exterior of ballyfin in county laois ireland

At Ballyfin, a storied country house hotel in County Laois, Ireland, an hour from Dublin, I’ve spent the day playing bygone rural gentry. I’ve pulled on a pair of Dubarry boots and cloaked myself in corduroy to look the part as I wandered the grounds of the 1820s-era historic mansion. Exploring the footprint of this Irish “great house,” a residence built to flaunt family wealth and entertain city friends in past times, I ramble around the limpid lake, pose with the twin sphinxes that flank the front door, pick tomatoes from the chef’s abundant garden, play croquet on the lawn, take a carriage ride, and peer at a panorama from a folly tower that embraces views of 16 counties. Indoors, I gaze in awe at 10,000-year-old elk antlers displayed on the wall, learning they’d been plucked from a bog that preserved them. I dance through a salon with Napoleonic mirrors, sip strong tea from delicate china cups, and read a book in the bedazzling 80-foot library which houses a secret room. There’s also a sun-stippled conservatory, a bedroom that boasts a bathtub made from a Roman sarcophagus, and my own room, Lady Caroline Coote’s Suite (named for the former owner and fabled hostess), a vision of sky blue damask and overall lavishness. But, it’s the day the staff directs me to a closet the size of a room, and a trunk bounteous with period clothing and accessories, that forever bonds me with this extraordinary hotel. “Go on, dress for dinner,” they say. And, though I’m not a person passionate about holidays that involve donning costumes, I rummage joyfully through the vintage options in search of items that might allow me to channel the party spirit of Lady Caroline. In the end, strewn with pearls, be-feathered, and elegantly pressed into a wasp-waisted dress, I emerge for dinner with other retro-attired guests. We eat blithely through a range of courses as if we’ve stepped back through time — and in a way, we have — we’ve entered an intoxicating alternative reality. 

In a world of newly built, barely memorable hotels without a backstory, a unique property with its own narrative is like eating a feast instead of slurping watery, tasteless broth. Not just about the destination, the service, or the amenities, a historical hotel and its multitude of legends, whispered gossip, evocative design, traditions, and palpable spirits adds gravitas and meaning to a vacation away from modernity’s bustle. It can draw you into another place and time.  And, it provides repose by conveying you to something so quixotic and foreign it takes you out of yourself and your epoch to provide the ultimate pivot and restoration. 

In praise of nostalgia, we offer up more nonpareil historical hotels, sure to immerse you in the legend.

Hotel del Coronado, California

pool area at hotel del coronado in california
Courtesy of Hotel del Coronado

Pocketed on a perfect beach on Coronado Island, just across the bridge from San Diego, Hotel del Coronado hasn’t stopped buzzing since it was built in 1888 as “the talk of the Western world.” Launched as an architectural showpiece, its castle-like main house and glitzy clientele from around the world brought it instant fame, manifesting the grandiose lifestyle of America’s wealthiest families. The haunt of dignitaries, matinee idols, nobility, and politicians, not to mention the occasional restless spirit, the Del (as it is known by regulars) has pampered visitors as diverse as Marilyn Monroe and George W. Bush. Today, enjoy its spread of different moods, five distinct residential “neighborhoods” on property, themed from historical to So-Cal chic. Each offers spectacular suites and amenities. Partake from eight restaurants and myriad activities such as surfing, beach spin, and bikes. 

Monkey Island Estate, England

bedroom at the monkey island estate in england
Courtesy of Monkey Island Estate

Not a tropical retreat but a private island playground on the River Thames, Monkey Island, once home to 12th-century monks with a penchant for growing medicinal herbs, became the 18th-century Duke of Marlborough’s roguish fishing hideaway. At Bray, a quintessentially Brit Lit village enlivened by four Michelin-starred restaurants, the intimate hotel served as a stopover for royals en route between palaces, an off-campus playground for mischievous bygone Eton schoolboys, and a gathering place for Princess Margaret’s saucy crowd. The lovers tryst location for HG Wells and Rebecca West, the hotel revels in ensuring contemporary guests carve out their own history, whether in the Floating Spa ensconced in a canal boat, the whimsical Whisky Snug accessed by a secret staircase, a Wedgewood-flanked suite, its brasserie, or in the six, stand-alone residences.

The Lowell, New York 

exterior of the lowell in upper east side new york
Courtesy of The Lowell

Embodying New York sophistication, The Lowell remains one of the world’s last privately owned hotels. It opened in 1926 as an Art Deco marvel rising swiftly to be a discrete landmark hangout for high-profile guests and glitterati. Fundamental to the fabric of the Upper East Side Historic District’s character, the jazzy hotel has inspired novelists, composers, actors, and politicos. Still equipping guests with real keys (no key cards), the bijoux hotel has welcomed in-the-know guests such as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Bette Davis, and Ginger Rogers. Indulge during winter as almost every guest room boasts a wood-burning fireplace. 

