Five historic hotels with guided tours that bring the past to life

FOR travellers who seek out historic hotels, learning about a property firsthand and from an expert is a lovely perk.

No brochure or website can make history come alive – or indulge questions – the way a human guide can. In fact, for many travellers, guided tours are the highlight of trips to such iconic properties as the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, which served as a secret bunker for members of Congress, or the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, which has a rich history both as a resort built by an automobile magnate and as the inspiration for the Stephen King novel The Shining.

The following lodgings, all featured on the Historic Hotels of America website, offer guided tours of their fascinating properties, making your time there a truly memorable experience.

Jekyll Island Club Resort, Jekyll Island, Georgia

After an exquisite day at the majestic Jekyll Island Club Resort off the coast of Georgia, my companion asks, “What was your favourite part?”

It’s a tough call. The 5,700 acres of island tranquillity once served as a private retreat for a group of America’s wealthiest families – picture Vanderbilts and Morgans.

The ornate lobby at Palmer House in Chicago
The Buccaneer’s name was inspired by a pirate who abandoned his ships in the bay as he fled from the British
An aerial view of Jekyll Island Club Resort, once a getaway for Gilded Age families
The Great Hall at the Omni Mount Washington Resort, site of the founding of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank
The Omni Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods, NH, was one of the first hotels with a private bath in every room

In 1947, the state of Georgia bought the island, and in 1983, architect Larry Evans and lawyer Vance Hughes proposed restoring the historic building. The Jekyll Island Club opened as a hotel in 1986. Now owned by Northview Hotel Group, it has 157 rooms, with more units to come this year.

The stately Queen Anne-style architecture, breezy verandas and trees filled with swaying Spanish moss make for a relaxed and elegant atmosphere. But my favourite part? That was Sherri Zacher, the Jekyll Island Club Resort’s concierge, who conducts the history tours.

Sherri is Siri when it comes to club information; it seems there’s nothing she doesn’t know. She fed us fascinating tidbits, sharing details about the secret 1910 meeting disguised as a duck hunt that laid the groundwork for the Federal Reserve, and showing us Joseph Pulitzer’s favourite seat for an after-dinner smoke.

Her childhood memories of trips to the island lent the presentation a personal feel and allowed us to experience a sense of connection and inclusion, to feel solid as a Rockefeller in this grand history-heavy retreat.

Omni Mount Washington Resort, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire

Under the front veranda of the Omni Mount Washington Resort is a bar that no one was supposed to know about – well, no one with a badge.

This was a Prohibition-era speakeasy. The term for an illegal establishment that serves drinks came from having to fool police, according to resort’s Director of Sales and Marketing Craig Clemmer. One brick could be removed from the wall for a lookout, and if the police were approaching, guests would be told, “Dump your cups and speak easy,” he says.

Momentous events have happened here, such as the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference, at which the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were established. The 200-room Spanish Renaissance Revival-style hotel was newsworthy when coal and railroad magnate Joseph Stickney opened it in 1902: “To have hot and cold running water and a private bath in every room in this hotel was unheard of at the time,” Clemmer says.

Mission Inn Hotel & Spa, Riverside, California

To look at the Mission Inn, you’d never guess this giant, labyrinthine complex began as a humble adobe and boardinghouse in 1876. The owner’s son, Frank Miller, a world traveller and lover of beauty, opened today’s hotel on the site in 1903. He constructed it in the Mission Revival tradition popular at the time, and kept adding to it in a variety of architectural styles, including Spanish, Moorish and Mediterranean revival.

Miller’s “life’s motto was ‘Dramatise what you do’,” says Collections Manager Karen Raines. And that he did, amassing a mammoth collection of art, religious artefacts and other antiquities. The hotel has more than 8,000 pieces, some of which it displays in rotating exhibits in the hotel and at its museum. (The hotel made a great impression on novelist Anne Rice, who set part of her book Angel Time there, in what her protagonist calls “a giant confection and confabulation of a building”.

Some areas viewable only on the tour include the Grand Parisian Ballroom, with its 1903 custom-made Kimball pipe organ, and the Saint Francis of Assisi Chapel with Tiffany stained-glass windows.

Pro tip: You’re more likely to see these rooms on earlier tours, since they’re usually in use later in the day.

Palmer House, a Hilton Hotel, Chicago

Being both warm and palatial is a neat trick, but, then, the Palmer House has some magic to it.

The original hotel was a wedding gift from business and real estate magnate Palmer Potter to his bride, Bertha Honoré Potter, a cultural leader, renowned art collector and advocate for women. The first Palmer House opened in 1871 but fell to the Great Chicago Fire.

Palmer then rebuilt what was advertised as the world’s first fireproof hotel. The current 1,641-room hotel is the third incarnation, built in the 1920s in Classical Revival style.

“He was an exceptional man, she was an exceptional woman and they contributed to each other and to the nation,” says Ken Price, resident historian of 37 years. Price hosts the hotel’s History is Hott tour, revealing the back-story of characters as intriguing as the city they nurtured, and describing the heyday of the legendary Empire Room, which showcased entertainers such as Tony Bennett, Carol Channing, and Sonny and Cher.

Sweet bonus: When Chicago hosted the 1893 World’s Fair, Bertha asked the hotel chefs to create something unique. They came up with the brownie, and their original recipe is still served at this Chicago landmark.

The Buccaneer, St Croix, US Virgin Islands

Before Johnny Depp, there was John Martel, a real-life pirate of the Caribbean. When Martel fled from British pirate-hunters, the story goes, he abandoned most of his ships in the bay that fronts this property, thus inspiring its name.

Originally 11 rooms on a former cattle ranch, the hotel now has 138 rooms, plus a six-bedroom villa and the new Beauregard’s on the Beach restaurant.

Elizabeth Armstrong, whose family owns the hotel and has been on the island since 1723, hosts weekly history tours of the property. She covers the Igneri Indians’ arrival from South America, the sugar era (an old sugar mill is the site of Tuesday night parties) and a charmed time when vacationing celebrities such as Lauren Bacall and Jason Robards would come for extended stays and, she says, “people would rake the beach and make their own drinks”.

Some tourists visit St Croix for warmth and water, Armstrong says, “but when they find out that there is a deeper story to the island, it makes a difference, and it’s why people fall in love with it.” – Text & Photos by The Washington Post