To really get a feel for what it was like to have been a traveler in the nineteenth or twentieth century, become a guest at a historic hotel built in those times. True, many have modern innovations like air conditioning and elevators, and you can set up reservations via modern telephone systems and websites. However, once you’ve been a guest at any of these historic grand dames, you’ll be able to imagine the pampered feeling of the predominantly upper class guests who stayed at these luxurious establishments.
1. Grand Hotel — Mackinac Island, Michigan
The Grand Hotel, circa 1887, is a white-framed, imposing building perched on a hill on Mackinac Island in Lake Huron in Michigan. It gives you the best feel for being back in the nineteenth century and is the largest summer hotel in the world. Its 660-foot porch is also the largest, flanked by towering Greek columns, American flags, and thousands of geraniums. It will give you the most fantastic views of the Mackinac Bridge, the largest suspension bridge in the world, and its fabulous sunsets. Sitting in one of the white Adirondack rocking chairs and sipping your favorite drink will be one of your cherished moments.
Each room and suite is different and individually decorated, many with wallpapered ceilings. Five presidents have been guests, and a famous peace conference was held here.
One of its 20th century innovations is its 120-foot Esther Williams pool. The movie, “This Times for Keeps,” with Williams as star, was filmed here.
Since no motor vehicles except for emergency ones are allowed on the island, your feeling of being back in the 19th century will be enhanced. You can be picked up at the pier from a ferry at either Mackinaw City or St. Ignace by the Grand’s 19th century glossy hansom cab, liveried driver and all.
The Grand is still one of the last bastions of formality for dinner. After six, on the parlor floor with its many antiques, men must wear a jacket and tie and women must be appropriately dressed as well. All of the waiters wear morning coats.
Every fall, an early 20th century feeling is promoted with a weekend celebrating the movie “Somewhere in Time,” where many guests dress circa 1912, with women wearing huge flowered and feathered hats, and men in three-piece suits.
2. Del Coronado — San Diego, California
A close cousin to the Grand is the Del Coronado on Coronado Island off the coast of downtown San Diego. Built a year later, in 1888, this grand historic hotel has hosted the likes of Marilyn Monroe, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Built in the Queen Anne Style, it’s easily recognizable with its magnificent red cupola.
Though the hotel has many new accommodations, staying in the main building will give you a feel for its history. Its intricate metal-faced elevator is an historic gem. Many of the Del Coronado’s mini-suites face west so that you can enjoy the gorgeous multi-hued half hour-long California sunsets over the Pacific.
A luxurious spa is also part of the hotel. Fine dining is possible both inside and on its oceanside porches. You can drive to the resort on a causeway from downtown San Diego or cross over on a ferry, which allows great views of San Diego’s waterfront.
3. Mission Inn — Riverside, California
California also has many other 19th and 20th century historic hotels, but one of its most outstanding is the Mission Inn in Riverside. In 1870 engineer Christopher Columbus Miller opened the Glenwood Cottages as a small resort. His son Frank took over in 1902, renamed it the Mission Inn Hotel (now the Mission Inn Hotel and Spa) and proceeded to make it one of the most interesting and eclectic eye-catching resorts in the country. With bell towers, minarets, arcades, cupolas, manifold arches, a cloister wing with catacombs, buttresses, and intricate stoneware and wrought iron everywhere, and an artifact collection worth over five million dollars, it somewhat resembles the medieval Cloisters in Manhattan. It’s actually a combination of different Revival periods. Staying here, it’s hard to believe that you are in California and not in some ancient city in Europe!
Antiques are everywhere—to sit on, to look at, and to just marvel at. The hotel’s St. Francis Chapel has Tiffany stained glass windows and two mosaics by him. You might have the wonderful feeling that you are staying in a grand European estate or even a museum.
Its luxurious Spanish Mission-style 7,000 square foot spa has been rated as one of the top ten hotel spas by Condé Nast. It’s easy staying here to find the peacefulness of more leisurely ages.
4. Greenbrier — White Sulphur Springs, Virginia
Probably one of the oldest resort areas and one with possibly the oldest resort history in the nation is the Greenbrier in West Virginia. Historically its Sulfur Springs attracted people in the last quarter of the 18th century. The area was called White Sulfur Springs and resort cottages were sold here. In 1858 The Grand Central Hotel built here, and then the Greenbrier Hotel was added to the property in 1913.
Twenty-six presidents have been guests, along with a multitude of other celebrities. A bunker, no longer designated as such, was built at the behest of the U.S. government to house Congress in an emergency.
Today the Greenbrier is situated on 11,000 acres surrounded by the Allegheny Mountains, where it is home to a top golf resort. It is a very posh resort with ten lobbies, crystal chandeliers, a casino, and a mineral spa.
Its huge white building and wings look like a combination of the White House and the Pentagon. Its heart is the white-columned spring house over the sulfur springs. Its very name connotes elite luxury, and it is known worldwide.
5. The Breakers — Palm Beach, Florida
A resort that has rebuilt itself in the same spot many times is The Breakers in Palm Beach. It was built by railroad magnate Henry Flagler in 1894 as The Royal Poinciana Hotel.
The guest register read like a “who’s who” of early twentieth century America: Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Astors, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan vacationed alongside United States presidents and European nobility.
On March 18, 1925, fire destroyed the all-wood building. In January, 1926, a new building was modeled after the Villa Medici in Rome. You don’t even have to go to Europe when you visit the “new” Breakers. You can get the European feel here.
So pack up your futuristic luggage, your iPads and iPhones, and take a jet back in time to any one of these five special historic resorts, or any of the many more that this country has.