The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
‘Privileged bastions of good living’
The world’s grande dame hotels deliver history, dignity – and a touch of glamour. Fiona Duncan celebrates classic hospitality
What exactly defines a grande dame hotel? And given that grandes dames are mostly old – well over 100 years in many cases – can such places still appeal in today’s shifting, fast-paced world?
Grandes dames, wherever they are found worldwide, are hotels whose walls have stories to tell and secrets to keep. They are historic, full of dignity and a sense of importance; reassuring, privileged bastions of good living that represent permanence, unruffled by the world outside. Such worthiness can mean some grandes dames have become somewhat staid and dull over the years, but the best of them also contrive to be glamorous and exciting, with famous faces never far away.
The vast majority of grande dame hotels date back to between the late-19th century and the 1920s. Having quickly established themselves as the most majestic, polished and luxurious in town, they then generally coasted along for decades. No longer: in this 21st century, often with wealthy new owners at the helm, many have undergone massive, top-to-toe refurbishments, including the addition of facilities that appeal to today’s guests: spas, rooftop pools, hip bars, chef-led restaurants and so on – in order to remain relevant and therefore to survive for yet more decades to come.
It is no easy business, updating a grande dame, and in doing so some great establishments have lost their dignity and their original appeal, becoming just another glitzy address, constantly chasing the latest fad. The hotels described on the following pages have succeeded in striking a balance between past glory and contemporary appeal.
Ever since I started travelling as a teenager, I have made a point of at least visiting grande dame hotels, just as I would a museum or a sight in the city I was exploring. The world’s great hotels make one feel special: comforted and protected; excited and alive to possibility. Arriving in New York and knowing no one, I once made my way to the Plaza just to see what might happen; nothing happened but it was still a thrill to be there.