Grand Hotels

As Travel Agent celebrates its 80th anniversary, we look at a dozen iconic properties that have also withstood the test of time.

They range from historical landmarks, city icons and architectural marvels to famous celebrity haunts—all offering unmatched hospitality and service. Many of them have entered the cultural mainstream through popular films and lexicon. Their names, synonymous with luxury and comfort, summon up images and locations. You could play a word association game…The Pierre? Elegance. Drake Hotel? Chicago. Singapore Sling? Raffles.

As Travel Agent celebrates its 80th anniversary, we look at a dozen of the grand hotels that have endured the past 80 years with us—many for much more than just those 80 years—and still rank today as some of the most renowned properties in the world.

The BreakersThe Breakers
Palm Beach, FL
Year Opened: 1904

Behind the Building: In 1896, Henry Flagler, a Standard Oil Company magnate and a key figure in the development of Florida’s east coast, built The Palm Beach Inn on Royal Poinciana’s beachfront. Soon, guests requested rooms “over by the breakers.” When Flagler redoubled the hotel’s size, he renamed it The Breakers. During an expansion project in 1903, the hotel was destroyed by a fire. Less than a year later on February 1, 1904, it reopened to universal acclaim. Rooms started at $4 a night, including three meals a day. On March 18, 1925, tragedy struck again with another fire gutting the building. Flagler’s heirs were determined to build the world’s finest resort as a testament to his vision. The New York city-based Turner Construction Company began work on the resort in January 1926 to reopen in time for the 1926-27 winter season, modeling the new building after the Villa Medici in Rome.

Glory Days: In the first quarter of the 20th century, the guest register read like a “who’s who” of America—Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Astors, Carnegies and Morgans vacationed alongside U.S. presidents and European nobility.

Transitions: The Breakers is still operated by Flagler System Inc., a company under single-family ownership since 1896. The Breakers—listed on the National Register of Historic Places—has invested $250 million since 1990 on its ongoing expansion. Capital expenditures average $25 million a year as the owners are committed to ensuring that the resort remains appealing to future generations.

The Breakers Today: A AAA Five Diamond resort, the 540-room Breakers’ list of features and amenities includes two 18-hole championship golf courses, a 20,000-square-foot luxury spa with oceanview fitness center, Mediterranean-style beach club overlooking one-half mile of private beach, five swimming pools, variety of water sports, 10 tennis courts and a range of activities for families and children. The Breakers is also home to eight restaurants and fabulous onsite shopping.

The Drake Hotel
Year Opened: 1920

Behind the Building: When architect Ben Marshall persuaded brothers John and Tracy Drake to build their namesake hotel at the intersection of Lake Shore Drive and “upper” Michigan Avenue, the area was only a remote corner of the city’s “downtown.” But with its location opposite Oak Street Beach, The Drake  was billed as one of the nation’s first urban resorts. The hotel cost $10 million to build and 900 employees served its original 800 guest rooms.

Glory Days: Throughout the 1920s, The Drake’s fame spread across the world. WGN’s first radio studio was perched atop the hotel, and it was from here the famous Amos ’n’ Andy radio show was broadcast live along with the Big Band performances. In 1924, HRH the Prince of Wales was a guest of The Drake, thus establishing the hotel’s 81-year tradition of serving as the Chicago home to Britain’s royal family. By 1950, the property, now in the hands of the Brashears family, was the first hotel in Chicago to have all its guest rooms air-conditioned. It would later be the first to have color TVs in all its guest rooms.

Transitions: While The Drake continued to attract a host of world leaders in the 1970s, including Emperor Hirohito of Japan in 1975 and Prince Charles UK in 1977, many venues in the hotel looked dated and in need of considerable refurbishment. In 1979, the Brashears leased the hotel to financiers Jerold Wexler and Edward Ross.

On January 1, 1981, UK-based Hilton International, then operating in the U.S. as Vista Hotels, was brought in to manage and return the hotel to its previous splendor. The renovation that followed took a few years and cost over $40 million to complete. In May 1981, the 61-year-old The Drake Hotel was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1996, Hilton International acquired the lease interest on The Drake from a venture controlled by Edward Ross.

