August 1, 1996

Has the Heyday Come Again for the Classic Lakeside Resort?

It was a place where our family had gathered every summer since Grandma was 10, a lodge and cabins on a piney hillside that sloped down to a Minnesota lake. A station wagon would meet our plane from Minneapolis, and when we entered the lobby a mynah bird, speaking in the voice of an old lady, would squawk, “Welcome to Island View.” An ancient aerial photo revealed that our lake, which seemed so big up close, was tiny compared with those surrounding it. Hung on the log walls of the dining room were a bass and a walleyed pike that inspired young fishermen and, with their jagged teeth, unnerved young swimmers. The lodge served pike every night, along with slabs of beef, fried chicken, and simple salads. We would leave the dining room as dusk fell, bearing ou r towering ice cream cones like torches.

Afternoons, the chain-smoking owner dragged us water-skiing behind his throaty wooden Century. There was shuffleboard and “king of the raft.” A swamp with frogs. Lots of space, and yet everything–lodge, cabins, boathouse–was within reach of everything e lse. Conversations with guests from Missouri and Kansas and Tennessee could be picked up pretty much where you’d left off the year before. And there was the feeling that families, not conventions, came first.

Things change slowly in this part of the world, but they do change. Island View was bought up by a neighboring resort, and now it’s just a small segment of a behemoth. We fled around the bay to a fancier place that’s beset by televisions, three-digit room numbers, and Jet Skis. Having developed a taste for the genuine article, I set off around the Great Lakes in search of classic resorts, seeking not a place where I could re-create the past–a doomed enterprise–but spots that capture a bit of the soul of the lakes, as did our old lodge.

The region’s most famous destination, the paradigmatic summer resort, is the Grand Hotel on Michigan’s Mackinac Island. From its capacious veranda (660 feet) to the statesmen who have congregated there (my dad saw Kennedy) to the movies filmed in situ (“T his Time for Keeps” with Esther Williams; “Somewhere in Time” with Christopher Reeve), the 109-year-old Grand–325 rooms, and built almost entirely of wood–is larger than life. And yet it seems of a piece with the small island it made famous. Perhaps, in a state where the auto industry rules, a place that bans cars is such an anomaly that it must be visited to be believed. Thousands of people make the trip every day in summer, taking one of several ferry lines that ply the short route from Mackinaw City or St. Ignace. The visitors are known as fudgies, for that fattening confection they buy so much of on Mackinac.

This is where to go when you’ve been longing for that sense that the world is manageable and under control. On the docks, passengers and their luggage are loaded onto ferries with exemplary efficiency. Representatives of the various lodgings greet you, co llect your bags, and point you toward your hotel. As you hit the busy main street, you are struck by the absence of exhaust fumes, horns, and traffic lights. In their place are only the patter of carriage drivers and the pleasant clip-clop of hooves on co bblestones. Yes, the drivers have CB radios, but the carriages’ lazy pace lends the impression that, on Mackinac, technology has been kept at bay by people’s summertime longing to flee speed and progress.

Though there are other lodgings, the Grand sets the tone: its drivers are costumed and its carriages gleam. The hotel, with its stately pillars, can be spotted by ferry passengers still far from shore; it sits on a hillside between the governor’s summer m ansion and a row of the Midwest elite’s elaborate Victorian “cottages,” overlooking the strait connecting Lakes Michigan and Huron. The Grand owns the boulevard that connects it to town and employs a squadron of groundsmen to keep it immaculate.

Although you pay a premium to stay at this national monument, most rooms do not have air-conditioning–which you may miss on a hot, sticky day. The elevators are slow, and the upstairs carpeting has seen better days. Carleton Varney’s late-seventies redec oration of the “Salle a Manger” left it ablaze with haute-Midwest shades of pink, yellow, and green, detracting from its elegance. At the daily buffet lunch, the room is stuffed with retirees on package tours. At all hours, tourists tromp through the lobb y and parlor, having paid $5 for the privilege.

