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The Grande Dames

America's greatest destination resorts balance the charms of the past with modern amenities
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Camilo Villegas, July/August 2006

Arriving at the Greenbrier resort is like stumbling across the White House in the woods of West Virginia. Fronted by white columns and rows of windows, it exudes grandeur and formality. No secret hideaway, no boutique inn, it's as public as a promenade down Main Street in your Sunday best.

It recalls how the great American hotels used to look—the grander the better. Travel was for the affluent. Families would pull up in a railroad car or a chauffeur-driven Packard, unload steamer trunks filled with formal wear, and decamp for a season.

But almost nobody vacations like that anymore. Today's wealthy businessman has little more than a week of leisure time at a stretch and luxury opportunities spread across the globe. He can swim on the finest beaches, relax on a Tuscan hilltop or rent a time-share in Paris, London or Cape Town. So why spend that week in a backwater like White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, or Mackinac Island, Michigan, in a property that still looks as it did a hundred years ago?

Many of America's grande dame resorts never successfully answered that question. Those that did have survived as destination hotels, each managing to balance the allure of the past with the amenities of the present. Properties such as the Greenbrier and Mackinac's Grand, Florida's Breakers and Biltmore, and Colorado's Broadmoor each found different solutions, but based on a common philosophy: faceless luxury is everywhere, but the experience at our hotel is singular. It isn't enough to live in the past. "This is a resort that has adapted to the Civil War, the transition from stagecoach to railroad to airplanes, and everything else," says Robert Conte, staff historian at the Greenbrier, a resort that has been host to travelers since the late eighteenth century. "It has adapted to today's traveler, too." So have the others, to greater or lesser extent. Spas have been built, cuisines updated, dress codes relaxed. And with a worldwide tourism industry unsettled by political upheaval, terrorism and economic flux, novelty isn't always the best option. These days, the grand hotels sell the idea that there's comfort in returning to a resort you can depend on.

Here's how five of the grandest hotels on the continent have managed to weather the changes in the industry, survive and thrive.

The Biltmore Coral Gables, FL
No feature of any grand hotel in North America—no soaring tower, no palatial ballroom space—is grander than the L-shaped swimming pool that has filled much of the Biltmore's inner courtyard since the hotel opened in 1926. Constructed as the largest pool on record, it sought to redress the fact that this Florida resort was located six miles inland, far from beach access. It holds 700,000 gallons of water, extends 250 feet, and marks this property as hopelessly, wonderfully, retro.

The pool is a reminder of a time when a guest would spend all day sunning by the water's edge, watching the occasional beauty contest or fashion show from the comfort of a chaise longue, doing nothing more energetic for hours than squeezing lime into a Daiquiri. Pool water swells to within a few feet of the hotel's Moorish arches, like a lake threatening to flood after spring rains, leaving no room for argument about the hotel's signature feature—nor much room for anything else. Nothing dates this resort as an early twentieth-century classic more than that vast expanse of water generating no revenue, providing no dining or recreational options, just shimmering in the Florida sun.

The hotel that surrounds the pool is equally lacking in functionality. A double-winged, Spanish-styled structure with a replica of Seville's Giralda tower at its center, it's filled with vast ballrooms and other cavernous halls. The ceilings in its public spaces are gilded and ornate, in the Spanish style. The soaring arches have the grandeur of a cathedral. In all, the Biltmore looks like no hotel built in the last quarter century ever could.

That look was its salvation. Only because the Biltmore stood as a symbol of Coral Gables, from its Moorish architecture to its unalloyed opulence, did the city buy and resurrect it in the mid-1980s, following four decades of misuse and abandonment. (Since 1992, the Seaway Hotels Corp. has operated the hotel under terms of a 99-year lease.) By dint of history and tradition, the Biltmore is integrated into its surrounding community like few other hotels. "We are an extension of the living room for the individual who lives in Coral Gables," says Eli G. White Jr., a Seaway vice president. "This is their health club, their pool."

That was the idea from the start. Developer George Merrick's vision turned open land south of Miami into a planned community designed around the strictures of the City Beautiful movement. The Biltmore was its centerpiece, "a hotel which would not only serve as a complete hostelry to the crowds…thronging to Coral Gables," a Miami newspaper wrote in 1926, "but [also] as a center of sports and fashion." As lots were sold into the 1930s, it became a staging area for prospective purchasers. They'd live in one of its luxurious rooms, swim in the pool and dance in the courtyard, inspecting parcels of land until one struck their fancy.

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