The Drake Today: The Drake’s proximity to downtown attractions such as the Oak Street Beach, Navy Pier and Millennium Park appeals to today’s patrons.  The distinctively furnished Deluxe guest rooms offer comfort and style, and large, open windows look out to the city. These bright and airy 430-square-foot rooms feature a Serenity king bed, marble bathroom, large desk with ergonomic chair, high-speed Internet access, and additional in-room seating.
The Fairmont Hamilton Princess
Hamilton, Bermuda
Year Opened: 1885

Behind the Building: Prior to being acquired by Fairmont, Hamilton Princess was a part of Princess Hotels. Hamilton, the first Princess hotel, was named after Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria.

Glory Days: Mark Twain was a regular to the hotel; Ian Fleming, while serving during World War II, got the inspiration for super spy James Bond at the hotel. Other notables include Winston Churchill, Prince Charles, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jackson.

Transitions: The hotel has always been a center of the community—from continuing the popular Bermuda tradition of Afternoon Tea and hosting the island’s premier social events to serving on tourism industry organizations and supported local charities and educational institutions.

The Fairmont Hamilton Princess Today: The hotel is proudly celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2010. It features amenities such as fresh and saltwater pools, outdoor putting green—Riddell’s Bay Golf and Country Club—and some of the island’s most celebrated restaurants, including Heritage Court known for “the best afternoon tea in Bermuda.” Guests can relax in a comfortable Adirondack chair with views of bobbing sailboats in Hamilton Harbour or hop on the resort’s complimentary ferry to the private, pink sand Fairmont Southampton Beach Club. Visit

The Fairmont San Francisco
Year Opened: 1907

Behind the Building: While today, Fairmont owns and manages dozens of iconic hotels worldwide, its fame originally comes from the Fairmont San Francisco.

Wealthy families displaced by the Great Earthquake took up residence in the hotel. The earthquake delayed the opening of the hotel by a year. Architect and engineer Julia Morgan was hired to repair the hotel after the earthquake and prepare it for opening.

Glory Days: Among the guests have been U.S. presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft, and Rudolph Valentino. In fact, the hotel has been the San Francisco residence for every U.S. President since Taft. From the ’40s to the ’80s, the Venetian Room was a staple in the music world, hosting Ella Fitzgerald, Nat “King” Cole, Marlene Dietrich, Bobby Short, Vic Damone and James Brown among countless other performers. The room is famous as the place where Tony Bennett first sang “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.” The UN Charter was drafted in the Garden room of the hotel after World War II. The hotel has been featured in a wide range of films.

Transitions: The property opened Heritage Hall, a permanent exhibit of photos and memorabilia, in 2007 to commemorate its centennial. In 2010, the hotel opened Intersect: A Fairmont Media Lounge, a 2,400-square-foot entertainment lounge featuring interactive games, touch-screen computers and modern decor.

The Fairmont San Francisco Today: The hotel boasts 591 guest rooms and suites along with three restaurants and lounges. A function space spread over 55,000 square feet is available along with a spectacular view of the San Francisco Bay. The hotel was registered in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 2002.

Agents can call 415-772-5000 for more information.

Four Seasons Hotel George V
Year Opened: 1928

Behind the Building: The hotel was the creation of French architects Lefranc and Wybo under the direction of American owner (and architect) Joel Hillman. State-of-the-art technology of the time included a telephone with both internal and external lines in each guest room, suites with two bathrooms, fitted closets, fire alarms, and an elaborate dumbwaiter system to expedite delivery of hot food from the kitchen to guest rooms. The budget for design, construction and installations was more than $31 million. A garden on the roof of the reception hall and ballroom provided guests with a quiet retreat in the center of the city, while various salons were dedicated to specific activities. Among these were a tearoom with Chinese decor, a smoking room, a barbershop and a beauty parlor. Known as the Prince of Wales Salon, the grand ballroom was used for Parisian society parties, which attracted leading couturiers to showcase the season’s collections.

Glory Days: In 1929, the George V hosted the signing of the Young Plan, outlining war reparation agreements, and was officially made a branch of the League of Nations. In August 1944, the hotel served as General Eisenhower’s headquarters during the Liberation of Paris; later, as U.S. President, he visited again. Other heads of state who held meetings at the George V include Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, François Mitterrand, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon.

