"Mules," came the reply.
"Oh," said the guest. "So you pretty much have to do the mule thing?"
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is one of the few places in the West where the experience of today's traveler isn't much different than that of the hardy souls who ventured here at the turn of the 20th century, and El Tovar taps deeply into that sensibility.
To begin with, you can arrive by train, riding the Grand Canyon Railway
La Fonda Hotel |
(Santa Fe, New Mexico)
Fairmont Empress Hotel
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel
Old Faithful Inn
Royal Hawaiian Hotel
El Tovar Hotel
Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
The Brown Palace
Ventana Inn & Spa
Furnace Creek Inn
Hotel del Coronado
Stroll the rim trail, plop down afterward in one of the comfy chairs of the dark lobby and you'll gain some kinship with Teddy Roosevelt, a frequent visitor in the early 1900s and a champion of protected status for the canyon. (A private dining room was built for the president at El Tovar because he was reluctant to change out
The hotel will celebrate its 100th anniversary in January, and to its credit, it has been able to maintain a comfortably rustic ambience down through the years while also retrofitting for such modern conveniences as private bathrooms and air conditioning.
The first thing that might strike you about El Tovar is that ... well, it faces the wrong way. Though it perches near the South Rim, it points east. Thus, though it offers 78 guest rooms, "there are only four rooms in this hotel that we can guarantee you a view," said spokesman Bruce Brossman.
There are a number of theories for this. First, the hotel was designed in Chicago by architect Charles Whittlesey - who went for an odd hybrid of a European chalet and an American hunting lodge - and then shoehorned it onto the building site in the most suitable fashion. Another idea holds that the set-back location of the hotel would heighten guests' sense of surprise as they made it out to the rim. Finally, there is the belief that the orientation of the hotel would force people to get out of their rooms rather than being content to see the canyon through a window.
Over a stay of a few days here, that final theory gains credence. Although many visitors attempt to squeeze the Grand Canyon into a day trip, it is only during an extended stay that the ever-changing personality of the canyon can be fully appreciated. The hues and shadows change imperceptibly as the sunlight wakes up the canyon walls at dawn, perhaps hides behind a thunderhead at midday and retreats in the deep purplish glow of evening.
El Tovar guests can tune into these subtle moods at various points along the rim trail - but also from the dining room windows at breakfast or dinner, on the north veranda at first light, or in the bar in the late afternoon.
It is a cozy and comfortable place. A few years ago we spent a week here in December, content each evening to sit by the roaring fireplace, reading books, writing Christmas cards and warming ourselves with Baileys and coffee. In summer, this is also an ideal place to unwind with a cold drink, resting muscles that got the worst of the Bright Angel Trail's numbing switchbacks.
In this lobby, you can definitely get a sense of travel in the rugged West of the hotel's origins. Douglas fir was shipped in from Oregon for the construction, and no one bothered to mill the lumber into conventional planking. Instead, the paneling and pillars are rounded logs, stained dark and gleaming from countless coats of varnish. Run your hand across the surface and you'll find knotholes, cracks, even what appear to be ax marks.
The ceiling is vaulted and towering, lit by chandeliers and sconces made of copper coach lights. The decor predates political correctness: 12 animal trophy heads gaze down from above, including moose, elk, deer and one snarling wild boar.
The ranch-style furniture is covered in wine-red fabric, and there are Indian-design rugs in the traffic areas, hardwood floors elsewhere.
Be sure to ascend the stairs to the octagonal Mezzanine, pausing to survey the portrait of Fred Harvey along the way. A century ago, he was the master of hospitality for the Santa Fe Railway, and this hotel was one of his babies - though he died four years before it opened. The glare in the expression suggests annoyance with this unkind twist of fate, and hotel employees whisper that the eyes follow you wherever you go. (It's true!)
One of the charms of El Tovar today is that it is the people's hotel, and all are welcome at this historic treasure. Even if you're staying in some of the other accommodations nearby (Kachina, Thunderbird, Bright Angel, Maswik or Yavapai lodges) or just passing through on a day trip, consider stopping in for breakfast, lunch or a drink at the bar to get a sense of the place. (A good tip: Make your visit in the morning; the train disgorges its horde just after noon.)
Over a three-day stay in February, we were particularly impressed with dinner in the dining room, where the cuisine was of consistently high quality, and also inventive.
Executive sous chef Matt McTigue, who oversees El Tovar's kitchen for executive chef Joe Nobile, has an approach to potato side dishes that could best be described as "fun with cheese." One night we enjoyed a delightful pepperjack au gratin, another night some gouda mashed potatoes that were decadently rich and flavorful.
One evening a strip steak was topped with the lightest onion ring garnish you could imagine - razor-thin strips, rolled in cornmeal and lightly fried. Delicate and a delicious complement to the beef.
We found the service to be polished. Also bold. The preparation for the fresh fish entree, grouper, sounded intriguing. But our waiter said, point-blank, "I can't recommend it."
Meanwhile, you've got to like a wine list that has a 4-year-old Dry Creek cabernet sauvignon from Sonoma County for under $40.
On chilly evenings - and there are many of them here at 7,000 feet - two stone fireplaces in the dining room throw off comforting warmth (seats near the north fireplace, where windows look toward the rim, are particularly prized). Murals depicting the lifestyles of Apaches, Hopis, Mojaves and Navajos brighten the room.
El Tovar's ongoing challenge is to allow guests to savor a throwback experience without forsaking modern comforts. "Things have changed," Brossman said, "but it's very close to the experience people had then (when it opened) - except that you don't have to hike to a bathroom down the hall."
Major renovations were undertaken in 1975 (heating, air conditioning), 1981 (replacement of rotting exterior timbers and deteriorating windows) and 1998 (foundation work, bathroom tile, room redecorations). Another thorough upgrade is scheduled to coincide with the centennial. The hotel will close in January for the work _ which will include renovations of all guest rooms and a remodeling of the kitchen - and reopen for a grand anniversary celebration in April.
Because El Tovar is a historic building, there are limits to what can be done to it. The "Quiet Please" signs will remain in the long hallways of rooms. Some guests don't seem to realize how much their loud talking rattles around in a 99-year-old building.
We were awakened very early one chilly morning by a noisy discussion just outside our door. People had congregated at the end of the hall, clutching coffee cups, to watch through a glass door as rising sunlight played against the distant, south-facing wall of the canyon.
I shushed them. Then couldn't blame them. And ultimately joined them.
-Eric Noland, (818) 713-3681, firstname.lastname@example.org