How to Enjoy the Glories of the Ahwahnee Hotel
By Kathy Chin Leong
Somewhere in my parents’ archives, there lies a black-and-white snapshot of Dad holding my hand in front of a waterfall in Yosemite. I am crossing my legs as if I cannot wait to go to the bathroom. Mom, with beehive hairdo in tact, smiles for the camera, holding my toddler brother in her arms. He is counting his fingers, or perhaps counting the seconds until this picture-taking ordeal is over so he can push me into the falls.
I have always enjoyed the rustic Yosemite, the national park of my childhood where I camped under the stars and hiked to Vernal Falls with friends from school. Today I feel like I’m in a different Yosemite, now the national park of my middle age. My husband Frank and I are setting up a different kind of camp in our room with a view at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel- Room 343 to be exact.
This grand dame of Yosemite park is its most exquisite property set amid lofty trees and even loftier granite mountains. As I write this, daylight has spoken at 7:02 a.m., and I am perched in front of an antique radiator hissing its warmth inside this alcove known as the Solarium. Surrounded by floor-to-ceiling window panes, I have repositioned my loveseat fronting a window that must be at last three Kathy-lengths or 15 feet high. Sipping hot mocha, my eyes drink in the jags and curves of a granite mountain slab scarred with diagonal crevices, carefully stairstepped with waterfalls frozen in their tracks, as if glued to the side of the mountain.
The rock formation is picture-ready with bushy trees and soldier A-frame pines standing at attention, silhouetted against the bluebird sky.
This, my friend, is how you enjoy the Ahwahnee Hotel. You take it slow, letting the scenery fill up your emotional tank from the inside out. You feel the toasty warmth of a crackling fire nearby. Frank and I had the opportunity to stay here three days this winter season, an ideal time to come when crowds are nil. We had entire salons, game rooms, and parlors to ourselves, and we could freely enjoy sitting in any spot for as long we wanted and felt as if we owned the place.
There have been so many descriptions of the Ahwahnee that any reference today makes the hotel sound like something out of a travel brochure. "Jewel of the Sierra Nevadas," "icon of the West," "architectural marvel." But how can you get around it? Let me tell you in plain terms that words cannot adequately qualify this sacred place because its depth and character goes beyond printed text. You cannot simply read about it, you the reader have to physically step into it and immerse yourself into its fairytale grandeur. (Photo by Kenny Karst).
Built in 1926, it is the masterpiece of Stephen Mather a multi-millionaire who was also the first director of U.S. national parks. The magnificent structure is named after the Ahwahneechee Indians who were the first documented group to create a home for themselves here. Ahwahnee means "Place of the gaping mouth," and this is what the early Indians called Yosemite Valley.
Once Mather took the helm as director, he wanted more people to experience and savor what he so treasured. Mather decided that other wealthy folks who saw Yosemite would be convinced that this land would be worth saving. Hence, a glamorous resort hotel would be required to lure the rich and famous.
And he was right. Since its inception, the Ahwahnee staff has played host to President John F. Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth, Boris Karloff, Barbra Streisand, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston (when they were married), and a litany of political barons, business tycoons and international celebrities from virtually every country.
Architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood was under strict marching orders to make his creation blend into the environment and build it of materials that would last as long as its surrounding mountains. As a result, the entire edifice is built of concrete and steel. It’s façade looks as if it is made of wood, for wood pillars and beams appear throughout the hotel. Actually, concrete was poured into molds copied from actual trees. The concrete was later painted to resemble large timbers, knotholes and all. It is an amazing feat, and people are always surprised that the only wood in the hotel are the floors, doors, and window frames and support joists in the Ahwahnee dining room.
To fully appreciate the Ahwahnee, I recommend taking the complimentary one-hour historical tour. Do sign up for it early at the concierge desk. It is best to call ahead of your visit because the tour is not offered everyday. What makes this hotel so special at first glance is its sheer size. The sky high ceilings upon entering, the paned windows that tippy-toe to the top to give visitors full views of the mountains, the antique rugs suspended on the walls, preserved medieval chandeliers with candlestick lighting. (Photo by John Bellenis).
And while it is mammoth in size, the furnishings are well worn and cozy and unpretentious. A few couches, I’ll tell you, could use some restuffing as I sank into one of them and couldn’t get up. The décor pays respect to the early Ahwahneechees, for the hotel is filled with Indian arrowhead, totem pole, and diamond print patterns on the carpets and upholstery and artwork. Woven baskets, wall rugs with deep reds, forest green, and ink black.