Transitions: Working with French architect Richard Martinet and interior designer Pierre Yves Rochon, the hotel underwent a two-year, $125 million restoration project in 1997. The main hallway’s arches were restored to their original proportions. The space in the original building was redistributed by reducing the number of rooms from 320 to 245. The guest rooms now measure from 400 to 600 square feet, and the suites from 750 to 4,000 square feet, making them the largest rooms and suites in Paris.

Four Seasons Hotel George V Today: Four Seasons Hotel George V is owned by Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia. It has been branded a Four Seasons hotel since 1999. New amenities include four dining venues, a 350-square-foot pool, a modern health club and a full-service spa.

Hotel Hassler Roma
Year Opened: 1893

Behind the Building: Albert Hassler, son of Swiss hoteliers Anton and Matilde Hassler, bought the property in 1893 when it was a private home and oversaw its change into the Hotel Hassler. In 1921, Oscar Wirth accepted an offer from Hassler’s heirs to take over the hotel’s management, and the hotel has remained in the Wirth family ever since. (The current president and managing director is Roberto Wirth.) In the 1940s, it opened the Rooftop Restaurant (now called Imàgo), the first panoramic restaurant ever built in Rome.

Glory Days: Prince Rainier of Monaco and Grace Kelly spent their honeymoon at the Hassler, Audrey Hepburn was a regular guest during the golden age of the Roman Dolce Vita in the ’60s and Princess Diana, during one of her stays at the hotel, said the Hassler’s Bellini cocktail was the best she had ever had. Other famous personalities who have stayed at the Hassler include Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Beatles, Pablo Picasso, Frank Sinatra, President Jacques Chirac, Charlie Chaplin, Henry Kissinger, Madonna and Helmut Kohl.

Transitions: During the 1930s, Mussolini decided that the name Hassler did not sound Italian enough, and the property was called the Villa Medici. In 1938, the hotel was restructured, and just as the work was being completed, it became the Headquarters of the American Command until the end of World War II. The hotel reopened in 1947.

Hotel Hassler Roma Today: Hotel Hassler Roma maintains its historical roots, but balances them with modern amenities. All rooms and suites have Wi-Fi access, plasma-screen TVs and DVD and CD players.

Agents should contact Marketing Manager Vivian Barsanti (011-390-6699-34262).

Omni Bedford Springs Resort
Bedford Springs, PA
Year Opened: 1806

Behind the Building: In 1796, Dr. John Anderson visited the medicinal springs in the area and purchased the 2,200-acre plot on which the resort now stands. He built a home there, and as word about its springs spread, visitors arrived from around the globe to experience them. He housed the guests in tents and offered them customized prescriptions. As more and more guests arrived, Dr. Anderson decided to build a hotel. The resort’s original wing, The Stone Inn, was built in 1806 from stone quarried atop the mountain and carried down by oxen. 

Glory Days: With a growing list of wealthy clientele, the Omni Bedford Springs Resort gained a reputation as a luxury destination and was considered one of the most popular resorts in the U.S. Bedford Springs became home to one of the first golf courses in the U.S., originally designed by Spencer Oldham (and later redesigned by A.W. Tillinghast and then the renowned Donald Ross). And in 1905, the resort unveiled one of the nation’s first indoor swimming pools—fed by the property’s spring waters. 

Dignitaries visiting the resort included Henry Frick, Carnegie Mellon, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. President James Buchanan used the property as his summer White House. In fact, in 1858, president Buchanan received the first transatlantic cable in the lobby of the resort.

During the Civil War, Union generals often checked their families in to the resort, ensuring their comfort and safety, before departing for battle.

Transitions: Japanese diplomats captured during World War II were housed at the resort. The U.S. Navy also occupied the resort, using it as a training facility for radio operators. The property closed in 1986. It was reopened after an extensive renovation in 2007.

Omni Bedford Springs Resort Today: Today’s  guests are taken on historical tours of the property: they can swim in the resort’s original indoor pool and dine in the private dining room of the resort’s 1796 restaurant.

Original glass window panes exist in many areas of the resort. Part of an old tradition, brides used to etch their names into the glass panes to ensure their engagement rings were real. These can still be seen in some of the resort’s windows.

Some of the high-tech elements in place today include 32-inch flat-screen, high-definition TVs, iPod entertainment docking stations and Wi-Fi throughout the resort.

Its Springs Eternal Spa, a 30,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility, is one of the few spas in the country that uses natural spring water in all of its treatments.

