It begins with the stately pillars, the lavish flower arrangements, and a formal greeting. By the time my bag and I are whisked upstairs in one of the few remaining grand hotels in America, I already feel different.
It’s hard to express what this feeling is, a feeling of pampering and privilege, perhaps. A feeling of having arrived. Even in the land of equality, these are feelings everyone should get a taste of from time to time, but we usually don’t in the hustle-bustle of modern life.
From California to New York, Michigan to Florida, America’s grand hotels are distinctive in their architecture, histories, and traditions. They were created as retreats for Americans made newly prosperous in the Industrial Age. These were newly minted gentility, folks with money to carve out leisure time and lake steamers and railroads to whisk them away.
Today what all the grand hotels share is a sense of occasion. You don’t just pull up to the hotel parking lot expecting a convenient stopover on a long, arduous journey to somewhere else. Here, the hotel is the journey’s end. You book ahead and anticipate walking through those majestic doors to be spoiled by a level of service that’s rare unto extinction anywhere else in American life.
And then there’s just the simple grandness of the history. Each time I go, I wonder: How many people before me have stared up 100 feet to the top of West Baden Springs’ massive rotunda in the Hoosier heartland? How many visitors have marveled at the Moorish exuberance of tile and tapestry at Casa Monica in old St. Augustine? How many travelers have clipped-clopped up to the flag-festooned entrance of Michigan’s Grand Hotel aboard the hotel’s horse-drawn carriage, liveried in burgundy and silver?
The Greenbrier in West Virginia is the oldest of these venerable hotels with a tradition dating to 1778. Back then visitors would brave rutted roads to soak in the sulfur springs that bubbled up in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains.
The Greenbrier is perhaps more like an English country house hotel than any property on American soil. Pillars and ceiling soar, sheltering American and English antiques, glorious mantles rescued from European wrecking balls, and 19th-century oil portraits capturing the flower of English and Southern gentility. That spirit is preserved today in the famous afternoon tea in the lobby at linen-topped tables while a pianist plays soft melodies in the background.
Part of the fun of exploring heritage hotels is taking time to slow down and step back into the traditions of travelers past. You can’t leave the Grand Hotel atop its Mackinac Island bluff without whacking a few croquet balls, rocking on the world’s longest front porch, and parading past a gauntlet of white-jacketed waiters into the vast dining room.
The Grand Hotel commands this jot of limestone, the linchpin between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas and the Great Lakes of Huron and Michigan. It’s the place to slip back a century or more to an authentic horse-based society. However high summer’s temperatures spike, Mackinac always sounds like Christmas Eve with the clatter of horses’ hooves and the heel chains on their hitches jangling like jingle bells.
Celebrating 125 years, the white pine Grand Hotel floats somewhere in time, still hallmarked by friendly Midwestern service. There’s a genteel pace at this National Historic Landmark that’s otherworldly.
On this car-free island, the Grand Hotel welcomes its guests to the stables to meet the giant Percherons and hackney horses that pull its distinctive burgundy vehicles. I love to whisper to these leviathans in their stalls and admire the turn-of-the-century sleighs, cutters, and carriages in the Grand’s collection.
While Mackinac Island turned its back on America’s motoring progress, the Indiana hamlet of French Lick couldn’t get enough of flashy cars, shiny locomotives, and private planes all belching fumes into the country air. For 30 rollicking years that peaked in the Roaring ’20s, each arrival meant more high rollers in its dueling illegal casinos of French Lick and West Baden Springs.
While French Lick Resort barred its threshold to the likes of Al Capone, its rival casino just a mile down this Southern Indiana valley, West Baden, was wide open to the King of Crime and his courtiers. Legend has it that you could spot Capone checking in then buying a Chicago paper to see what kind of trouble he’d left behind back home.
Capone cavorted under West Baden’s soaring dome, which hotelier Lee Sinclair crowed was “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” It was the largest free-standing dome in the world when it was unveiled in 1902, a record that stood until the Astrodome in 1965.
Bitter rivals for so long, these two behemoths in the Hoosier countryside now thrive as sister resorts, yoked together in a mammoth historic preservation project. It took $500 million to restore French Lick to grandeur and bring West Baden back from ruin.
Today it’s as easy as hopping on a resort shuttle to zoom between the two, trying out each one’s pools, spas, shops, restaurants, and golf courses.
French Lick now has 23½-karat gold plaster rosettes and brackets in its lobby, recreated from a historic photo. Gold leaf glitters once again on the pavilion roof. The casino is back—and these days it’s even legal.
West Baden has its Pompeian Court back in the vast atrium with Muses and Greek gods looking down. This is my favorite spot for afternoon tea or drinks at the bar, dwarfed by the masters of Olympus and the dome crown that glitters and seems to change color all night long.
Across the country from Indiana, the marbling and gilt are anything but faux at the US Grant Hotel in San Diego—just rediscovered after years in disguise.
