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The Grande Dames

America's greatest destination resorts balance the charms of the past with modern amenities

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.
But shortly after Merrick's death in 1942, the hotel was transformed into an Army hospital. In 1952, the University of Miami opened a medical school off an abandoned hallway. In 1968, the entire structure was closed. For two decades it lay dormant, a reminder of Coral Gables' flagging fortunes as wig shops and cafeterias filled the main shopping street of Miracle Mile. Acquired by the city for a nominal sum, the Biltmore reemerged as a hotel in 1987.
In a sense, this staccato history was a blessing. With no elderly patrons to resist changing so much as the color scheme, the Biltmore was free to remake itself. For a time in the 1990s, it seemed as if every guest in the lobby had a name tag. A series of renovations have restored the luster, and groups now account for only about half of the hotel's business. (Weddings, on the other hand, are a major industry and about 200 are held on the property every year.) "We've gone through so many changes, even in the past few years," says Dennis Doucette, the hotel's general manager. More are on the way, helping the property trend younger. A local disc jockey is creating a unique music mix for the hotel's public spaces, including the semiformal Palme d'Or restaurant, which is getting less formal each season. New cabanas by the pool recently opened, featuring spa treatments, misting fans, even themed moonlit dinners.
Lately, Coral Gables has again become a fashionable destination of its own, a sort of South Beach for grown-ups with designer shopping, fine regional theater and other cultural amenities. That helps attract vacationers who want more than just a hotel as a destination. And the thriving community delivers business to the property. The Biltmore's Cellar Club, which offers discounted dining, waived corkage fees, periodic wine tastings and free valet parking, has more than 1,300 members paying annual dues of $995 a couple, and business memberships that give executives incentive to access the property. Thirty-four percent of the hotel's restaurant business, Doucette notes, is directly related to the Cellar Club. Ancillary revenues add even more. While on site, members just might buy a fine cigar from the hotel's tobacco boutique, or book a room for their next anniversary.
Early on a Friday morning, the gleaming treadmills and stationary bikes at the hotel's health club are nearly all in use. Most of the exercisers aren't hotel guests, but some of the 2,500 local fee-paying members. When the state-of-the-art spa opened last year, it provided another intersection between the hotel and the city around it.
Those ties continue to help, even as the Biltmore's next incarnation comes into focus. Doucette gained permission from the city to alter a dividing wall and reconfigured his outdoor restaurant into a patio positioned between the grand pool and the golf course. "The pool on one side of you, golf on the other," he exults. "Where else can you get that?"
In most communities, any modification to such a historically resonant structure would have to be approved by levels of committees. But Dona Lubin, the assistant city manager and former director of historic preservation for Coral Gables, is a regular at breakfast every Saturday morning. Unlike some distant bureaucrat with no connection to the property, she well understands the problem of guests using that elongated dining space as an outdoor corridor. "Great, I'm tired of getting hit by golf clubs as I eat," she told Doucette when he informed her of his plans. Ground was broken this year.
The Breakers Palm Beach, FL
There's a middle-aged man in a blue blazer, white pants and white shoes sipping a Martini while waiting for a salad of conch and surf clam. Later, he'll eat squares of sorbet: coconut, mango and blood orange. House music pulses around him, to the annoyance of the woman sitting across the table. But when her sushi arrives, she tunes out the pounding and digs in.
And there, in its essence, is both the challenge facing the venerable Breakers hotel and a piece of the solution. The restaurant is Echo, a five-year-old Asian hot spot that represents a stunning departure from nearly a century of Breakers food. It's such a departure that it is located off-site, three blocks north of the hotel in downtown Palm Beach—and out of sight from those who want everything to remain precisely as before at one of America's most refined resorts. As it has been from almost the start of the last century, Palm Beach remains the epicenter of Social Register winter life, and the Breakers is the epitome of Palm Beach. "At one point," says Kevin Walters, the hotel's vice president of food and beverage, "a woman would have to change clothes here six times a day. One outfit for breakfast, one for tea, one for cotillion, one for dinner, and so on."
