Thanks to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the Grand America Hotel sprang up as a luxurious option for corporate sponsors. Now, it sets itself apart as the premier accommodation in the city.
SALT LAKE CITY - Utah's answer to Manhattan can seem like a small boxy town to a first-time visitor. At first glance, its hotel choices seem more appropriate for a place like Harrisburg, Pa. than a major metropolitan center.
Until you pull into the long curving driveway of the Grand America Hotel. Then everything changes. You're suddenly in the orbit of a legit 5-star hotel in Salt Lake City. Of that there's little doubt.
If the striking European-style façade that stretches 24 stories high (in a city with a noticeable dearth of skyscrappers) does not convince you, the dark wood check-in area will. Grand America Hotel carries the look and feel of a posh hotel, a place that would fit right at home in Philadelphia or Brussels.
Stroll the outdoor courtyard behind the hotel, with its fountains and modern museum look, and you could think you stumbled upon some European square. Or at least a new Disney-fied version of one.
"This hotel is the best part of Salt Lake City," visitor Duane Sulwa said. "It doesn't seem to fit in with everything else. It's so much better."
Credit the 2002 Winter Olympics. Convinced that it needed a showcase hotel for the Olympics' top sponsors to stay in, like a homegrown version of a Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton, the Grand America was born.
It's the vision of eccentric and very press reclusive Utah billionaire R. Earl Holding, who made enough money as the owner of Sinclair Oil and various real estate deals to be deemed the 59th richest person in America according to Forbes magazine. In many ways, the Grand America Hotel turned into Holding's personal pride project.
He personally chose every single giant granite block that was used in the hotel's showcase balcony. He insisted on the Italian chandeliers and the ornate rugs. Holding would personally ensure that Salt Lake City had a hotel that no one could make fun of.
The result is a singular palace that produces a lot of stay envy. There are a couple of nice Marriotts in town, but they are not the Grand America, though. You're either in one of these 775 rooms with the marble bathrooms or you've been left out.
The feeling is particularly strong if you pull up to the Grand America's valet when you have a reservation at its across-the-street sister property, Little America, instead - as many do by mistake. Holding owns Little America too, but the similarities stop at the name. Little America bares the look of a modest motel.
The rooms are large at Little America, but a garden level one stayed in during a recent Salt Lake City visit came with a distinct pet odor and furniture that appears to be what you'd find on discount at an antique store. Ants also ran across the floor of the decent-sized bathroom.
The Little America is a fine enough hotel overall in a good location in this very walkable city. There's even free parking. It's just light years in comfort from the Grand America, which boasts gigantic rooms (even the standard ones measure in at over 700 square feet).
This adds up to one of the most unique hotel situations in any major city. In most metro spots, you can look around at a good dozen high-end hotels, shop for the best deal and have a pretty comparable stay no matter where you end up.
In Salt Lake, if you're looking for something in the luxury category, you're better off just booking the Grand America for the higher price. (Rooms run over $200 here, with the average rate around $300).
It seems crazy to spend that kind of money in Salt Lake City. Until you're here and realize the difference in hotel experiences.
One of the benefits of going ultra ritzy in your Salt Lake City hotel room is that everything else during the stay figures to be pretty cheap. Especially the golf. Salt Lake City golf boasts one of the better municipal operations in the country.
There are nine public golf courses in Salt Lake City, many of which provide mountain views and close encounters with wildlife that you wouldn't expect this near a city, with greens fees that a welfare recipient could afford (though no one's saying you should spend a welfare check on golf). Still with the four best of Salt Lake City's own courses - Arthur Hills' Wingpointe, the Wasatch Mountains' two Mountain Dell courses (Canyon and Lake) and hilly pioneer Bonneville - topping out at a maximum $27, it's not throwing money off a mountaintop.
Even Eaglewood Golf Course out a little further north with its looks over Great Salt Lake and a 600-foot elevation change only goes as high as $38 for weekend play (including cart).
Your meals out also figure to be a little cheaper than you're used to in Salt Lake. In several nights of dining in the main downtown and outdoor mall areas, the check rarely even reached $20 for any one person. It's not Charlie Trotter's ultra inventive (and expensive) cuisine in Chicago, but it's better than the stuff you get in most chain restaurants.
If you know you can go back to Grand America after the meal and just chill in your lush room, hang out in the vast open areas, book a spa appointment for the morning or even order a snack from 24-hour room service, the trip's looking up regardless.
"It's one of the most romantic hotels I've ever been in," frequent traveler Alice Waterson said.
It's in Salt Lake City. No need to act so surprised.
June 9, 2008