Patrick McDonald is out of bed by 8 a.m., without the help of an alarm clock. After opening his laptop and checking in on the world, he steps out of his suite at the Grand Hotel, descends the main staircase, glides past the sitting room and its four-sided fireplace and enters the Grand Hall.
“Good morning, Mr. McDonald,” a genteel hostess says with a nod.
“Good morning, Jennifer,” he replies.
The tall gentleman walks slowly to his usual seat in the dining room, situated against a window. Jasmine doesn’t bother bringing over a menu. The kitchen knows this guest.
“What’ll it be today, Mr. McDonald?”
He pauses for a moment before deciding on oatmeal with almonds, strawberries, yogurt and coffee with a dash of cream. While he waits, McDonald strikes up courteous conversations with other servers before catching the eye of a buffet attendant, who makes her way over to his table.
“Would you like your croissants this morning, Mr. McDonald?”
“That would be great,” he answers, smiling. “Thank you.”
The attendant knows that McDonald favors the smaller croissants of the bake shop to the larger ones of the buffet. She also knows to return to his table with the most delicate and flaky of the batch. She enjoys spoiling him.
Throughout breakfast, McDonald doesn’t pay his fellow diners much attention, nor does he attract theirs. The daily hustle and bustle “goes on around me,” he explains. And so he sits, content with his thoughts and his croissants and his staff.
After finishing the meal, he ambles to his car, dispatching goodbyes to Theresa at the front desk, Greg at valet and eventually Tonya at the front gate. They know it won’t be long before they see Mr. McDonald again, because they’ve witnessed the routine for as long as they’ve worn the uniform. It’s a routine, after all, years in the making.
McDonald isn’t a guest at the Grand Hotel. At least, not in the traditional sense. Because for the past two years, the 72-year-old has lived at the luxury resort as a full-time resident — a silver-haired, south Alabama Eloise of sorts.
“I just live like you would at home, basically,” he explains. “It’s not like I’m at a resort. All this activity is going on around me, but this is my home.”
Rather, it will be his home for another five days. Within the week, McDonald will move into the cottage he’s been renovating in downtown Fairhope. While that might seem like the end of some era, it’s simply the latest chapter in what is undoubtedly one of the most unusual stories in the hotel’s long, venerable history.
On this morning, McDonald sits in a comfortable chair in Bucky’s Lounge, speaking slowly and deliberately.
“I knew Bucky,” he says, referring to the now-legendary employee Bucky Miller, a hotel staple for over 60 years. “He was clearly a savant when it came to names. He had this incredible ability to recall the names of people he’d seen the year before, or even five years before.”
McDonald’s own relationship with the hotel began in 1992, when he built a home a couple miles south of the establishment. He estimates that, since that time, he’s averaged about a meal a day at the resort. When asked where he ranks among the hotel’s most devoted regulars, he says he’s “not sure how you’d compare it.”
“I used to come to the Birdcage (now Bucky’s) and eat for years, and there was a married couple who came here for a drink every night for 30 years,” he says. “They were a fixture.”
McDonald himself has never married. There was a girl many years ago, whom he met during college while working a summer at Yellowstone National Park. But caught in the midst of the revolutionary 1960s, McDonald wasn’t tethered to the formulaic life of the generation before him.
“I was on no path,” he tries to explain. “It didn’t occur to me to get married, and it didn’t occur to me not to get married.”
With his bachelorhood in consideration, a question arises after almost three hours of conversation: Is McDonald married to the Grand Hotel?
He takes a long pause. “No,” he says. “I’m attached to it. And I’ve been through enough cycles to know I would never leave it or purge it from my system. But marriage is something else. I think that is a parallel path — parallel emotion. I think love sort of owns you … and I don’t feel like this owns me.”
A product of Mobile, McDonald graduated from McGill Institute in 1964 before studying architecture and eventually engineering at Auburn.
“That’s where I woke up,” he says. “About that time, there was a total change in society. Either because of the [Vietnam] War or whatever, we were just free to think about all kinds of things that maybe my older brother didn’t even think about — a seismic shift.”
For McDonald, this meant a complete and irreversible change in the way he viewed the world, as well as his place in it.
“I’ve tried to go back to sleep,” he jokes. “But it’s hard to unlearn.”
His awakening also led to a love of travel, which continued even after being drafted into the Army in 1970 and stationed in Germany, where the idea was to contain Russian aggression in post-WWII Europe.
