By D. Fran Morley
For nearly 25 years, starting in the early 1990s, I lived in Fairhope, Alabama, just a few miles down the road from the “Queen of Southern Resorts,” the Grand Hotel Golf Resort and Spa at Point Clear, a 550-acre resort complex on the shore of Mobile Bay. Over the years, I attended events, meetings and weddings at “The Grand” (as locals call it), I ate in the restaurants and enjoyed drinks around a fire pit, I had spa treatments and walked along the bayfront boardwalk. For me and for generations before me (there’s been a resort at this site since 1847), The Grand has been an integral part of life on Mobile Bay’s Eastern Shore. And now, after a massive, three-year transformation that touched every part of the property—with 405 reimagined rooms, new dining experiences, a rejuvenated spa, and 37,000 square feet of freshly polished meeting and event venues—the resort is poised and ready to welcome new guests and faithful fans for generations to come.
In all the years I lived nearby, the one thing I hadn’t experienced at The Grand was an overnight stay. As I said, we lived just down the road. But recently, my husband and I returned to the area for our best friend’s wedding, and we got to enjoy a weekend at The Grand along with a personalized tour from Kevin Hellmich, director of sales and marketing so I could see all the upgrades and renovations first-hand.
It was a great time to visit: one of the prettiest times of the year when the resort is decked out in its finest holiday décor. There are millions of twinkling lights on the ancient live oak trees, poinsettias and holiday decor throughout the lush landscaping, beautiful trees and wreaths throughout the buildings, and the biggest gingerbread “house” you could imagine, actually a replica of every building at The Grand.
It was obviously a labor of love from the resort pastry chefs. The kids we saw that weekend—there to have breakfast with Santa, a Grand Hotel tradition—appreciated every painstaking detail, especially the vintage choo choo that chugged around the track that circled the display.
This past August, at the completion of its transformation, the resort was named a Marriott Autograph Collection Hotel, joining an elite club of one-of-a-kind properties. This means the resort now has the freedom to highlight its uniqueness and better preserve its long history, and Hellmich was quick to point out the importance of the resort’s 170-plus years of history.
“As some of our longtime associates start to retire, some who have been here 40-50 years or longer, and as our guests start to transition as well, we didn’t want to lose any of the significant history of The Grand,” he explained to me. “We wanted to keep our history at our fingertips (meaning you can ask any associate a question and expect an educated answer!), and make it available for our guests to enjoy as well. We have a new official historian, Susan Stein, an associate with 30-plus years’ experience at the hotel and a passion for the history of the property and the local area. We added more historic photos to our website, and we have a new reader board in the lobby that allows guests to touch the screen to learn about some of our past associates, like Bucky Miller (for whom Bucky’s Lounge is named), or about the Battle of Mobile Bay or The Grand’s history during World War II.
We’ve also added more photos and artifacts here in the hotel, items and photos from different eras of the hotel, and we include a history fact in our daily guest newsletter.”
In making its transformation, Hellmich said the resort listened carefully to what guests wanted when it came to change.
“One thing we heard from those here for conferences as well as our leisure guests, is that they wanted a place to make a quick grab-and-go, for breakfast or lunch. We created that with our new Local Market, and it’s right off the lobby where it’s convenient for those going to a meeting in our conference center or heading out for the day.”
Renovations touched every building, but the most work was done in the main building, the oldest and most well-loved structure at the resort.
The main building’s renovated guest rooms retain their original ambiance and décor style—something that was important to guests—but have larger, more luxurious bathrooms.
“In the 1940s, when the main building was built, people used to travel with big steamer trunks and would frequently stay for several weeks, so the guest rooms in the old building each had two very large closets,” Hellmich said. “We were able to eliminate one closet, and that allowed us to make the bathrooms larger, which is what travelers want today.”
The other big changes in the main building were to the dining areas. Because we were in town for a wedding and all that involves, we didn’t get to experience a meal in any of the resort’s new restaurants—including Bayside Grill, Southern Roots and the Grand Hall—but we did enjoy a drink at the new 1847 Bar, what Hellmich called a “garden-to-glass” bar that features signature cocktails crafted from herbs from the resort’s estate gardens. I learned that throughout the year, chefs and bartenders at The Grand make use of more than 70 different edibles from the resort’s gardens and greenhouses.
Another aspect of the renovation was to make better use of the beautiful bayfront setting by adding more outside seating and dining options and several new fire pits with seating. They also moved a recreation area (with putting green, croquet, horseshoes, ladder toss games, etc.) to outside the restaurants. “We wanted to activate the bayfront of the resort as much as possible,” Hellmich said. “When people are sitting and enjoying a drink or a meal, we wanted them to feel like they were at a Bay house, relaxing and watching the kids playing on the lawn just outside.”
On the day of my visit, crews were setting up for a wedding in one ballroom, tearing down from another in a different space, and children and parents were enjoying time with Santa Claus in another ballroom. It was busy, but all running like clockwork. According to Hellmich, the resort’s 22 event spaces can handle multiple groups of around 200 on the same day or host up to 1,000 for a large meeting.
Because of wedding-induced time constraints, I didn’t get to visit the Spa at The Grand, but I learned that one big change there was to give those receiving treatments a new and improved view of the marina. I also did not check out the changes at the Lakewood Golf Club, just across the road from the main entrance and part of Alabama’s award-winning Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. A tee-to-green renovation of the Dogwood course was completed this year and the same is coming for the Azalea trail in 2019.
I’ll have to return next year to check out the complete transformation, including the new pool upgrades and cabanas. Hmmm….are any other of my friends getting married?