The delivery systems are different today—Gulfstreams instead of Pullmans—but the same type of people still come. They're just far more likely to stay weeks—even days—than several months. That leaves plenty of empty rooms in the vast hotel and a shrinking pool of vacationers eager to wear tuxedos in the lobby, as was required on Wednesday and Saturday nights into the 1960s.
Over the last decade, the Kenan family—descendants of the man who built the Breakers, railroad magnate Henry Morrison Flagler—undertook what can only be described as a stealth makeover. "One part preservation, one part moving into the future aggressively and creatively," says Paul Leone, the hotel's president. So Echo opened up the street and the food at the signature L'Escalier restaurant was carefully modernized, with far more attention paid to a wine list that features the best of both the old and new world, and the average meal time pulled under three hours.
A retail component was also added. Stand-alone boutiques owned by the Breakers and selling some of fashion's biggest names, such as Piaget and Steuben, now offer guests a rainy-day entertainment option while adding an incremental revenue stream. "When I arrived, they had a series of mom-and-pop hotel shops," says vice president of retail operations John Zoller, who brought his Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue résumé to the hotel in 1995. "That area over there," he says, pointing to what is now a Guerlain Institut de Beaute store, "had two Ping-Pong tables and a bike rack."
Rooms still span multiple categories (21 now), from a 250-square-foot Superior to an Imperial Suite more than eight times that size. But these days, even the smallest have dataports, on-demand movies, PlayStations and plush bathrobes. The two golf courses were remade and a 20,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor spa opened, with 13 types of massages, including aromatherapy, Thai and deep tissue. And slowly, what had been a rather child-unfriendly place, with dress codes and no special effort made to entertain anyone under the drinking age, became a true family destination. A supervised game room, for instance, now sits adjacent to The Italian Restaurant, divided by a glass partition, so parents can actually watch their pre-teens play without getting up from their osso buco. And men can eat breakfast in short-sleeve shirts now, which was forbidden at one time. "It was felt that women might object to the sight of hair on a man's arms," Walters recalls.
That this has been accomplished not only successfully but almost seamlessly is because of the hotel's unmatched service. Leone wanted guests to feel just as pampered in their Lacoste shirts as they did in their Palm Beach green blazers—and even more pampered, so nobody could accuse standards of slipping. "That was absolutely at the core of our strategies, to take no shortcuts," he says. "To step up the service and the value to an even higher level."
Bill Dadasis, 48, a guest who has been coming to the Breakers for 40 years, sits enjoying his umpteenth breakfast there and shakes his head in disbelief. He's in the hotel and restaurant business himself in greater Boston, and he's amazed at the warmth that accompanies the servers' efficiency. "We do training in our hotels, but this is beyond training," he says. "They just find these people who are both incredibly competent and naturally friendly. You can't train that." All the solicitousness in the world can't fill a 560-room, 88-apartment Florida resort at winter prices once the weather turns hot, but a new marketing campaign to turn the Breakers into a full-year destination has dropped the standard room rate from $470 to $290 in the summer. "We took a property that was running in the mid-60s occupancy on average to an 80 percent occupancy," Leone says. Floridians, already in the heat, have taken disproportionate advantage. They find a property that is more casual than during high season, where most employees are permitted to trade the dark suit and tie for sport shirts and khakis.
Yet for all that, the mere act of walking in a coat and tie through the Breakers' Renaissance-arched lobby, striding along the Tennessee marble on your way to a night of indulgence at L'Escalier, still feels exciting. Even if the hotel no longer requires your finest clothes night after night, something about it seems to deserve them.
The Broadmoor Colorado Springs, CO
The Broadmoor's standing in the celebrity world can be charted by the photos of guests displayed on the walls of the Colorado Springs resort. From Will Rogers, Jack Benny, Arthur Godfrey and Truman Capote in the 1940s and 1950s, the level of fame declines precipitously to present-day actor and economist Ben Stein, travel guru Peter Greenberg and assorted figure skaters.
But that's fine with Steve Bartolin, the hotel's CEO. Let the Hollywood types jet to Bali and St. Barts. What the Broadmoor uses to entice today's guests is predictable luxury in an incomparable setting. That may not be as exciting as having famous faces decorating the poolside and paparazzi hiding in the bushes, but it's a better business model. "It's dangerous to be trendy," says Bartolin, who served as the general manager of West Virginia's Greenbrier for four years before moving to the Broadmoor. "Trends come and go, and where does that leave you? We try to appeal to high-end frequent travelers, business groups, honeymooners."
