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel – unusual because of its appearance, architecture, attitude and location – soon goes into hibernation for six months. The Michigan summer resort, a National Historic Landmark, is among the Midwest’s most precious getaways.

It’s among the pricier, too, but there are exceptions if you know how to time a visit. Schedule a weekday overnight this month, and the overnight rate could be quite affordable, as in $310 per room for up to four people (the Fall Bed and Breakfast Package). Breakfast goes far beyond cold cereal and pre-packaged muffins.

During the height of summer, a weekend overnight will easily exceed $300 per person, although this includes three gorgeously presented and filling meals.

People come to the Grand Hotel for the food, the history, the celebrity (“Somewhere in Time” and “This Time for Keeps” were filmed here) and the outlandish color schemes. No two rooms look the same, and that is intentional.

Few wood frame hotels, especially of this size and age, still stand. When updates and changes to the 1887 building are made, a goal is to not have regular customers notice the difference. At the highest end of lodging options are Masco cottages, each two stories tall and four bedrooms. Stay one night for $3,350.

One of the more amusing offers for budget-minded travelers sold out almost two months in advance. The Close the Grand overnight on Oct. 26 (for $229 per couple) was a promotion to help shutter the 386-room hotel for the season. A part of the allure is the opportunity to pitch in and break a few rules.

Like what? Snooping in private hotel spaces. Getting deep discounts in hotel shops. Participating in the “parade of rockers” – carrying 100 rocking chairs from porch to storage.

These guests get a casual nibble and nip of the hotel’s finest as pantries and wine cabinets are emptied. They eat leftovers and can wear jeans to dinner (on all other nights, jackets for men and evening wear for women are compulsory in the Main Dining Room). They might take home a red geranium, the hotel’s signature flower.

To end the experience, hotel owners ring a bell and say goodbye for the season. Guests gather with employees, for whom this tradition is emotional. Then everybody scoots home.

So remember Close the Grand next year, but don’t rule out visiting this month. A satisfying overnight stay on Mackinac Island – which does not allow motorized vehicles – certainly does not require a stay at the Grand Hotel.

One alternative, the 1887 Windermere Hotel, is operated by island Mayor Margaret Doud. She was first elected in 1975, and you’ll be hard pressed to find another mayor in the nation with a longer term of service. windermerehotel.com, 800-847-3125

About 80 percent of the island’s 1,300 rooms stay open until the end of October, and rates begin around $85. A $5 horse-drawn taxi ride covers the fare from ferry dock to most of the hotels and bed and breakfast inns. mackinacisland.org, 906-847-3783

It is easy to get acquainted with the Grand without staying there. The most popular way, especially among day-only island visitors, is paying $10 to walk the hotel and its grounds; the fee counts toward the enormous and elegant, $45 luncheon buffet.

The hotel’s Main Dining Room gets the most attention because of lavish offerings, high prices and the evening dress code but it’s not the only unusual dining choice.

Hop a bicycle or carriage to Woods, a Tudor mansion with Bavarian décor that is set inside a forested area. It is home to unusual taxidermy and the nation’s oldest duckpin bowling alley. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, but the season closes Oct. 12.

What else? Grand Hotel’s signature dessert is the Grand Pecan Ball, a baseball-sized scoop of vanilla ice cream that is thickly coated with pecans and served on a pool of fudge sauce. Less expensive is a miniature version, served at Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor.

Sadie’s is named after the hotel owners’ Scottish terrier, which earned Best in Show at the 2010 Westminster Dog Show. She died this year, and in the hotel is a shrine filled with photos and some of the dog’s awards.

Last: In the Grand Stable are antique carriages and one dozen horses. It’s free to visit.

Concierge Bob Tagatz doubles as the hotel historian with quick-witted humor. Attend one of his occasional history talks or behind-the-scenes tours.

“It’s a cookie-cutter world out there – a sea of beige,” he observes. “Come make fun of our colors – we don’t care.”

The attitude of refinement continues because “if you make too many changes, you’ll never get back what you lost. We don’t want to lose who we are.”

Grand Hotel, 286 Grand Ave., Mackinac Island, Mich., is open from early May to late October. The property, best known for its 660-foot-long porch, bills itself as the world’s largest summer hotel. The island, on the Straits of Mackinac, is between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas. grandhotel.com, 800-578-0354.