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What Is a Grand Hotel or Grande Dame Hotel?

They're the big name in town. But only if they maintain their reputations

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Grand hotel and grande dame hotel are phrases you hear a lot in the luxury travel world. But what do they refer to exactly? As with the definition of luxury hotel, their meaning is murky.

"Grand hotel" and "grande dame hotel" refer to the same thing, in masculine and feminine terms. In a word, a grand or grande dame hotel is an institution, the most important hotel in town. The many ways a hotel can be important are described below.

Now, whether or not you like the grand hotel experience is a matter of personal taste. My feeling is this: on a luxury traveler's first visit to a city, it's a good idea to stay in the most important, most famous hotel in town -- the grand or grande dame hotel.

You may find yourself captivated by the institution's mythology and aura, or you may find the hotel a bit pompous, or impersonal, or fusty. But you will have "lived the legend."

The Big-Name Local Landmark

Buenos Aires' famed © Alvear Palace Hotel.

A grand or grand dame hotel is the most famous hotel in its city. In a major metropolis, there may be several grand hotels, all rivals. And in many European cities, the grand hotel is called that: Grand Hotel Bordeaux, Grand Hotel Stockholm, and so on. A grand hotel is a landmark as architecturally notable as the city hall or opera house, and very often claims designated historical status.

  • Example: Alvear Palace, Evita Peron's elegant haunt in the palacio-filled Recoleta district of Buenos Aires

Or, the World-Famous Country Mansion

Greenbrier Resort, a country castle in West Virginia. © AD Maust/Wikimedia Commons.

A grand or grande dame hotel need not be an urban property. It can be a super-luxe, patrician resort in a time-honored vacation area, whether beachfront or bucolic. You can bet that a grand hotel in a rural setting will be vast and magnificently landscaped, with pools, woods, ponds, gardens, horseback-riding trails, tennis courts, and a golf course.

  • Example: Greenbrier Resort, a 6,500-acre estate and National Historic Landmark in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia

An Imposing Location & Views

Grande dame of Quebec City: the Château Frontenac. © Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.

Location, location, location! A grand or grand dame hotel has a prime location in an august setting: the crest of a beach, or a hilltop, or overlooking Central Park, like the best hotels in Manhattan. The prime setting of a grand or grand dame hotel guarantees its guests unforgettable views.

A Historic Pedigree

The grand entrance to a very grand hotel. © The Langham, London.

A grand or grande dame hotel possesses history, legend, and lore. Sometimes, its charisma is heady enough for a whole book, such as Hotel by Arthur Hailey. The subject of this 1965 best-seller was a thinly fictionalized, real New Orleans hotel that is today the grande dame Waldorf Astoria New Orleans.

  • Example: The Langham, London, where High Tea was invented in the 1860s, and still the home of London's best tea service

An Army of Uniformed Personnel

The Pierre New York boasts uniformly good service. © Karen Tina Harrison.

A grand or grand dame hotel is amply staffed with employees scurrying about. In a well-managed property with great service, staffers devote themselves to serving guests, and not to strutting about self-importantly in their snappy uniforms.

A See-and-Be-Seen Lobby or Pool

Expect Tweetable sightings at the Taj Mumbai's pool. © Taj Hotels & Resorts.

A grand or grand dame hotel has a lobby that is a hub of social life. It's a high-energy space with plenty of seating, waving, air-kissing, and an air of excitement. (These days, free wifi, too.) A grand or grand dame hotel's lobby is a place where a guest will want to camp out, pretending to work on an iPad, but actually just drinking in the social whirl.

At grand hotels in sunny climes, the pool area functions as a beehive of networking. (May I present to the luxury travel jury: the Hollywood agent-beloved pink pool patio at The Beverly Hills Hotel.)

A Claim to Fame (or Infamy)

Gossip gal: Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana Palace. © Fernando Dell'Acqua/Flickr/ Wikimedia Commons.

What's a grand or grand dame hotel without a standout anecdote? Not grand. Picture this: every grand hotel tells a story. Or several. And a juicy scandal never loses its appeal. At Montreal's Queen Elizabeth Hotel, there's a waitlist for nights in the suite where John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged their "Bed-In" in 1969.

  • Example: Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the rich and royal have partner-swapped since the hotel opened in 1923
  • Or Nobis Hotel, in the bank building where victims' reaction to a 1973 bank robbery birthed the phrase Stockholm syndrome

Ongoing Media Presence

Dragon tattoos not required by The Dolder Grand Hotel. © Stefan Schmidlin.

A grand or grande dame hotel stays in the public eye. It may be old in years, but it stays top-of-mind thanks to public-relations savvy. The hotel basks in the media limelight via its celebrity clientele and its role as a movie and TV location. (What luxury traveler can even think of L.A.'s Beverly Wilshire Hotel without conjuring Pretty Woman?)

  • Example: The Dolder Grand in Zurich, Switzerland, prominently featured in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Noteworthy Dining

I Carracci restaurant in Grand Hotel Majestic, Bologna. © Eric Levin.

A grand or grand dame hotel is not only a lure for luxury travel visits. It is a citadel of destination dining, and houses one (or more) of its locale's very best restaurants. Often, the eatery is as famous as the hotel itself.

Art Everywhere

Artworks and signed design are ubiquitous throughout © The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.

A grand or grand dame hotel keeps up with appearances: its own. Its management does not skimp on décor. The hotel is refurbished frequently and renovated regularly. And a grand hotel's common spaces and guest rooms are filled with art of the genuine and pricey sort.

Destination Wedding Magnet

Weddings with that "wow factor": La Terazza Ballroom at © La Fonda Santa Fe.

A grand or grande dame hotel is catnip to upscale engaged couples seeking a refined wedding that their guests will see as a luxury getaway. The tasteful twosomes count on impeccable nuptials -- and impressive name-dropping for years to come.

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