Those may look like windows, but they're actually frames. Here in the Ahwahnee Hotel, they help exhibit some of the most magnificent landscape artworks assembled anywhere.
In the Solarium, for example, is this lovely, living print of Glacier Point, with its pine trees strung out like sentries along the summit. From this guest room in the east wing is a lovely rendering of Half Dome and its striking contours. And over here on the west side is a truly priceless piece: the thundering majesty of Yosemite Falls. It changes subtly every second.
When the Ahwahnee was conceived in the early 1920s, it was not common practice to
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Underwood was ahead of his time for other reasons, too. Fire was the nemesis of grand hotels of the era (and had, in fact, claimed the Ahwahnee's luxury predecessor in the valley 30 years earlier). So this one was built to be fireproof, using very little
But what style was employed toward that end. There may be more grandiose lodges in the National Park system, but it can be argued there is none more elegant.
To begin with, local granite boulders, rubbed into rounded shapes by the flow of the Merced River, were used to construct towering support pillars. But the rough sides of the stones were turned to the outside, to blend in with the Royal Arches, the sheer, 3,000-foot rock face that provides the hotel's backdrop.
Siding and beams were made of poured concrete, but the grain of the wooden forms was transferred to the finished material, which was then stained to resemble redwood. To this day, visitors circling the hotel are astounded to hear that it is not a wooden building.
Attention to fine detail is even more evident within. There are grand spaces, for sure _ the Great Lounge, with its walk-in fireplaces and two-story banks of windows; the Dining Room, with its 34-foot ceiling peak, supported by scissor trusses of massive sugar pine logs (the only place in the hotel where wood is used liberally).
But this is also a hotel of intimate spaces. On an exploration of some of the nooks off the Great Lounge, you'll find the Mural Room, which has dark-wood paneling and a corner fireplace with a lacy iron grille and a burnished copper hood. The mural on the wall is a toile peinte by Robert Boardman Howard, who was inspired by 15th-century mille fleurs tapestries. It depicts animals and plants you might have seen in the Yosemite Valley around the turn of the 20th century _ and young visitors have fun trying to spot the well-camouflaged woodland creatures.
Directly across the hall, past another walk-in fireplace, is the Winter Club Room, which has leather chairs reminiscent of an Old World men's club. The walls are adorned with photos and artifacts from Yosemite's early days of winter recreation: primitive skiing, snowshoeing, toboggan runs (hey, is that guy wearing a tie under his sweater?).
And around a corner is an absolute jewel of a room, the Solarium. Its curved wall has three towering windows _ a vertical sheet of plate glass bordered by small panes _ that frame Glacier Point in the distance and a pastoral lawn in the foreground.
A fountain on an interior wall (where you might expect a fireplace) provides a soothing trickling sound. There are tables here for games or jigsaw puzzles. One evening, we encountered two couples who had settled in with a bottle of wine for a few hands of bridge.
The Ahwahnee's decor is a bit confused but tasteful nonetheless. Imagine fusing Arts and Crafts, American Indian geometrics, Middle Eastern textiles and Art Deco elements in the same space. It speaks to the tumult of interior design in the 1920s, but somehow it works here.
Designs that mimic Indian basketry and tent trim are painted at the top of columns and along the face of beams. The geometrics are also found in lobby floor tiles, on the china in the Dining Room, in paintings above each guest room door and in stained-glass panels atop the 10 soaring windows of the Great Lounge.
Turkish, Persian, Kurdish and Shirvan killims (rugs), all part of the hotel's original decor, are displayed on the walls. Puzzling? It turns out the Ahwahnee's first decorator was Dr. Arthur Pope of the University of California, Berkeley, and his scholarly expertise was in this type of art.
Other original pieces fit the setting a bit better: five wrought-iron chandeliers that hang from the open ceiling of the Great Lounge (their electric lights cleverly disguised as candles), as well as sturdy oak tables and secretary desks positioned about the room.
Guests inevitably settle into the comfortable furniture of the Great Lounge as evening falls to discuss the day's adventures among the wonders of the Yosemite Valley. On the chilly nights of autumn and winter, flames dance in the fireplace.
In recent years, the Ahwahnee's guest rooms haven't always maintained the high standards of the public spaces, but steps have been taken to improve that experience. In a just-completed wave of improvements, armoires, tables, nightstands and sofas were replaced, and new draperies, bedspreads, wall hangings and carpets _ all in fresh, bright colors _ were installed.
The hotel, which does not have its own laundry facilities, also recently switched linen-supply companies, according to spokeswoman Kerri Holden. Not a moment too soon. When we stayed there last winter, we were dismayed to find bed linens so worn out that the fabric was pilling.
Yosemite and its impressive hotel are just now coming into my favorite time of year there _ fall and winter, when the throngs of summer thin out and the innate tranquillity of the valley is more in evidence.
As a hedge against the slackening tourist trade, the Ahwahnee hosts a series of special events in the dead of winter: wine-tasting seminars with California vintners, a lavish Christmas feast and pageant, a New Year's Eve celebration, and cooking classes with urban restaurant chefs. Food is an important component of each, which is fitting for this hotel, because the Dining Room is one of the Ahwahnee's greatest attributes.
The setting, to begin with, can't be beat. The room is immense and stately, with medieval battle flags hanging from the rafters. The south wall alternates stone pillars with floor-to-ceiling windows, and guests peer into a forest of ponderosa pine, with a grassy meadow beyond.
The cuisine stands up to the grandeur of the room, too. Since arriving here two years ago, chef Terry Sheehan has emphasized organic items and the bounty of local farms and ranches that operate sustainably. As a result, you'll find a menu that changes twice a year and features mushrooms from the Sierra foothills, free-range chicken and veal, line-caught halibut and California artisan cheeses.
The fall-winter menu, due to be in place next month, will include a daily seafood or fish special, depending on what's in the markets, Sheehan said. A prospective dish would be trap-caught spot prawns from Santa Barbara with a salsa of fresh fruit and avocado, and capellini made with buckwheat flour.
Many of the Ahwahnee's visitors are repeat guests, and they desire the hearty dishes that are traditionally associated with national park lodges. They're accommodated with beef tenderloin and lamb sirloin, though the sauces are likely to be much lighter than in the past.
``It's a fine balance, being true to your region and being true to our history and still trying to make it an eclectic, contemporary approach to a classic cuisine,'' Sheehan said.
During breakfast, as the sun peers over the Yosemite Valley's south rim, the Dining Room's surroundings beckon you to explore them.
In winter, we have delighted in walking a backwoods trail to Yosemite Falls, or heading through the snow on a cross-country ski track that hugs Tenaya Creek to Mirror Lake.
As we returned from the lake one afternoon, we broke through the trees to behold the Ahwahnee just as darkness was falling. Smoke curled from its chimneys. Light was beginning to glow warmly from its windows. The Royal Arches, grandly backlit, loomed behind it.
At that moment, there's a good chance someone was standing inside the hotel, marveling at what was framed in those gallery windows. But from this vantage point, here in the chill of twilight, the Ahwahnee was no less a masterpiece.