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Mackinac Island's Grand Hotel gets grand pool makeover
Greg Tasker Special to The Detroit News

The Grand Hotel’s famous serpentine-shaped pool — named after 1940s movie star and competitive swimmer Esther Williams — is getting a makeover.

This summer’s guests will find the 220-foot-long pool and surrounding grounds transformed, thanks to a number of improvements to create state-of-the-art facilities and to elevate the hotel guest experience. The revamped pool and lounging areas are expected to be open by Memorial Day weekend. The hotel opens for the season May 7.

“We really felt like renovating the pool was the most visible opportunity to improve the guest experience,” said Doug Dean, executive vice president, operations, at the Grand Hotel. “When you go to a luxury resort, the pool is one of the focal points of the experience. I’m excited and hopeful that this will deliver something much better for our future guests.”

The pool and adjoining pool house, both built around 1920, have not been upgraded in years.

As part of the revamp, the lounging area around the pool has been expanded, with new pool furniture for the pool deck, terrace and lawn. For the first time, guests will have the chance to reserve cabanas that also offer food and beverage service.

“We wanted to bring another element of luxury to the resort experience and, in many cases, that would include the option of having a private cabana for families, if they’re so inclined to use them,” Dean said. “It’s another opportunity to bring multi generations to the pool without everyone necessarily being in direct sunlight.”

Other improvements include a new family-friendly area with a zero-depth beach entry, water jet play area and water slide. The pool once featured a steel slide and high and low diving boards but they were removed some time ago. A large heated whirlpool and private adults-only pool area featuring an infinity edge are other new amenities.

The hotel is also planning programming and events throughout the season, such as
family-friendly dive-in movie nights. 

Food and beverage service has also been improved, with the construction of a full kitchen and new bar on the site, making it easier to deliver food and drinks to lounging guests.

The renovation of the pool and grounds marks the first construction project visible to guests since the Grand Hotel changed ownership in 2019. 

“At historic hotels and resorts, it is very important that recreation facilities from pools to fitness centers offer the guest a truly memorable experience,” said Lawrence P.  Horwitz, executive vice president of Historic Hotels of America and Historic Hotels Worldwide. “Guests will pay more to stay at historic hotels and resorts provided that services, service levels, and guest amenities are equal to or better than other more contemporary hotels and resorts.”

In many cases, historic hotels such as the Grand Hotel set the standard of excellence when they first opened, he noted.  “Continuous reinventing and upgrading of recreation facilities only follows in the best tradition of the historic hotel as being a pioneer for innovation and memorable experiences since it opened,” he said.

Improvements, such as pool upgrades, are very noticeable to guests, who also expect basics such as modern bathrooms, Wi-Fi and the ability to connect throughout the entire resort.  

“Guests may be staying at a historic hotel or resort to celebrate a very special occasion, or a family vacation, or just for a romantic getaway.   Provided the guest services, service levels, and amenities including recreational activities are what a guest could experience elsewhere,  the grandeur, history, and public areas inside and outside of the historic hotel will make the stay very memorable and most importantly, into a repeat guest,” Horwitz said.

The pool renovations are not the first upgrades since the change of ownership. Employee housing units were updated during the winter of 2019-20, with new floors, paint, décor, full Wi-Fi access, and a fitness facility.  The hotel has housing for about 600 employees.

Other improvements have included repairs to a leaky roof, a revamped laundry area and a new dishwasher for the kitchen — improvement guests won’t see but to impact their experience. Dean said the company has spent about “eight figures” in improvements, including retail space upgrades.

“All these improvements are consistent with maintaining and improving this amazing building,” Dean said. 

Along with the pool upgrades, the hotel is reconstructing and expanding the pool house. The fitness center has been enlarged and upgraded with new equipment. The bathhouse has also been revamped with upscale changing rooms, lockers and showers. 

Gene Hopkins and Tamara Burns from the Hopkins/Burns Design Studio, the same firm the hotel has used for 20 years, were tapped for the pool and ground renovations.

“The intent is to be true to what the Grand Hotel is, and I think we’ve done a great job in achieving that,” Dean said. 

Groups will also benefit from the upgrades, with a dedicated pool area for private events and the addition of a new meeting and event space on the second floor of the pool house. The expansion includes a covered, outdoor seating area with unobstructed views of the Straits of Mackinac. Groups also will be able to reserve a poolside cabana.

“We’re continuing to look at other guest experience elements and where there may be additional opportunities to improve in the future,” Dean said, adding that the hotel’s Astor Salon and Spa is one of those areas being seriously considered.

The Esther Williams Pool earned its name after the actress filmed several scenes of “This Time for Keeps” in the hotel pool in 1946. Released in 1947, the romantic comedy had an almost immediate impact on the hotel, luring more guests to the Grand and the island. 

In interviews on the hotel’s website, resident historian Bob Tagatz recalls that after the film’s release, the Grand Hotel enjoyed its best-ever occupancy rates. Recovering from World War II’s impact on tourism, the hotel started making its first solid profit in 1951. 

The hotel was so appreciative of Williams that a room was named in her honor, he said. The room is one of many named rooms or suites at the hotel. Tagatz said Williams used the room the rest of her life. She died in 2013.

The pool was originally known as Paul Bunyan’s footprint. Because an identical pool had been built in Traverse City, the story goes that when Paul Bunyan walked north, he left one footprint in Traverse City and the other on Mackinac Island, Tagatz said.