Secrets of the grand hotels
Juicy stories are the lure to these tours
“Oh yes, I can tell you about the murder,” Tony Bissenwhispers to us. His historical tour, at Honolulu’s Sheraton MoanaSurfrider, is one of several backstage tours offered at historichotels around the West, from Yosemite’s Ahwahnee to Spokane’sDavenport. The tours (all but one open to nonguests) recount alittle 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’sghost,” he notes outside room 244. In 1905, Stanford Universitycofounder Jane Stanford checked in for a vacation, and perhaps toescape a conflict with university president David Starr Jordan.
One night Mrs. Stanford took a drink from her bottle of waterand screamed. “She died a horrible death,” Bissen says. “A doctorconcluded 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 whathappened.”
The Brown Palace
Since opening in 1892, this wedge-shaped, red sandstone,Richardsonian Romanesque building has hosted Denver’s mostprominent visitors: Kings, queens, and presidents have walked underits grand atrium. The Palace’s past is so rich, the hotel has itsown historian, Julia Kanellos, who also leads the tours.
ROOMS: From $279
INFO: 321 17th St.; www.brownpalace.com or800/321-2599.
BACKSTAGE SECRET: You’ll never see a housekeeping cart inthe hall – housekeepers’ supplies are taken into each guest room inwicker baskets.
FAMOUS GUESTS: In what’s now called the Eisenhower Suite,you can still see a dent that President Dwight D. Eisenhower issaid to have put in the fireplace with an errant golf ball.
FUN FACT: Actor Steven Seagal asked the concierge to storean elk that he bagged on a successful hunting trip.
Tours here are open to guests only – another reason to splurgefor a stay. The hotel’s oldest section is a 1930s plantation-stylemansion, and its most famous attraction may be the hotel pool,shimmering on the bottom with a cattleya orchid fashioned from morethan a million Italian glass tiles.
ROOMS: From $325
INFO: 2199 Kalia Rd.; www.halekulani.com or800/367-2343
BACKSTAGE SECRET: The laundry staff’s secret for gettingtowels super white: three rinse cycles.
FAMOUS GUESTS: Film stars from Clark Gable to Halle Berryhave stayed here. During WWII, the hotel hosted military brass likeAdmiral 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).
Sheraton Moana Surfrider
Along with mysteries, tours highlight wonderful artifacts fromthe Moana’s early years: a historical video of surfer DukeKahanamoku canoeing; photos of singers on the radio show HawaiiCalls, which was broadcast from the hotel’s Banyan Court between1935 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 ofslices because it ripens from the bottom up, and a lengthwise-cutspear is less likely to be entirely under- or overripe.
FAMOUS GUESTS: As a young adult in the 1940s, Shirley Templestayed here; strolling on Waikiki Beach, she met her futurehusband.
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.
Begun in 1876, the domed and turreted mission revival stylepalace is like a misty dream of early California’s hacienda days.Its St. Francis Chapel was designed around a massive 18th-centuryMexican 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 Spanishpatio has five turning figures showing early California images.They move on the quarter-hour.
FAMOUS GUESTS: Richard and Pat Nixon married here in 1940 inthe Presidential Suite. Ronald and Nancy Reagan honeymooned here in1952.
FUN FACT: An oversize chair, built in 1909 to accommodate335-pound President William Howard Taft, sits in the lobby.
The Davenport Hotel
The 1914 grande dame was saved from demolition in the 1980s; a$38 million restoration, which included its grand ballrooms, wascompleted in 2002. For years the hotel was the main local landmark;when Spokane residents said, “Meet me at the fireplace,” it meantthe grand fireplace at the Davenport.
ROOMS: From $169
INFO: 10 S. Post St.; www.thedavenporthotel.comor 800/899-1482
BACKSTAGE SECRET: Beds are triple sheeted with Irish linensfrom Liddell, the same company the hotel has used since 1914 (whichalso 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, “SilverJohn” Ungari shined up silver coins for use in the hotel – up to$10,000 daily.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CA
The fabled 1927 hotel has three wings, each oriented toward amajor feature of the park: Half Dome, Glacier Point, or YosemiteFalls. The hotel is named for the Ahwahneechee, a local band ofNative Americans.
ROOMS: From $367
INFO: 1 Ahwahnee Rd.; www.yosemitepark.com or559/252-4848
BACKSTAGE SECRET: The Ahwahnee only looks as though it’smade out of redwood: Because builders were worried about fire, thefaçade is actually texturized, stained concrete.
FAMOUS GUESTS: Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, and JohnF. Kennedy. Lucille Ball filmed a movie in the park with Desi Arnazand kept fellow guests up singing around the piano with JudyGarland in the Great Lounge.
FUN FACT: In the 1940s, the Ahwahnee was used as a Navyconvalescent hospital. The hotel was renovated shortly after thewar ended.
TOURS: Free tours are offered about three times a week – fortimes, check the concierge desk, park bulletin boards, or thepark’s newspaper. Tours fill quickly; book through the conciergedesk (209/372-1426).