When they began to open at the beginning of the past century, America's grande-dame resort hotels, with their hundreds of stately rooms, huge, attentive staffs and sumptuous dining, catered to wealthy families who often traveled with servants, arrived in their own train cars and stayed for months at a time. Times changed. The grande dames began to fall out of favor--and some into disrepair.
Now they are coming back. Andy Pesky, president of the premium travel agency ProTravel-The Zenith Group, calls them "the hottest thing out there." While many mid-20th century middle-class folk might have felt uncomfortable in such swanky settings, today, observes Bjorn Hanson of PricewaterhouseCoopers, "everyone has moved up in economic status in their own mind, so everyone feels entitled--even feels that a luxury vacation is a birthright."
Today's grande-dame guests prefer to pamper themselves in these inimitable settings more often but for shorter periods. More and more companies are also choosing them for corporate meetings. Guests know, says Hanson, "they will not have to worry about anything or have to negotiate anything."
Though many are still owned by families or small private partnerships that value tradition, the grande dames are enjoying a renewed commitment by managements willing to invest in the future--and to offer an expanding number of affordable packages. Here's a guide to some of the best.
Silence Is Golden
GRAND HOTEL MACKINAC ISLAND, MICH.
The first guests to arrive at Mackinac (pronounced Mackinaw) Island's Grand Hotel in 1887 were met at the pier by horse-drawn carriages. When they ventured forth from the hotel, it was by horse or buggy or bike. And so it is today, as a ban on automobiles enacted a century ago remains in force. Like those early travelers, today's Grand guests sit in big, wooden rockers on what, at 660 ft., is still the world's longest hotel porch.
Always one of the country's most beloved hotels, the 381-room Grand has been anointed year after year by Conde Nast Traveler as "one of the best places to stay in the world." Unlike many other grande dames, the Grand did not fall on hard times. But as it ages, it requires constant care. The Musser family, which bought it in 1933, has in the past 20 years spent about $50 million on renovations. Last year the family completed the largest addition since the hotel opened, including a Millennium Wing with 42 new rooms and an expanded dining room, more elevators and first-time fiber-optic phone lines. This season the hotel will also offer more packages than it ever has--15 in all, including Somewhere in Time, named for the romantic movie filmed in 1979 at the Grand, which attracts more than 650 guests each summer.
A Southern Belle
THE JEFFERSON RICHMOND, VA.
It takes a lot (including peepholes in every door and 24-hour room service) to qualify for a Mobil five-star rating, and most hotels don't even bother trying. But the current owners of the Jefferson believed five stars were essential to the hotel's success. This year, for the first time in its 105-year history, the Jefferson made it, becoming one of 17 U.S. hotels to hold both a Mobil five-star and a AAA five-diamond rating.