“Every moment we were free, I was gone,” he says, reminiscing about the miles he tallied across the continent in his Volkswagen bus.
A server delivers a coffee to McDonald, and he thanks her by name. He says he knows the names of most employees on the hospitality side of the hotel.
“I was in the hospital business, and you know, I might have had 2,000 employees. You just get in the habit of learning names. I think it’s kind of silly to see somebody every day and not know their name.”
After one and half years in the Army, McDonald decided to pursue a career in hospital administration. He spent about 10 years running hospitals across the country and another 10 years consulting before getting the itch to attempt an early retirement.
“I don’t know what possessed me to think I was enough old [to retire]. It’s not like I had gathered a whole bunch of money,” he says, still bemused after all these years about the forces that motivate his decisions.
“This is where my story with the hotel really begins.”
The Road to Point Clear
Despite having seen so much of the world, McDonald says he “didn’t have a feeling for another place other than here.” Following an instinct, he bought an empty lot just south of the hotel in 1989.
“Half of my comfort with moving here was this hotel,” he says. “Fairhope didn’t exist in my mind. It was the hotel and a mile or two north or south. If you look at it in terms of colors, this was the only color, and everything else was black and white.”
You see, McDonald doesn’t make the big decisions like the rest of us. He describes how, at crucial moments in his life, “cellular reactions” have helped guide his hand, and it was precisely this type of gut reaction to the aesthetic of the Grand Hotel and the surrounding area that has anchored him here for almost three decades.
“Fairhope wasn’t like it is today,” he explains. “It had no gravity center, no pull to it, no attraction. But the hotel did.”
At 45 years old, McDonald moved to Point Clear, into a house he built to match the aesthetic of the hotel up the road.
“I would come [to the hotel] in the morning, have coffee and breakfast, get a newspaper, sit down. It was part of my life really — part of my house. I could leave my home, where I had built something that suited my aesthetic vision, and I could come here where there was a similar aesthetic, so it wasn’t like I was leaving home.”
Aside from providing the bachelor with an opportunity to socialize, the resort seemed to cast a magical spell over McDonald in those early days.
“There will be times when it’s like a musical. It’s not a musical at the moment, but for many years, especially in the beginning, I would drive on the grounds, and somehow this music would start playing. It’d be like a play — like I was driving onto a stage, and I was becoming a character in this theater called the Grand Hotel. A theater of the real.”
In the meantime, McDonald had made some wise commercial and residential investments in Fairhope and, after 14 years, moved into a cottage in town. His routine at the Grand remained unchanged, until another house project, which took from 2006 to 2015 to complete, near Montrose complicated his daily visits.
“It wasn’t convenient enough to make the hotel a part of every day,” he says. “I had to think about coming. But this place wanted me here, and I wanted to be here.”
So in 2016, McDonald sold the finished home and, without another property to move into, settled at the Grand. “This has always been my second home,” he says. “It’s just that, at the moment, it happens to be my first home.”
Having become a member at the neighboring Lakewood Club in the early ’90s, McDonald is eligible for a discounted room rate, as well as food and beverage savings. But he says the real trick to living at a resort is to create a “range” for oneself.
“For an individual to have a relationship with an institution, you have to have some way of doing it. I live with the hotel, but in a range that belongs to me,” he explains. Even in the midst of hotel renovations, McDonald has a way of living on the periphery.
“If I followed their wave pattern, I would be disrupted. But I choose my own path.”
As the conversation turns to his impending departure from his home of two years, McDonald naturally becomes reflective about the experience. “What surprises me is how much [the staff] cares about my being here,” he says. “Because I don’t really expect that — I’m just living. And suddenly I’m aware that there are a fair number of people who really care … so that’s heartwarming in a way. There are times when that really breaks through.
“I take none of this for granted,” he continues. “It’s not like I expect them to allow me to do this. It’s pretty easy to be on stage for three days and perform for a client, but when the client never goes away, that’s a whole different thing. Their actions say more than I could ever say about the place — that they’ve allowed me to be here and to make it a home.”
Will he ever return as a full-time guest?
“There’s no reason why it wouldn’t happen. I seem to go through these phases with houses; I like creating them more than living in them.
“I’m not really leaving,” he says. “I made sure of that by not moving outside the range of the hotel.”
McDonald sweeps his gaze around the lounge, where Bucky once greeted guests by name and where an old married couple sank 30 years of nightcaps.
“I’ll never leave it,” he says. “I never have left it.”