Secrets of the grand hotels

Juicy stories are the lure to these tours
Lora J. Finnegan

The Brown Palace, Denver
Halekulani, Honolulu
Sheraton Moana Surfrider, Honolulu
Mission Inn, Riverside, CA
The Davenport Hotel, Spokane, WA
The Ahwahnee, Yosemite National Park, CA

"Oh yes, I can tell you about the murder," Tony Bissen whispers to us. His historical tour, at Honolulu's Sheraton Moana Surfrider, is one of several backstage tours offered at historic hotels around the West, from Yosemite's Ahwahnee to Spokane's Davenport. The tours (all but one open to nonguests) recount a little history and some really good gossip.

Bissen leads us to the 1901 hotel's restored historic section. "This is where staff are said to have seen Mrs. Leland Stanford's ghost," he notes outside room 244. In 1905, Stanford University cofounder Jane Stanford checked in for a vacation, and perhaps to escape a conflict with university president David Starr Jordan.

One night Mrs. Stanford took a drink from her bottle of water and screamed. "She died a horrible death," Bissen says. "A doctor concluded she had been poisoned with strychnine." But an inquest, spurred by university trustees, found Mrs. Stanford died from "natural causes," Bissen notes, "so it's hard to say what happened."

It's a chilling tale. But it doesn't prevent us from wanting to check into the Sheraton Moana Surfrider for a good long stay.

DENVER

The Brown Palace

Since opening in 1892, this wedge-shaped, red sandstone, Richardsonian Romanesque building has hosted Denver's most prominent visitors: Kings, queens, and presidents have walked under its grand atrium. The Palace's past is so rich, the hotel has its own historian, Julia Kanellos, who also leads the tours.

ROOMS: From $279

INFO: 321 17th St.; www.brownpalace.com or 800/321-2599.

BACKSTAGE SECRET: You'll never see a housekeeping cart in the hall - housekeepers' supplies are taken into each guest room in wicker baskets.

FAMOUS GUESTS: In what's now called the Eisenhower Suite, you can still see a dent that President Dwight D. Eisenhower is said to have put in the fireplace with an errant golf ball.

FUN FACT: Actor Steven Seagal asked the concierge to store an elk that he bagged on a successful hunting trip.

TOURS: Historical tours (meet outside the hotel tavern; free) are at 2 p.m. Wed and Sat. Ghost tours (free, reservations required; 303/297-3111 ext. 3104) are at 1 p.m. Tue-Sat.

HONOLULU

Halekulani

Tours here are open to guests only - another reason to splurge for a stay. The hotel's oldest section is a 1930s plantation-style mansion, and its most famous attraction may be the hotel pool, shimmering on the bottom with a cattleya orchid fashioned from more than a million Italian glass tiles.

ROOMS: From $325

INFO: 2199 Kalia Rd.; www.halekulani.com or 800/367-2343

BACKSTAGE SECRET: The laundry staff's secret for getting towels super white: three rinse cycles.

FAMOUS GUESTS: Film stars from Clark Gable to Halle Berry have stayed here. During WWII, the hotel hosted military brass like Admiral William (Bull) Halsey.

FUN FACT: It has its own bake shop, flower shop, laundry, print shop, and chocolatier (you get a sample on the tour).

TOURS: The Back of the House Tour (hotel guests only; free) takes place at 10 a.m. Fri.

HONOLULU

Sheraton Moana Surfrider

Along with mysteries, tours highlight wonderful artifacts from the Moana's early years: a historical video of surfer Duke Kahanamoku canoeing; photos of singers on the radio show Hawaii Calls, which was broadcast from the hotel's Banyan Court between 1935 and 1975.

ROOMS: From $270

INFO: 2365 Kalakaua Ave.; www.moana-surfrider.com, 888/488-3535, or 808/922-3111

BACKSTAGE SECRET: Pineapple is served in spears instead of slices because it ripens from the bottom up, and a lengthwise-cut spear is less likely to be entirely under- or overripe.

FAMOUS GUESTS: As a young adult in the 1940s, Shirley Temple stayed here; strolling on Waikiki Beach, she met her future husband.

FUN FACT: Afternoon tea in the Banyan Court (1-4:30 Mon-Sat, 3-4:30 Sun; $25, reservations suggested; 808/931-8383) is elegant. Choose from eight tea blends, each in a silver dish.

TOURS: Historical tours (free) are at 11 and 5 Mon, Wed, and Fri.

RIVERSIDE, CA

Mission Inn

Begun in 1876, the domed and turreted mission revival style palace is like a misty dream of early California's hacienda days. Its St. Francis Chapel was designed around a massive 18th-century Mexican altar and 20th-century Tiffany stained-glass windows.

ROOMS: From $225

INFO: 3649 Mission Inn Ave.; www.missioninn.com, 951/784-0300 (for hotel), or 951/788-9556 (for tours)

BACKSTAGE SECRET: The glockenspiel clock over the Spanish patio has five turning figures showing early California images. They move on the quarter-hour.

FAMOUS GUESTS: Richard and Pat Nixon married here in 1940 in the Presidential Suite. Ronald and Nancy Reagan honeymooned here in 1952.

FUN FACT: An oversize chair, built in 1909 to accommodate 335-pound President William Howard Taft, sits in the lobby.

TOURS: Tours (10-3 daily, start times vary; $10, reservations required) depart from the adjacent Mission Inn Museum (entrance at 3696 Main St.).

SPOKANE, WA

The Davenport Hotel

The 1914 grande dame was saved from demolition in the 1980s; a $38 million restoration, which included its grand ballrooms, was completed in 2002. For years the hotel was the main local landmark; when Spokane residents said, "Meet me at the fireplace," it meant the grand fireplace at the Davenport.

ROOMS: From $169

INFO: 10 S. Post St.; www.thedavenporthotel.com or 800/899-1482

BACKSTAGE SECRET: Beds are triple sheeted with Irish linens from Liddell, the same company the hotel has used since 1914 (which also supplied linens for the Titanic).

FAMOUS GUESTS: Early guests included Charles Lindbergh. Singer Neil Diamond liked his bed so much, he bought one.

FUN FACT: During the Davenport's first 50 years, "Silver John" Ungari shined up silver coins for use in the hotel - up to $10,000 daily.

TOURS: Pick up a brochure at the front desk for a self-guided tour (free; 509/789-6808).

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CA

The Ahwahnee

The fabled 1927 hotel has three wings, each oriented toward a major feature of the park: Half Dome, Glacier Point, or Yosemite Falls. The hotel is named for the Ahwahneechee, a local band of Native Americans.

ROOMS: From $367

INFO: 1 Ahwahnee Rd.; www.yosemitepark.com or 559/252-4848

BACKSTAGE SECRET: The Ahwahnee only looks as though it's made out of redwood: Because builders were worried about fire, the façade is actually texturized, stained concrete.

FAMOUS GUESTS: Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, and John F. Kennedy. Lucille Ball filmed a movie in the park with Desi Arnaz and kept fellow guests up singing around the piano with Judy Garland in the Great Lounge.

FUN FACT: In the 1940s, the Ahwahnee was used as a Navy convalescent hospital. The hotel was renovated shortly after the war ended.

TOURS: Free tours are offered about three times a week - for times, check the concierge desk, park bulletin boards, or the park's newspaper. Tours fill quickly; book through the concierge desk (209/372-1426).