It's considered sexist these days to refer to ships as "she," but that hasn't stopped me from referring to the hotels I like best as "grandes dames."
These are large, rambling places built around the turn of the last century, when fashionable women changed their clothes at least three times a day and thus traveled with great piles of luggage. Women used to sit on the porch and watch new arrivals whose status was determined by the number of bags they brought, says Robert Conte, resident historian at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., which qualifies as a grande dame by any measure.
People will quibble about what makes a grande dame besides age and size. I think of handsome old city hotels as grand hotels, pure and simple, not as grandes dames, which implies something slightly different. As much as I adore places like the Plaza in New York, I think a true grande dame should have a country or resort setting. Other people require their grandes dames to have rooms that are as big, fashionably decorated and luxuriously equipped as those at Four Seasons and Ritz-Carltons. But to me, character and history are more to the point.
"Does the hotel have a personality apart from the bricks and mortar?" asks Ian Powell, general manager of the 1908 Fairmont Empress, an attraction in itself in Victoria, Canada. Afternoon tea is an institution that as many as 100,000 people a year enjoy. As late as the 1960s, obituaries of local women routinely mentioned that the deceased had danced in the Empress' Crystal Ballroom during the 1919 visit of the Prince of Wales.
A grande dame's personality also must be feminine, as the phrase suggests. With its turrets and stained glass, the 1888 Hotel del Coronado near San Diego--surely another grande dame--is pretty and romantic, says Christine Donovan, the hotel's heritage director. Moreover, she says, grande dame hotels like the Del were often built by railroad tycoons who fell in love with them after construction was completed.
Grandes dames sometimes have ghosts, resident historians, museums and tours for the public, historic rooms (such as the cottages at the Greenbrier), remarkable architectural features (the long front porch of the 1887 Grand Hotel on Michigan's Mackinac Island) and distinctive decor.
After serving as a military hospital during World War II, the Greenbrier was refurbished by New York interior designer Dorothy Draper, while the decor of the Grand is the work of her colleague Carleton Varney. To my eye, the look is fusty elegant, part Victorian, part Eisenhower era.
These places seem so much like public institutions that people think they should be able to enter simply because they pay taxes. About 25 years ago, the Grand--the quintessence of a grande dame--realized that its public rooms were being inundated with visitors, not guests.
"Our overnight guests couldn't find a seat in the parlor for tea or a rocker on the porch," says David Stout, the Grand's general manager. The hotel began charging people who wanted to see the premises without staying there. (The fee is now $10.)
I stopped at the Grand in July on a Lake Michigan cruise and didn't bristle a bit at the fee. It gave me access to the small but exquisite display of Hudson River School paintings and a chance to sit in a rocker on the hotel's famed porch, where I had a cool drink and looked out over the water.
Fortunately, I did not arrive in cutoffs and flip-flops, which wouldn't do at a grande dame. Jackets and ties are still required for men and dressy attire for women in the main dining rooms at the Grand and Greenbrier (though the Greenbrier has alternate restaurant choices where the dress code is relaxed). "Part of the playacting that goes with the Greenbrier is dressing up," says historian Conte.
The Grand's dress code dates to the days of William Stewart Woodfill, who joined the staff in 1919 as a desk clerk, worked his way up to manager, bought the hotel during the Great Depression and once said, "I think [the dress code] really classes up the joint, and it doesn't cost me a dime."
Some families vacation and celebrate important events at their favorite grande dame year after year. The Del has hosted three generations of weddings in a family. Five generations of another family celebrate Christmas at the Empress every year.
Presidents and princes, movie stars and movie makers favor grande dame hotels. Sometimes their films become inextricably linked with the hotel where they were shot. I can't think of the Del without wanting to rent Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot," with Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, filmed there in 1958.
Beginning in the '60s, many grandes dames fell on hard times and were lost as vacation habits changed. But this year, two old girls, the 1865 Mountain View Grand in Whitefield, N.H., and the 1879 Congress Hall in Cape May, N.J., reopened. If it's a trend, I welcome it. I'm proud to share my gender with them.
Fairmont Empress, 721 Government St., Victoria, B.C., Canada V85 1W5; (800) 441-1414, www.fairmont.com.
Grand Hotel, P.O. Box 285, Mackinac Island, MI 49757; (800) 334-7263, www.grandhotel.com.
Greenbrier, 300 W. Main St., White Sulphur Springs, WV 24986; (800) 453-4858, www.greenbrier.com.
Hotel del Coronado, 1500 Orange Ave., Coronado, CA 92118; (800) 468-3533, www.hoteldel.com.