The Lure of the Grand Hotel

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A nostalgia for travel during the Gilded Age, that time of new wealth and grand hotels, is enjoying a moment with the popularity of Downton Abbey and its upcoming New York equivalent, The Gilded Age (by Downton creator Julian Fellowes). During the four decades from 1870 to World War I, the well-heeled traveled the world in search of culture, social status, romance—and, in some cases, an escape from scandal. To meet their needs, regal new hotels rose, equaling if not surpassing the comforts found at home, initiating the dawn of a golden age of travel.

Thanks to preservation efforts at many hotels from that era, you can again approximate travel as it was. Some things have changed—arduous transatlantic ship crossings have been replaced by transatlantic flights—but vintage hotels, the ultimate trophy wives, have returned to the tops of lists.

The epicenter of Gilded Age hotel competition was New York City, with the Astors in particular feuding to outdo each other. Today’s choices for gilded Manhattan hospitality include the Astor-built Waldorf Astoria, Knickerbocker, and St. Regis hotels, and the coeval Plaza, Algonquin, and Peninsula (formerly Gotham) hotels.

Lobby of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, New York City, America, USA (Photograph by Alex Segre / Alamy Stock Photo)
A free-standing clock, covered with bronze relief figures, completes the lobby decor of the Waldorf Astoria. (Photograph by Alex Segre / Alamy Stock Photo)

London saw its hotel surge during the Edwardian decade (1901-1910), when King Edward VII made staying at public (gasp) hotels acceptable. His favorites (and mine) include the Savoy, the St. Pancras Renaissance, the Ritz, and Claridges.

Paris was a required stop for any Grand Tour of the continent. The Louvre may have been the stated reason, but the hotels, fashion houses, and social scene were the real draws. Many hotels were built to house visitors to the 1889 Paris Exposition and the successive Exposition Universelle of 1900, events credited with sparking the Belle Époque. Anyone wanting to recapture those days of carefree Parisian splendor should consider the Ritz Paris (the original Ritz), the updated Hotel Edouard 7—a Paris base for King Edward VII—and the Hôtel de Crillon, a favorite of such Gilded Age notables as Theodore Roosevelt, Edith Wharton, and Andrew Carnegie.

Mark Twain’s disdain for the pageantry of the period may have labeled the Gilded Age. But with their endurance, these original “ladies” have the last word.

This piece by Jean Newman Glock was adapted from the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler. Follow Jean on Twitter @jeannewmanglock.

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