Beverly Wilshire, A Four Seasons Hotel, Los Angeles

aerial view of beverly wilshire a four seasons hotel los angeles
Image by Don Riddle

Positioned at the folkloric intersection of Rodeo Drive and Wilshire Boulevard in the heart of Beverly Hills, this tony hotel vaunts a historic guestbook chock full of star-power stays. Think: Elvis Presley and Steve McQueen to name two. With exalted features such as the 38 gas lanterns imported from an Edinburgh castle that line the cobblestone driveway, Beverly Wilshire still attracts revelers in search of posh digs and sultry parties. These days guests seeking solitude from urbanity can privatize this glamorous hotel’s entire 14th floor, an impossibly swish haven that includes four of the property’s top suites including the Penthouse and Presidential Suites. In a package called Indulge at the Summit, the takeover includes five pampering nights, a private shopping appointment at The Fifth Avenue Club, and private after-hours time at the spa. 

Château Saint-Martin & Spa Vence, France

breakfast on the balcony at chateau st martin in france
Courtesy of Chateau St. Martin & Spa

A beloved source of inspiration for masters of modern art such as Matisse and Picasso, artsy St Paul de Vence has also been the muse for writers and musicians. Château Saint-Martin & Spa, part of the Oetker Collection, roosts above the medieval town. A Roman fort, bishop’s abode, and stronghold for the Knights Templar, the domaine was also home to a Polish count and a dashing French businessman over the years. Scores of aesthetes return annually to boost their creativity and hobnob with other like minds. Choose from 40 renovated rooms and suites, plus 4 villas set among lavender gardens and olive trees. Michelin-star meals at Le Saint-Martin and treatments at Spa Saint-Martin seal the deal. 

The Broadmoor, Colorado

aerial view of the broadmoor in colorado
Courtesy of The Broadmoor

Knit into the Rocky Mountains in Colorado Springs, The Broadmoor opened as a palatial resort destination in 1918. Its vast grounds, 100,000-gallon-indoor pool, and afternoon dancing in the ornate ballroom lured guests from near and far. In subsequent decades, Hollywood celebrities flocked to the grande dame — including Jimmy Stewart who honeymooned here. Check out the West Tower’s Wall of Fame to peruse antique photos of esteemed guests enraptured by the locale. Ever eccentric yet elegant, the resort has mirrored the passions of its owners. Founder Spencer Penrose, a wildlife buff, kept a pet elephant Tessie (a retired circus performer). He opened the nation’s only mountainside zoo nearby after the resort’s on-site menagerie grew too loud and foul-smelling for guests. Today’s owner, Phillip Anschutz, displays portions of his priceless Western art collection throughout the retreat, ever immersing visitors in sense of place. 

Condado Vanderbilt, San Juan Puerto Rico

lounging area facing a body of water at condado vanderbilt in puerto rico
Courtesy of Condado Vanderbilt

A riot of Spanish Revival romanticism, beachside in San Juan’s ritzy Condado district, Condado Vanderbilt spoils discerning jet setters with spacious suites, 24-hour butler service, and a spa oasis with Puerto Rico’s first hammam. Opened in 1919, the hotel ushered in the Gatsby-esque Jazz Age with a heady but posh party scene that welcomed both locals and guests. Blue bloods joined fellow socialite founder Frederick William Vanderbilt to engage in Condado Vanderbilt’s quixotic fervor, zest, and delectable luxury amenities, quickly making it one of the world’s most talked about hotels. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, affiliated with Historic Hotels of America, Condado Vanderbilt was the first hotel in Puerto Rico to claim a casino, which opened in 1940. 

Hermosa Inn, Scottsdale Arizona

outdoor dining area with flowers at hermosa inn in arizona
Courtesy of Hermosa Inn

Now in a fragrant residential neighborhood in Scottsdale, Hermosa Inn was constructed in the 1930s by famed cowboy artist Lon Megargee as his personal ranch homestead — complete with secret tunnels for quick escapes from the bar during prohibition. A notorious gadabout and Casanova, the larger than life Megargee moonlighted as a poker dealer, cowpoke champion roper, and mural painter. Composed of characteristic adobe casitas, filled with captivating antiques, the ranch became a hotel in 1941 after Megargee went bankrupt and fled town, leaving a trove of paintings and objet d’art behind. Today, guests can make merry on Hermosa Inn’s six acres of Eden-like landscape, blessed with views of Camelback Mountain’s Praying Monk rock. Don’t miss dinner at legendary LON’s or house sangria in the intimate pool. While in residence, keep an eye out for Megargee’s omnipresent ghost. As staff will tell you: “He is everywhere.”

Featured image courtesy of Ballyfin