Alabama resort recovers from Katrina’s devastation
The New York Post once quoted the inimitable Mark Twain as saying, “The report of my death was an exaggeration”. So too, that very quote could have easily been applied to Mobile, Alabama after Hurricane Katrina dashed the Gulf Coast states in the summer of 2005, delivering the coup de grace we still testify to today. The saltwater storm surge swelling up Mobile Bay decimated the grounds and damaged the hotel framework of the revered Grand Hotel Marriott Resort. Knocked down but not out, the Resort located on the eastern shore of the Bay considered this a clean slate, not a post mortem.
The decision to restore the grandeur and familiarity of the Grand Hotel’s inherent design was crucial to keeping their generations-old clientele base. Since the resort’s inception, the Grand’s distinctly Southern hospitality, traditions and charming décor have drawn guests back year after year. However, it was acknowledged that contemporary guests bring updated expectations of the types of amenities resorts should provide.
The Grand Hotel decided to blend the old with the new. Keeping the historic structural design was important. New features included investing in communications equipment and wiring by installing an up-to-date fiber optic system, which required removal and replacement of some parking lots and driveways. An older rectangular pool was replaced with a feature pool sporting curvaceous shapes, water slides, fountains, and poolside dining, all beautifully landscaped. In addition to its physical revitalization, the Grand’s four hundred staff members went through five thousand hours of training prior to re-opening.
David Clark, the general manager and himself a distillation of the resort’s essence, said more than one hundred million dollars was ultimately spent on renovations. Some of the work had begun before Katrina’s visit. Niall Fraser, Senior Director of Grounds, and his staff had the advantageous prospect presented to them of truly having a chance to start over. With an eye to reviving long-lost traditions first associated with the resort’s original grounds, they also adopted a more ecological course and wanted to create more interactive pursuits for the guests’ enjoyment and participation.
The lush and well-maintained grounds are a clear extension of the Grand’s Southern hospitality, providing varied settings for all manner of events to be shared in life. Weddings, proposals, milestone celebrations and family vacations are enhanced by the evolving grounds projects. Fraser says, “We had a chance to step back and say, ‘Now that we have been given a clean slate to work with, let’s take the opportunity to really bring it back even better and restore it to its original intent’; that’s what we tried to do”. Progress has been made and more ideas are incubating, thanks to Fraser, his assistant Holly and their combined passion for the landscape.
The Flowerwood Nursery in nearby Loxley, Alabama, which specializes in creating improved horticultural products, was instrumental in providing the resort with their new plantings. One of the distinctly hardy and gorgeous species used at the Grand is the Encore Azalea. This new breed of Azalea provides blooms three times a year instead of the common once-a-year variety. Two thousand azaleas are on the grounds and another five thousand are planted on the Grand’s golf courses. Another plant developed by Flowerwood is the Knock Out Rose. It is drought tolerant, self cleaning, unfazed by heat, and black spot resistant. Five hundred Knock Out Roses were placed around the resort. In addition, butterfly bushes were planted to attract the Monarch Butterfly, which visits Alabama on its last stop before heading further south. Camellias bloom in bridal white as a fitting backdrop for the many year-round outdoor weddings.
Adjacent to the dining rooms is a new feature, the Chef’s Herb Garden, designed in a European style layout. All herbs and edible flowers for the restaurant, including the ever changing herb centerpieces for the Grand Dining Room, are grown there. Large planters of mint around the hotel provide the fragrant herb for signature Mint Juleps.
Gardens and grounds were designed to attract visitors to be more interactive with the plants along with traditional pleasures of wandering the grounds to observe, learn and enjoy. Educational workshops on flower arranging and gardening are frequently offered.
The Secret Garden was designed for special occasions, such as proposals, with seclusion and privacy in mind. An on-site greenhouse at the Grand Resort grows flowers for the hotel’s arrangements and guest room bouquets, along with starter plantings in winter for their many outdoor gardens. By growing their own flowers, the Grand is able to present gratis floral arrangements to the guests should they request them.
As for the lawns, Seashore Paspalum, a grass that can be irrigated with sea water, is planted on the grounds. Paspalum is combined with Bermuda grass for the golf courses. Weeds are controlled using simple rock salt. The Grand chose not to dredge their lagoons after sludge and silt from hurricanes was deposited in them. Instead, they opted for a more ecologically sound solution by adding Carp to the already present Koi fish. Carp are a natural cleanser for the water.
Additional environmental benefits have also been implemented. One is a “replenishing program” for the live oaks on the property, which began with the planting of over forty new oak trees. Knowing that the oaks have withstood a multitude of hurricanes, thus possibly shortening their lives, this program ensures that the majestic live oaks will grace the grounds for future generations. Any oaks that had to be cut down are used for firewood in fire-pits on the Bay. Used cooking oil from restaurants is being recycled into bio-fuel for golf course tractors, and composting is done in a secluded spot away from the hotel.
Although the saltwater caused the demise of the landscaping and grounds, the resort was damaged by the six foot storm surge that ravaged the structures. Reconstruction of the damaged buildings included all public spaces. The dining rooms, hotel rooms and everything else at ground level and through the second level were rebuilt to insure removal of any possibility of mold and mildew. Each space was torn down to the studs and then restored to its former state. Fortunately, newer structures built on stilts with parking below were spared and did not require renovation.
Returning guests were moved to tears upon seeing their beloved Grand Hotel resembling its former self, just spiffier and cleaner. The decision to not alter the inherent ambiance was fundamental to retaining a base clientele comprised of generations of devoted guests. Traditions were lovingly preserved with a nod to the future guests who presently measure only two or three feet tall. Not to be overlooked is the Grand’s “commitment to taking care of their associates, who then take good care of their guests; and if guests are well cared for, they will return,” assures Clark.