The Peabody Hotel
Memphis, TN
Year Opened: 1869

Behind the Building: The original Peabody dates to 1869, built by Colonel Robert C. Brinkley on the corner of Main and Monroe. Back then, the 13-story building was done up in classic Italian Renaissance Revival, and comprised 75 rooms that cost $3 per day, with extra for a fire or gas light. Brinkley passed the property on to his daughter when she married Robert Bogardus Snowden. For almost 100 years, The Peabody remained connected to the Snowdens.

Glory Days: Home to lavish balls, The Peabody drew in the likes of contemporary notables such as presidents Andrew Johnson and William McKinley. Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jubal Early were also frequent guests. The hotel was always the spot in Memphis to see and be seen.

Not surprisingly, Memphis’s hot music scene had a hand in shaping The Peabody’s past. Blues icons like Furry Lewis, Frank Stokes and Tommy Johnson all made recordings in The Peabody’s rooms throughout the 1930s. During World War II, The Skyway and Plantation Rooftop had big band dancers entertaining soldiers from nearby Millington Air Force Base.

The Peabody’s most famous attraction, The Marching Ducks, became part of the hotel in 1940. The hotel is home to ducks that live in the lap of luxury, dancing in the lobby’s fountain by day and roosting in a private duck palace at night. 

Transitions: The hotel closed its doors in 1923 and 1975. After the first closing, a more lavish hotel debuted on September 1, 1925, in its current location on Union Avenue, with 625 guest rooms.

Troubled times in Memphis, when downtown began to decline, forced the second closing. The property was on the belt for demolition when the Belz family purchased the property and pumped in $25 million for restoration in 1981.

The Peabody Hotel Today: The hotel still remains in the spotlight of Southern high society and hospitality. Guests have access to Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs in all rooms. And, of course, guests and visitors can still make their way to the lobby twice daily to watch the famous ducks dance.

The Pierre
New York City
Year Opened: 1930

Behind the Building: On October 1, 1930, The Pierre opened its gilded gates for the first time. Having cost $15 million to build, the 714-room Georgian-esque property had sweeping views of Central Park amid a setting of granite and cream-colored brick capped with a tower of glinting copper inspired by a French chateau. Just two weeks later, President and Managing Director Charles Pierre Casalasco gave a grand gala, overseen by Chef August Escoffier, the “father of French cuisine,” attracting only the most elite.

Glory Days: Touted as one of the country’s first skyscraper hotels, The Pierre has served as a site for political planning and sparkling soirees alike. President-elect Richard Nixon built the foundations of his first administration at the hotel, holding meetings with Henry Kissinger and J Edgar Hoover behind the closed doors of a 39th-floor suite. The Pierre has also figured in works by Saul Bellow, Truman Capote and J.D. Salinger. In 1950, Frank Paget became the first hotelier in history to install radio and TV sets in all the guest rooms.

Transitions: During the Depression, the property was sold at a public auction to the hotel’s bondholder’s committee with Casalasco serving as managing director until 1938, when Standard Oil tycoon John Paul Getty purchased the hotel for $2.5 million and Frank Paget took over as manager. Almost 30 years later, real estate developer and civic leader Robert Dowling formed a new company with financiers Serge Semenko and David Baird to take over The Pierre.

A series of upgrades followed, including the creation of the murals in The Rotunda and Garden Foyer by artist Edward Melcarth. Four Seasons acquired the property in 1981 and spent an additional $15 million in refurbishments.

The Pierre Today: Now owned by Taj Hotels & Resorts,  The Pierre still boasts a decadent departure from everyday life within its 189 guest rooms, including 49 suites, marked by lofty ceilings and plush furnishings in a creamy palette of ivory, taupe and coral. The only time The Pierre has ever been closed was during a recent $100 million renovation from January 2008-June 2009. Guest room and bath interiors were revamped and the first-floor public areas were reconfigured to include London’s classic brasserie, Le Caprice and Two E Bar/Lounge. The Rotunda and pre-function space outside the grand ballroom remain unchanged, with the original trompe l’oeil murals. Heiko Kuenstle ([email protected]) is the general manager.

The Raffles Singapore
Year Opened: 1887

Behind the Building: The Raffles Hotel Singapore opened on December 1, 1887, in an old bungalow then known as Beach House. The first of the Raffles properties, this hotel was opened by the Sarkies brothers, proprietors of the Eastern & Oriental in Penang. The brothers decided to name the hotel after Singapore’s founder, Sir Stamford Raffles. Back then, the property was just a 10-room hotel, but over the next few years, wings were added to the bungalow.

