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A blushing young bride sweeps past you in a wedding dress, clutching flowers, on a radiant Sunday in late spring, as men in ties issue forth from the stained-glass foyer. A flag flutters proudly above the turrets, as if to announce your arrival, and when you enter the lounge, the tiger skin on the wall transports you to the day when the hotel first opened, in 1908.
This grand hotel, The Fairmont Empress, is fit for queens – the framed black-and-white photos on its walls show Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales dancing in the hotel’s Crystal Ballroom. Like the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac in Quebec City, or The Plaza, A Fairmont Managed Hotel in New York, it’s one of those hotels that people long to see, as an important sight and destination in itself.
The hotel as icon has existed ever since the first travellers started looking for shelter for the night. A visitor today joins all the eminences who have passed through the same doors. I remember checking into the Fairmont Peace Hotel in my first hour in Shanghai and feeling as if I could detect Noel Coward completing Private Lives in his room.
An iconic hotel is at once a glorified home, and everything you could never expect to enjoy at home: It offers friendliness, welcome and warmth and yet it also ushers you into a realm of crystal chandeliers and white gloves, an elevated life that usually we visit only in our dreams. Grand hotels, such as the new Makkah Clock Royal Tower, A Fairmont Hotel, even become the antechambers to important moments for pilgrims. The Savoy, A Fairmont Managed Hotel in London may well be the only place where clotted cream ever makes an appearance in your daily life. San Francisco, meanwhile, is full of extraordinary restaurants, but on every visit, I stuff myself with afternoon tea at The Fairmont San Francisco, which somehow seems more unforgettable.
A hotel is a holiday from life, and it’s a break from the world we know too well; passing into the lobby of a heritage hotel is akin to entering another era in the world’s life. As a young boy, I grew used to slipping into The Savoy, just off the Strand, whenever the crowds, the noise, the push of life got too much. The storied old hotel is famous as the place where Vivien Leigh met Laurence Olivier, as the temporary home of artists from Monet to the Who. But, for me, it was simply the way its air of civilized attention made life feel safe and impeccable at last.
A few months ago, I found myself in the Canadian Rockies, where The Fairmont Banff Springs commands the pine slopes like a people’s castle. A classic hotel sits above the clamour and cares of the world, like a wise old aunt, who’s seen everything, is surprised by nothing and still looks dazzling in her pearls. She’s watched broken hearts and heads of state, she’s weathered courtly romances and political dramas and yet she’s still open for whatever grand adventure may come her way next.
Text: Pico Iyer