The Enduring Elegance of High Tea at Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel

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(Warning: the following contains a detailed description of bite-sized food.  Make sure you are fully sated before reading.)

The plan was to dress up fancy so I could attend High Tea in all its splendor at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. That was the plan. After a two-mile walk, and gusts of 30 knots coming off Lake Michigan, I arrived wind-blown, sweaty and looking forward to sitting down to a lovely repast. I was intercepted by the hotel greeter whose job it is to waylay interlopers visitors. Imagine my surprise when I learned that, in addition to paying $31.80 for the tea, it was necessary to pay for admission to the hotel. After an entire day without access, the $10.00 entrance fee seemed a small price to pay for Wifi. The second surprise came when I realized the room where high tea was served was part of the long lobby that faced the lake. Most of the preferred seating was reserved, so the concierge—an actual concierge—found a spot where I could plug in and remember what the 21st century feels like. Then I discovered my spot was apparently Wifi free. “Well,” I reassure myself. “That’s what I came for—the old world charm.” I braced myself to be charmed…

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I at least had a good view of the room.

The phrase ‘High Tea’ suggests to me something out of the Wild West—where gunfighters draw down in the dusty center of town. Instead of six shooters, however, the weapons of choice would be fine manners and elocution. I anticipated a room filled with white covered tables and genteel, murmured conversations among straight-backed women wearing gloves and hats. Instead, the first impression one gets at the Grand Hotel is of too many people sitting in a crowded room with a harpist trying valiantly to accompany the chatter of several loud conversations. Perhaps that is why I was initially somewhat disappointed in the marriage of yesteryear with modern amenities. Reality fell short of expectation.

Plopped on the small sofa, I waited for a menu (or table) to appear, for something—anything—to happen. In the end, I never actually ordered. A young woman simply appeared with a shaky tv table draped with a white napkin. She brought me the standard meal—with slivers of salmon and other ground-meat salad sandwiches. Thus I was forced to become that most irritating of customers—the one who sends food back. “Do you have a vegetarian option?” I ask meekly. (Okay, I was not meek, but let’s pretend I was.) My savory dish was whisked away leaving the dessert plate, tea and flute of champagne abandoned on the tray. Then I waited…and waited…and waited for the vegetarian option to appear so that I could photograph it. Meanwhile, my tea cooled and my effervescent champagne struggled to maintain its enthusiasm. I too began to wilt.

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Isn’t this just adorable?  Try not to think about the cost while you nibble.

My salvation arrived in the form of tiny vegetable bombs exploding on a variety of breaded surfaces. The geometry of the plate kept things interesting. Small, round white rolls looking a bit like the caps of button mushrooms were alternately stuffed with chilled sweet lentil salad and an eggplant and basil medley. Asparagus tips nestled in a butter spread on a slender rectangle of bread. Cooked, finely diced yellow and orange peppers sat on a triangle of white bread with butter. There was little spice so you could enjoy the fresh flavors of the ingredients. The only disappointing thing on the plate was the deviled egg—which is usually one my favorite indulgences. Instead of a cool white oval filled with the spicy, yellow mustard and egg yolk filling I am used to there was an odd, lightly green filling of questionable origin. After one bite, the mystery egg sat forlornly until I could find out what it was. Besides odd.*

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Heaven on a Plate – Totally made up for the Be-devilled Egg.

The dessert tray delivered a myriad delights – seven if you include the miniature pot of strawberry preserves, which I decided would make a lovely souvenir. From the chocolate-dipped strawberry circling clockwise, the desserts include a powder-sugar choked cookie reminiscent of a Mexican wedding cake—sans the almond bits. Next came a fudge-frosted, walnut brownie bite. Sinfully moist with a hint of coconut—it tasted like a mini German chocolate cake. The next confection was a coconut-crusted truffle with a chocolate outer coating and an inner creamy, rum-butter center—mild but delicious and very smooth. Next came a tartlet dominated by the fruit and crust. The filling barely registered but was a nice crème anglaise custard—I think. I would need a bigger portion to be sure. Perhaps a cup or two. The boldest dessert exceeded the confines of its gold foil. It was a clever demitasse made of molded white chocolate cuddling a strawberry crème inside. Dead center of the plate was a whipped cream swirl that had a slightly coconut or almond taste but so faint it was ephemeral. I saved the milk chocolate-dipped and white-chocolate-striped strawberry for last. It was the perfect palate cleanser. The strawberry came at the end of the season, but was delicious for all that.

After eating sweets, the champagne was bitter, but the bubbles managed to survive the wait and I mellowed as I sat there. Instead of the inconvenience, I noticed families communing around low tables. Children were sitting and listening as their parents and grandparents talked. Not a single iPad or smart phone was in evidence. Perhaps the harp caused interference? Whatever the reason, be it mellow music or the slower pace, I relaxed and enjoyed the moment. And this is when the old-world charm began to work its magic.

All around me, friends and family chatted and chewed in wing-backed chairs—enjoying the pleasure of convivial company with savory and sweet delicacies. Perhaps the laughter became a bit boisterous at times. But, after the second glass of champagne, I didn’t seem to mind. I realized, we haven’t entirely lost the ability to slow down and appreciate the moment. We just need to be reminded that it is an option.

Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:

*If you ever visit the Grand Hotel and pester the poor wait staff for information on the ingredients of the vegetarian dish, in desperation, they will hand you a second plate of food.** I felt mildly guilty about this until I remembered that the meat-heavy ingredients probably cost three times as much.

**Second deviled egg was at least not green. It however, still had a barely discernible taste of mustard and mayo. If there was egg yolk involved, it was only in passing.

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3 thoughts on “The Enduring Elegance of High Tea at Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel

    1. I think if I had attended the evening meal where dresses or pantsuits are mandatory, I would have had more of the experience I was looking for. But, this was the most affordable option–relatively speaking. I did enjoy the hotel’s ambiance, there is a cupola bar at the top where windows look out over the water and you get a tremendous view. I think having a drink up there would provide a similar taste of the high life without having to sit for tea at a specific time of day.

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