Night at the Grand Ahwahnee

Los Angeles Times Travel
November 6, 1994

Yosemite National Park

Beneath our fourth-floor window a young doe nipped at blades of frosty grass, oblivious to our gaze. She grazed for a quarter-hour then slipped through the wall of trees between us and the Merced River.

Sean, our 4-year-old, climbed on the table for a better view. Even better, her mother wore a satisfied smile. It was the kind of scene she had demanded to help her pass (painlessly, she hoped) a milestone birthday.

Judy chose between celebrating in one of her favorite destinations, Santa Fe, or a new treat she had long fantasized about. So here we were in Yosemite Valley, cocooned for two November nights in the grand old Ahwahnee Hotel.

We had often enjoyed the Ahwahnee's elegantly rustic dining room, huge stone fireplaces and placid meadows as looky-loos. Sean had even picnicked at a barbecue the hotel threw for firefighters who battled the wildfires that closed Yosemite Valley for 10 summer days in 1990. But this was our first chance to walk right in without feeling that we were interlopers in the 67-year-old landmark, built of granite rock and concrete beams stained to resemble redwood and cleverly hidden in a forest on the valley floor. It felt good to drive up and, for the first time, check in like so many others we've watched.

For Judy it felt better than good. The Ahwahnee's public spaces -- a warm lobby, mammoth sitting room decorated with Native American artifacts and Persian tapestries and a warren of alcoves for quiet reading -- are among her favorite places to just hang out. It's best on a winter afternoon, sitting on a sofa in front of a fire when snow is settling on the valley and the hotel is in repose.

For that reason we opted for a room inside the main building and not in one of the cottages sprinkled around the grounds, even though the price was the same: $208 a night for a standard double room. (That rate drops $20 midweek from Nov. 28 until Feb. 3, 1995.) It might have been different if the cottages had fireplaces -- only a few do -- but the furnishings were comparable. All rooms were recently redone to add modern amenities such as air conditioning, TV and honor bars.

Judy was relieved to reach the hotel for another reason. She struggled with a flu bug for most of the six-hour drive from Los Angeles and left her lunch beside the highway in Visalia. She gets car sick anyway, and the winding route into Yosemite from Oakhurst didn't help.

Even the famous valley overlook -- with its views of Half Dome and waterfalls -- couldn't work its usual magic. When we reached the hotel, she tumbled into a lobby easy chair to sweat out check-in. Once upstairs, it was into the bath, then into bed.

That left me and Sean alone with a 6:15 dinner reservation, carefully scheduled weeks before to give us time to arrive and relax before an early meal. We decided to make it a date. I threw on clean pants and a turtleneck, put Sean in a dress and led the way downstairs.

This being off-season, we had to share the hotel with 100 or so wine aficionados attending one of the seminars the Ahwahnee packs in during autumn and winter. But I was warned over the phone by the woman who arranged our reservations, and the oenology buffs were not in evidence when we strode into the Ahwahnee's signature dining room.

Soft light bathed the massive room from high chandeliers. Sean gushed with pride when the maitre d' led us to our candle-lit table, in a desirable corner near the 30-foot windows. Over a Shirley Temple (with two cherries) and a glass of Chardonnay, I began her education in Yosemite lore.

She's still weak on the confluence of glacial scouring and geologic thrusting that created Yosemite Valley's high granite cliffs and waterfalls. But she liked the part about the bears who open ice chests and about how her daddy, aunt and uncles also came to Yosemite when they were her age.

Eventually Sean went off to make acquaintance with another Yosemite tradition, pianist Dudley Kendall, a fixture in the Ahwahnee dining room. She often requests a round of "Itsy Bitsy Spider" when she finds such a willing victim, but she let Dudley off easy and just watched him.

It was early the next morning when we saw the munching deer. Judy felt much better and came down to the dining room for a birthday breakfast, a difficult meal to pass up here. Light pours in the picture windows, carrying views of the Cathedral Rocks and the woods that surround the hotel. Judy stuck to the hot Irish oatmeal, but Sean went for the traditional pancakes -- which were done just right, as was my raisin brioche French toast.

Judy's birthday wish was to spend a leisurely day with her Nikons taking pictures in the meadows, recharging her creative cells. While she made pictures in the morning light, Sean and I chased each other along the creeks, climbed on felled trees and skimmed stones on the glass-topped Merced River.

The Valley streams were nearly dormant. Nothing was coming over Yosemite Falls, we discovered after jumping in the car to locate a new photo spot. We did find water surging over Bridalveil Fall after a short hike.

That night our dinner reservation was not until 7:30 so we had time to relax around the hotel and dress for dinner. We weren't aware that the Ahwahnee's traditional dress code had been relaxed to allow men to wear open shirts and sweaters, although jeans and outdoor wear are still frowned on. Even though I had made arrangements for a special window table, the wine seminar commandeered most of the dining room. We were relegated to a cluster of tables near the entrance and, to our chagrin, the service suffered -- a notable irritant since it's the ambience and not the quality of the cuisine that makes the Ahwahnee special.

Still, the meal was enjoyable given the surroundings. The kitchen was willing to prepare some plain pasta for Sean, my prime rib was fine and Judy ate what she could stomach of her lamb. They do take wine pretty seriously -- we found the Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon very pleasing. By previous arrangement the hotel had prepared a chocolate birthday cake. The hotel also will arrange for flower arrangements to be sent up to the park from Mariposa, and offered to put together a fruit basket for our arrival.

One caution about the Ahwahnee for a special occasion. With only 123 guest rooms, reservations for popular times are hard to get. Book as far ahead as possible, up to a year in advance.

© Los Angeles Times 1994