The scenery helps. The ski resort of Vail may have been built in the image of St. Moritz, but no property in the United States evokes Alpine vistas like a stroll around the Broadmoor's centerpiece lake, with Cheyenne Mountain as a backdrop.
But scenery can't make up for lackluster service or amenities. When the current ownership, Oklahoma's Gaylord family, acquired the property from the nonprofit El Pomar Foundation in 1988, the Broadmoor, which originally opened in 1918, was fading fast. "It was teetering," says Bartolin. At the same time, the hospitality industry was just beginning a boom that would make it the largest consumer category in the world. New construction was happening everywhere, rendering many older properties obsolete.
Like the other grande dames that survived, the Broadmoor needed money. The foundation had been limited to how much it could invest, but the Gaylords weren't. They put $280 million into the 400-acre campus (excluding golf courses), beginning with a 90,000-square-foot fitness center that opened in 1995. In 2001, 21 lakeside suites were added. That same year, an infinity pool opened at the north end of the lake, featuring striking purple chaise longues. For a guest sitting there now, gazing out over the west tower toward the mountain, the view is almost too beautiful to be genuine.
Yet the pool also reflects philosophical changes. At the risk of alienating longtime guests, Bartolin decreed that contemporary music—from country-pop to the occasional slash of a rock guitar—be piped in. If you look closely, you'll even see two water slides built into a specially constructed "mountain" to mimic the foothills, another part of the push to turn a celebrity haunt into a family hotel. "You have to be a bit daring," Bartolin says.
In almost every aspect of the Broadmoor, formality has lessened. While the recently redesigned Penrose Room still offers a live band and Rainbow Room-style dancing with dinner, as well as tableside preparations of standards such as Caesar salads, the formal French cuisine of even a few years ago has softened considerably to appeal to a more popular sensibility. "Today's client is more educated, but less sophisticated," says Craig Reed, the food-and-beverage manager. Sommeliers are trained not to just suggest big, expensive Bordeaux, but a range of wines across all price points. "If you want white Zinfandel," Reed says, "you're going to get the same experience." And in a nod to base broadening, a strikingly modern, Adam Tihanyódesigned restaurant called Summit has opened in a newly constructed space across the street from the hotel. It features the kind of food that the Broadmoor's new clientele is accustomed to eating on a nice night out—duck breasts, seared scallops, tuna tartare, a selection of sorbets—as cooked by Bertrand Bouquin. It debuted as perhaps the finest restaurant in the area and has started to lure local diners who may not have set foot on the Broadmoor property in years.
The south building, the dowdiest of the Broadmoor's facilities, reopened in May after a substantial—and pricey—redesign. The facade was replaced and extended outward, creating larger guest rooms, more luxurious bathrooms and balconies. The $24 million or so spent on those 144 rooms pushed the envelope for economic feasability, but the rooms were transformed from the hotel's shabbiest to its best. And a new bank of singular retail stores was set to open June 1: eight boutiques positioned around a courtyard with greenery and wrought-iron benches. These aren't the cookie-cutter Polo shops of other properties, but the likes of Balliet's, which sells high-fashion women's clothes such as Prada and Dolce & Gabbana. Another store will feature clocks, watches and other accessories.
It's all done in an effort to make the Broadmoor distinct from the mega-resorts popping up everywhere—from the shoreline of Laguna Beach, California, to the Las Vegas desert. "We'll always be different because you just couldn't buy up 2,500 acres in the foothills and create a Broadmoor today," Bartolin says. "As long as you keep it up, you really do have a unique property. But you have to nourish it, be creative. The fun part is, you're never done. It's a race without a finish line."
Grand Hotel Mackinac Island, MI
Let other historic hotels keep pace with the Hyatts and Hiltons, Dan Musser says. Let them add spas, plasma televisions and fusion cuisine and allow sports shirts in the lounge. His stately Grand Hotel, blazing white in the Lake Huron sunshine, resolutely soldiers on, staying true to its illustrious past.
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