But still. On a side porch one morning I saw eight people taking notes while local man of letters John McCabe lectured on Macbeth. After 6 p.m., as signs inform you, GENTLEMEN ARE REQUIRED TO WEAR JACKETS AND TIES AND LADIES WILL DRESS IN THEIR FINEST. Th e fact that a hotel so grand closes for half the year underscores the wonder of the summertime Here and Now, the thought that these days are numbered. Windows must be opened, breezes enjoyed while they can be.

Like so many Great Lakes resorts, the Grand Hotel is family-run: current president Dan Musser III, 32, took the reins from his father seven years ago. He blends natty urban style with Midwestern friendliness. “This is a business of details,” he tells me a s we descend the main staircase and he points out a small tear in the carpet; it is to be mended by next week. Eyes wandering everywhere, he spots a guest with heavy bags and instructs an idle employee to lend a hand. As we admire the view from the front steps, a guest who recognizes Musser from a hall photo actually comes up and thanks him “for keeping it such a great place.”

“My sister Mimi says we should make people so comfortable here that they feel it’s their home,” he remarks. Since I’m the sort who prefers taking off a tie at 6 p.m. to putting one on, I comment that such a formal hotel would never feel that way to me, ho wever well it was run. Musser understands that feeling, too, he says. He is impossibly gracious; the guest is always right. This attitude is enforced at the front desk, where a sign announces, GRAND HOTEL MAKES NO CHARGE FOR ROOMS IF OUR CLERKS FAIL TO SM ILE.

“Those poor people must need face massages at the end of the day,” I quip to Musser.

He smiles.

The best summer resorts, to my way of thinking, are complete, protected little enclaves in which to hide from the outside world for a week or so. They don’t need to be large; rather, they simply must feel sufficient unto themselves, with enough good food, comfortable beds, chairs with views, and places to swim, so that life within them becomes simpler, slower, easier. And yet is still interesting.

The Manitowaning Lodge & Tennis Resort epitomizes this ideal. Located next to the Wikwemikong Indian reservation on Ontario’s Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, the lodge is an unprepossessing property that evinces the transformative power of good manag ement. When it changed hands in 1988, the 13 cabins, undistinguished except for large walls of lake-view windows, were spiffed up. Unworthy furniture, along with all the mattresses, was jettisoned, and in came wicker chairs, log tables, dhurrie rugs, and heavenly double and queen-size beds. A trompe l’oeil artist painted casually tossed wristwatches, errant vines, and in-progress backgammon games on dressing tables and bureaus; heavy white towels were hung in front of tacky faux-tile bathroom walls, and s oft duvets added to the beds. Playfulness and luxury were applied in equal doses, and the result is an elegant resort where the screen doors still slam.

The cabins lie on a grassy hillside that slopes down to the cold waters of Manitowaning Bay. In their midst a swimming pool with stacks of towels beckons; down on the lake are a dock with a beaver lodge beside it and an old gas pump stuck on 52 cents a ga llon. The main building (with nine guest rooms) sits on top of the hill, and behind it are four tennis courts, a pro shop, and a small gym with exercise machines.

The resort is expertly run by the Barter family of South Africa, in particular its sweet matriarch, Gloria. Not a young woman, she is possessed of unbelievable energy and good cheer, which appear to transform everyone in her orbit. “I hate to miss the morning, because then I can’t say good-bye to people who are leaving, and I hate to miss the afternoon, because then I can’t say hello to new guests.” She never looks less than bright-eyed and well-coiffed; and the dignity of the British Commonwealth is seldom tempered with such warmth. “Good-night, love,” she chirps merrily as you pass the front desk at 10 p.m.

The sardonic counterpart to Gloria is her son Marck, a devoted fellow who tends bar most evenings. During the day he pilots the lodge’s 22-foot Sea Ray motorboat, whisking guests to destinations such as lunch at Mr. Perch, a fish-and-chips shop run out of a red school bus across Manitowaning Bay. Gloria’s husband, Peter, and other son, Anthony, round out the team.