How big is big? In the lobby and main level, fireplaces over five and six feet tall can engulf an entire classroom of children. Throughout the day and night, staffers were feeding the flames, making the fireplaces attractive venues for enchanting fireside talks or solo bookreading opportunities. as well as warmth throughout the hotel. The dining room measures 30 feet high, 51 feet wide, and 103 feet long and can seat up to 350 guests. At the end of the dining room is its focal point, an A-framed cathedral ceiling window with a priviledged view of the trees and mountains. Majestic in every sense, the Ahwahnee dining room is a must see and a must experience when you visit. (Photo by John Bellenis).
The restaurant is open daily serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No shorts, flip-flops, or t-shirts are allowed. On Sunday, the hotel serves up an enormous buffet brunch.
If you want to stay at the Ahwahnee in the summer, management recommends making reservations anywhere from six months to a year in advance. But, during the winter and autumn months, you can get lucky and book a month or even a few days ahead of time to secure a room.
Prices? Consider one night to run $394 for a standard room to over $800 for a suite or cabin. The hotel features 123 rooms, which includes two suites, and 24 separate cottage cabins on the premises. Of note is the John F. Kennedy suite, an elegant suite featuring a separate bedroom and sitting area with a fireplace, wrap-around stone balcony, flat-screen TV, and gorgeous furnishings with an upscale, country Ralph Lauren-type of feel. And yes, President Kennedy spent one night here during his presidency. The idea of spending the night in the same room as the president kind of makes you shiver, don’t you agree?
Our room was a standard room with an amazing view of the mountains. With a king-sized bed, two nightstands, TV armoire, and small bistro table and two chairs, it was comfortable, a bit on the small size, but cozy. Art on the walls included framed bits of authentic rugs from the early years of the hotel and stencil prints with an early Indian motif. The ceilings throughout our room and hallways featu painted stenciled borders.
The hotel bed was extra comfortable with deep mattress, extra plush pillows, and high quality bedding. I know it was comfortable because I didn’t wake up once. After dinner I lay on the bed and just feel into a hypnotic sleep. Before I knew it, it was morning.
Our room also featured conveniences such as a CD/clock radio, Seattle’s Best coffee and tea, a coffee maker, in-room refrigerator, and an ironing board and iron. When you want to get dressed up to go to dinner, being able to press your clothes is an absolute must. The room was clean, attractive, not fussy. The view stole the show.
Perhaps one of the most striking and impressive aspects next to the architecutre of the hotel is its service. The average length of employment for management and staff at the hotel is 20 years. People who come to work here tell of the time they first came and fell in love with Yosemite. Everyone employed here has made a life decision to work, and in some cases, live, at a national park.
Hence, the hotel concierges remember guest names and are friendly and eager to help, patient with visitors who ask questions on everything from where to find easy hiking trails to how to rent bikes. The outside valet attendants are quick to serve, and will park people’s cars in the nastiest of weather with a smile.
Restaurant waiters are equally attentive. We met one waiter at dinner who has been working at the hotel for 35 years and says he’s still not ready to retire. The pianist who accompanied during dinner also happens to be the town postmaster.
During my stay, I felt like a kid in a castle. Lofts, hidden balconies, quiet alcoves are tucked into unsuspecting corners and half-levels around the hotel. One night Frank and I found a staircase on the back side of the Ahwahnee. This winding staircase led to a small balcony, then another, and then a loft and finally a huge parlour filled with game tables and with handsome library rooms splintered off of it. We amused ourselves with our discovery.
The hotel has a few niceties which I must highlight: free morning coffee, hot chocolate and tea daily; afternoon tea from 4-5 p.m.daily, a complimentary treat with fresh homemade cookies from its kitchen; free valet and self-parking; free wireless in the lobby and conference room areas (not bedrooms); a bar which serves food and beverages until 11 p.m.; two gift shops; outdoor swimming pool; free USA Today paper delivered to your door to keep up with the world.
And guests who are experienced hotel hoppers should note that the Ahwahnee has no exercise room or gym. (Figure that all of Yosemite is an outdoor gym). The hotel does not run a spa, but guests can request in-room massage services.
While the costs of staying at the Ahwahnee are at a premium compared to your standard chain hotel, not every property can tell the stories that the Ahwahnee tells and not every property hold claim to hosting presidents, kings, and , celebrities of stage and screen. Maybe next time your birthday rolls around, you can tell your spouse Ahwahnee really means "Ah-want-need" to go to the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite.
Rates: $394 to $850-plus
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