When the Sycuan tribe of the Kumeyaay Indians bought the Grant in 2003, they discovered the original white Italian marble of the Grand Staircase lurking beneath the carpet. The staircase posts and balustrades, thought to be wood, were really carved alabaster. The new owners reopened the original carriage entrance and crowned it with a 1930s crystal chandelier.
The hotel seems to have come full circle, glittering again on Kumeyaay ancestral land in San Diego’s historic Gaslamp Quarter.
The Grant is an urban grande dame hotel, an elegant base for shopping at Westfield Horton Plaza and enjoying performances at the Civic Auditorium, Balboa Theatre, and Symphony Hall.
After seeing a show there’s no better place for a nightcap—maybe a signature Ulysses Vodkatini—than the GG Lounge. Relax and let your mind drift back 80 years or so to when one of the Grant’s owners foresaw prohibition on the horizon. He converted the Bivouac Grill into a not-so-secret speakeasy called the Plata Real Nightclub. Bartenders moved the booze through holding pipes meant for steam and salt water from the bay.
The Grant became one of San Diego’s most prosperous hotels during the era of bootleg gin; now, eight decades later, it’s come full circle to thrive as a legitimate grand hotel.
IF YOU GO
Where: St. Augustine, Florida
A bit of history: The town of St. Augustine was founded by the Spanish in 1565 and remained under Spanish control for more than two centuries.
Fun fact: The hotel is named for St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, the city’s namesake.
The tab: Room rates in low season (January and June-November) range from $159 to $259. High season rates (February-May nd December) range from $179-$399.
Contact: 888-213-8903; www.casamonica.com.
The Grand Hotel
The Grand Hotel
Where: Mackinac Island, Michigan
A bit of history: Five presidents have visited the Grand Hotel— Truman, Kennedy, Ford, Bush, and Clinton.
Fun fact: The Grand was the location for the 1979 movie Somewhere in Time starring the late Christopher Reeve, Christopher Plummer, and Jane Seymour.
The tab: The resort is open May 4-Oct. 28. The weekday price ranges from $254 per person per night to $374 per person per night. On the weekends prices range from $274 per person per night to $399 per person per night in a Named Room. The fees include the Full American Plan (three meals included).
Contact: 800-334-7263; www.grandhotel.com.
West Baden Springs
West Baden Springs
Where: French Lick, Indiana
A bit of history: Hotelier Lee Sinclair hired 500 men to work 10-hour shifts six days a week to build the domed building that every architect said couldn’t be built.
Fun fact: The last time the Chicago Cubs won the World Series was 1908—the last year they trained at West Baden Springs. In 2011, to break the century-plus drought, the Cubs requested West Baden’s famous Sprudel spring water shipped to spring training where it was sprinkled on the training field and on Wrigley Field in Chicago—to no avail.
The tab: In off-season (January-April and November-December) a French Lick room for two starts at $189 and a West Baden room for two at $299. In peak season (May-October) a French Lick room for two starts at $189 and a West Baden room for two at $299.
Contact: 888-936-9360; http://frenchlick.com.
Where: San Diego, California
A bit of history: In 1939 Grant’s owners installed the West Coast’s largest radio towers on the roof. KFVW radio soon moved into the space, and the hotel scored a coup when President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered one of his first radio addresses to the nation from the Grant.
Fun fact: For the 2006 grand re-opening owners of the US Grant commissioned a $250,000 hand-milled carpet from Thailand and had it delivered by ship. You can admire the rug’s lustrous blues and golds in the lobby.
The tab: Room rates in the low season of December are $189-$309; the rest of the year, $289-$589.
Contact: 888-625-5144; www.usgrant.net.
Where: White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia
A bit of history: Because of the Greenbrier’s proximity to Washington, D.C., the government built a secret fallout shelter there in 1962. The shelter was big enough to protect each and every member of the U.S. Congress plus the executive and judicial branches of the government in the event of nuclear war. A secret for 30 years, the bunker is now open for tours.
Fun fact: The healing—and odiferous—sulfur waters that first drew people here in 1778 still bubble out of the spring under the green-domed Springhouse.
The tab: Off-season (January-April, November-December) room rate for double is $245 midweek, $570 weekend. In peak season (May-October) rates are $379 to $770.
Contact: 800-453-4858; www.greenbrier.com
Mohonk Mountain House
Mohonk Mountain House
Where: New Paltz, New York
A bit of history: This National Historic Landmark was built in 1869 by two brothers on 2,200 lush acres surrounding Lake Mohonk in the Shawangunk Ridge. The hotel has stayed in the same family to this day.
Fun Fact: This picturesque resort is the subject of a Currier & Ives print. It was also featured in the Stephen King novel The Regulators.
The tab: Room rates for two adults are $560-$990 per night, including three meals, afternoon tea and cookies, plus activities such as yoga and use of the indoor pool and fitness center. In low season (January-March) a Midweek Winter Getaway is $170 per person per night based on double occupancy.
Contact: 800-772-6646; www.mohonk.com.
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