Gloria has turned the entire resort into her garden. Potted ferns and English ivy grew in my cabin, and a massive vase of chrysanthemums was posed on the bar. On the lodge porch, baskets glowed with pink and white impatiens and wax begonias; hibiscus, asters, dahlias, and delphiniums bloomed in the beds in front. Gloria’s perfume somewhat overwhelms that of the flowers, but it just reminds you who’s in charge.

Manitowaning Lodge also benefits from being the pet project of Canadian mega-developer David Kosoy, who lives in Palm Beach. Kosoy puts one of his planes, a twin-engine Aztec, at the lodge’s disposal for the season. The flight from Toronto takes 75 minutes and costs $250 per person, round-trip, and it lands you practically next to the resort. Gloria, it turns out, is Kosoy’s mother-in-law. He has given her an embroidered pillow that sits near the front desk and reads: if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother. “Bloody cheeky of him,” Gloria comments.

The Kosoy connection also brings the occasional celebrity guest–Keith Carradine and Sam Neill were due a week after my stay–as well as a singular piano player named Jack Bond. Kosoy met Bond at, of all places, a Donald Trump party at Mar-a-Lago and hired him to perform at his resort (this year he’s appearing in September). Bond is one of those rare piano bar players who inspire more affection than embarrassment. Listen to the music that this good-natured man describes as “up-tempo and lighthearted” and try to imagine him opening for the acid-rock band Iron Butterfly back in the sixties (he did).

In the dining room, the furniture and floor are painted ice-blue; a ceiling-high sculpture of a Wikwemikong medicine man presides over the airy space. The menu changes nightly, and specials include such dishes as excellent baked arctic char en papillote with fresh dill from the garden; fettuccine with orange-infused olive oil, tomato, olives, and lemon zest; and roasted Cornish hen with a whiskey glaze. A full English breakfast is served, as well as fresh fruit and croissants or muffins from the pastry chef. The service is excellent, as is the tennis instruction; and yet my best memory is of the moments just after I arrived. Tired from the trip, I walked into my cabin, took off my shoes, opened the back door, and collapsed on the bed. The lake, just a few feet away, lapped at the pebbly shore, reflections dancing on my ceiling. Summer is best passed slowly.

Fine resorts that cater mainly to families are now few and far between in the Great Lakes region, the convention trade having overwhelmed countless mom-and-pop lodges. But amid the lakes of central Minnesota I found an unusual spot that doesn’t even appear in the resort listings of the local yellow pages. In the white pages, it bears the unlikely title of Driftwood Resort, Golf Course & Museum.

Driftwood is one of a handful of good resorts that time largely forgot. Forty-five minutes from the nearest airport (at Brainerd), it’s off in the woods by itself, on Upper Whitefish Lake’s sandy beach. Twenty-four yellow cabins surround an old log lodge; the entrance drive passes the humble nine-hole golf course, a weathered tennis court, and the Minnesota Resort Museum (with exhibits of water skis and fishing boats).

The Leagjeld family–Ted, Sue, and sons Tim and Dan–has run Driftwood for 38 years. As surrounding resorts abandoned the family focus, they held fast; Driftwood has more activities for kids than any other lakeside resort I’ve seen. Days begin with rides, on ponies and in a 1929 Chevrolet fire truck, followed by regular lunch trips to a nearby island on a double-decker paddle wheeler. Each week concludes with a staff revue or guest talent show in the resort’s little theater.

My wife and baby boy joined me for the visit to Driftwood; I think all three of us were relieved to enter the dining room and spot half a dozen high chairs and a couple of peas on the floor. Having family, a stigma at other establishments, places you right at the center of things here. The food is old-fashioned–pancakes and eggs for breakfast, roast beef or turkey with trimmings for dinner–but it’s tasty and reliable, and the service, mainly by European music students spending a summer abroad, is spirited and attentive. When we left our son’s spoon and bowl behind after lunch one day, there they were at his place setting, clean and shiny, that evening at dinnertime.

One night we listened to owls and sipped wine in the cabin of another couple we’d met. The breeze through the open door was warm, and there was nothing we had to accomplish the next day. At the height of summer, we had found the right place.