Glory Days: When the Bras Basah wing of the hotel opened in 1904, the Raffles Hotel Singapore emerged as one of the most elegant hotels in the East. It became the spot for grand social events, from dinner dances to billiard competitions. During World War II, the Raffles Hotel was occupied by the Japanese army until their surrender, when the property was turned into a temporary transit camp for war prisoners released under the military administration.

Transitions: In 1989, the Raffles Hotel closed for a multimillion-dollar restoration and redevelopment. It emerged two years later, transformed back to its glorious heyday. In 1991, it opened the Raffles Hotel Arcade that boasted 40 specialty shops, additional restaurants and bars.

The Raffles Singapore Today: Today, the Raffles Hotel Singapore has been designated a National Monument by the Singapore government. Paying homage to its former glory days, the property still hosts many fun, historical events, such as the New Year Fancy Dress Ball, first held in 1911. In keeping with the times, the luxury property now has high-speed Wi-Fi as well as multi-touch screen iPads. These tech touches combined with its Grand Dame past make it one of the most notable hotels in Singapore.

The US Grant
San Diego
Year Opened: 1910

Behind the Building: Originally owned by Alonzo Horton, the “Father of New Town San Diego,” The US Grant began as Horton House, California’s first luxury hotel, in 1870. Later, the hotel was redeveloped by Ulysses S. Grant, Jr., in honor of his late father, the 18th U.S. president, Ulysses S. Grant. It was built across from Horton Plaza Park, where a fountain designed by Irving Gill was dedicated on the night of the US Grant’s 1910 opening.

Glory Days: The US Grant has hosted over 13 U.S. presidents ranging from John F. Kennedy to George Bush, Sr. Charles Lindbergh was a guest at the hotel before his famous New York-to-Paris flight. Other eminent guests over the years included Albert Einstein, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis.

During the 1930s, the largest radio towers in the nation were erected on the roof of the US Grant to broadcast President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous fireside chats. During World War II, the hotel was used as quarters for servicemen. In the 1950s, the hotel became the first on the West Coast to offer expansive meeting spaces.

Transitions: The hotel has changed hands from Horton to Grant and finally, today, to the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation. It is part of the Starwood Luxury Collection.

The US Grant Today: The hotel has 270 guest rooms, including 47 suites and three Presidential Suites. The rooms boast commissioned artwork by French artist Yves Clement. The hotel has 33,000 square feet of meeting space that allows receptions for up to 1,200 guests. The Grant Grill, one of San Diego’s finest restaurants, has been part of the hotel since 1951.

Vinoy Renaissance Resort & Golf Club
St. Petersburg, FL
Year Opened: 1925

Behind the Building: Led by architect Henry L. Taylor and contractor George A. Miller, construction for the Vinoy Park Hotel began on February 5, 1925. The contractor set a construction record for completing the 375-room hotel in just under 10 months, in time for a grand opening on New Year’s Eve, 1925.

Glory Days: Throughout the years, the property has hosted many dignitaries and celebrities such as Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Stewart, Babe Ruth, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, and  former President Calvin Coolidge was a frequent guest at the Vinoy in the 1930s. During his visits, he chose to eat the plain fare in the employee dining room rather than the rich food in the guest dining room.

Transitions: On July 3, 1942, the Vinoy ceased operation as a hotel and was leased to the U.S. Army, Air Force and later U.S. Maritime Service. The property was used for various purposes, and even as a cook and baker’s school. After substantial repairs to the property, the Vinoy reopened for the season in December 1944.

Even as the hotel sat unoccupied for 18 years, it was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. It was scheduled to be demolished but on November 6, 1984, the citizens of St. Petersburg voted in a referendum to save it from the wrecker’s ball.

Vinoy Renaissance Resort & Golf Club Today: Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Vinoy Renaissance Resort & Golf Club boasts 1920s Mediterranean Revival architecture along with modern amenities such as a private marina, 18-hole golf course, 12-court tennis complex, outdoor pool, fitness center, salon and day spa, and more. The lobby’s iconic design elements such as the original vaulted ceiling, quarry-glazed tile floor and Pecky cypress beams all remain intact today.

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