The Ahwahnee makes granite a girl's best friend

Times Staff Writer

THERE is a certain kind of traveler -- me, for instance -- who, having spent a good part of her youthful vacations stooped under the weight of a backpack, feels off-kilter checking into the Ahwahnee Hotel.

And yet here we were, in the middle of a room with elegant Native American decor, in the middle of Yosemite, California's best loved national park. Outside the window was a view we really didn't deserve. Fluffy white spa bathrobes awaited us in the closet. Later, in the rustic dining room with its soaring trestles and candlelit tables, we treated ourselves to perfectly pink prime rib and breast of duck.

We never quite got over it. Wasn't that faultless panorama of Half Dome supposed to be physically earned? Weren't we supposed to be sleeping on lumpy down bags?

On second thought, nah.

This was a splurge a long time coming. I had made reservations for a long October weekend 10 months in advance. My operating theory, in the absence of any truly compelling reason for the visit, was this: There are just some things a Californian needs to do before she dies or turns 50. Staying at the Ahwahnee, even at $416 a night, was high on my list.

As my husband, my 13-year-old daughter and I walked into the hotel, we had the curious sensation that no one had given much thought to the aesthetics of the entry, a dark, longish covered walkway. As I would learn on a free guided tour two days later, that's because this was the back of the hotel when it was built in 1926 and 1927.

The more spectacular angle on the hotel, which has 99 rooms and a 95% year-round occupancy rate, can be had by walking out onto the back lawn, turning around and taking in the dramatic stone and "wood" structure. (What looks like wood is actually fireproof painted cement.) Three wings jut from a seven-story main tower, and each offers a postcard view of the park's fabled granite walls: Half Dome, Yosemite Falls (dry at that time of the year) and Glacier Point.

The day after the hotel's opening night -- a private, complimentary celebration for an elite few on July 14, 1927-- hotel staff reported that the guests had stolen a remarkable number of pewter ink stands, valuable Indian baskets, rugs and even bedspreads. Much of the original decor remains, however -- items too large to steal, including linoleum walkways cut into Indian motif inlaid circles, wrought-iron chandeliers and furniture, and stained-glass windows in the Great Lounge.

On our last morning, we indulged in the Ahwahnee's $33-per-person Sunday brunch buffet. I concentrated on the rare prime rib -- why waste calories on bacon and eggs? -- and definitely got my money's worth.

Long considered a national treasure, the hotel was not originally conceived with hoi polloi in mind. In fact, Stephen Mather, the man often called the father of the National Park Service, deliberately set out to provide luxurious accommodations in Yosemite to lure the rich. They would, he believed correctly, become supporters of the nascent national park system. "Scenery is a hollow enjoyment to a tourist who sets out in the morning after an indigestible breakfast and a fitful sleep on an impossible bed," he once said. Smart man.

Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite Valley; (559) 252-4848, Rooms in winter $259 to $379. For summer, holidays and weekends, book up to a year in advance.

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