Have you ever seen those "best of the best" or "gold" lists in other travel magazines? Year after year, they're top heavy with Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton hotels and resorts, the kind of super-luxury places that are apt to charge $400 or more (much more) a night. No wonder they rate "best." At those prices, they ought to be.
But does the best always mean expensive? Not at all. For years I've toured America, keeping my eyes open for terrific inns and lodges that also are affordable. And so I've compiled my own "Platinum" List-ten great places to stay for under $100 a night. They are solid proof that you don't have to spend big bucks for a first-class vacation.
The lodgings on my list differ somewhat-no surprise-from a typical Ritz- Carlton. You won't find chocolates on your pillow at night. Don't expect to get your shoes shined if you deposit them outside your door. And, no, room service won't come running if you crave a burger at 3 a.m. You will have to make do without these extras.
But this doesn't mean my bests are any less inviting. Each of the ten is unique-not a chain motel among them-and both appealing in appearance and well kept. And, as important, they all enjoy magnificent views-the finest anywhere in the country. No Four Seasons, no matter how expensive, can boast any better.
With maybe one exception, a European-style inn in Wine Country, these bests will appeal most to people who enjoy the outdoors. Two lodges stand in national parks, another two in state parks. Opportunities abound for hiking, fishing, swimming, and scenic sightseeing activities that won't put any pressure on your wallet. At any of them, plan to stay for three or four days, even a week. With a million bucks, you couldn't hope for a more memorable trip.
(All lodging rates below are the total for two people during summer peak period.)
Boulder Mountain Lodge, Boulder, Utah
I discovered Boulder Mountain Lodge in 1996, just after President Clinton declared a large chunk of southern Utah's most spectacular canyon country a national monument called Grand Staircase-Escalante. The 20-room lodge, sitting just outside the new parkland, served as my base as I explored the region by foot and car. I was so impressed by the immense beauty and quiet emptiness of the landscape that I brought my wife back to show her.
Surrounded by panoramic views, the lodge edges an 11-acre lake, a nesting area for yellow-headed blackbirds and other bird life. Beyond it soars Boulder Mountain, where black thunderclouds frequently race across the heavily forested slopes. Here and there, massive white and pink sandstone ridges thrust into the sky, and at their feet cattle and horses graze in rolling green pastures. Once quite remote-and still well off the beaten path-little Boulder (population 100) is thought to be the last town in America that got its mail by mule.
Cozy guest rooms are located in three separate two-story structures designed in an eclectic Western style. The exterior-rose sandstone blocks and massive timbers-mirrors the scenery, and the interior's white plaster walls and exposed beams seem as fresh as the pine-scented air. The inn's restaurant, called Hell's Backbone Grill, can be pricey. But cheaper dining is a five-minute walk away.
$79 (queen bed) to $139 (a two-room suite); $5 for each additional person; 800/556-3446. Fly into Salt Lake City or Las Vegas.
Lodge at Blackwater Falls, Davis, West Virginia
West Virginia's Lodge at Blackwater Falls is wrapped in the quiet isolation of Blackwater Falls State Park-a rugged expanse of woodland ridges and valleys cut by the impressively deep canyon of the Blackwater River. You approach the lodge on a long, winding road that carries you deeper and deeper into the forest. Suddenly, a clearing appears, and you see the lodge clinging to the brink of the canyon. The river races far below, the thunder of its crashing white water clearly audible.
The two-story, 54-room, dark-wood-and-stone structure is appropriately rustic- looking. But the rooms are entirely comfortable, and a new, glass-enclosed heated swimming pool and hot tub have added a luxurious touch. A large sitting room off the lobby, furnished with clusters of chairs and couches, makes a cozy place to read before dinner. The dining room, which serves budget-priced meals, is ringed by large windows that face the canyon.
You can view the 65-foot plunge of Blackwater Falls from the canyon rim just upriver from the lodge or descend 214 steps to its base. Miles of hiking trails meander through the woods, horseback rides are scheduled from the park stables, and bicycles can be rented to tour the road. Chilly Pendleton Lake boasts a small swimming beach.
$80, standard; $64, seniors; children 12 and under free 800/CALL-WVA; blackwaterfalls.com Fly into Pittsburgh, Baltimore, or Washington-Dulles.
Meson de Mesilla Resort Hotel and Gourmet Restaurant, Mesilla, New Mexico
The fertile Mesilla Valley in southern New Mexico ranks as one of the world's most productive chili-growing regions, and the local folks make good use of them in their flavorful cuisine. But fine food is only one reason to head for Mesilla's 15-room Meson de Mesilla, a boutique hotel offering near-luxury accommodations at an easy price. An excellent restaurant fills the first floor; most rooms are on the second floor.
Built and furnished in colorful southwestern adobe style, the inn immediately welcomes you with a sense of place. This is what you came to New Mexico looking for. Some rooms even sport a kiva fireplace, resembling the ones once used in Native American dwellings.
When my wife, Sandy, and I last stayed here, we enjoyed a view across the valley to the lofty Organ Mountains. Other rooms get a view of the authentic Old West town of Mesilla, where Billy the Kid once stood trial. Its many little cafes and shops-now featuring Native American and other crafts-are wrapped around an attractive central plaza. Treat yourself one night to dinner at the Meson, and then dine more economically in the "old town."
Located just outside Las Cruces, Mesilla makes a convenient base for day trips into the rugged countryside. Spend one day at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument high in the mountains. On another, explore a geological oddity called White Sands National Monument, where constantly shifting sand creates three-story dunes-all as white as snow.
$45, single; $78-$92, queen or king; $135-$140, suite; rates include a full breakfast; 800/732-6025; mesondemesilla.com Fly into El Paso.
Requa Inn, Klamath, California
As I turned off the highway toward the Requa Inn in far northern California, I spotted a rather ugly white building ahead. It looked like a misplaced army barrack. Could this be the romantic riverside inn I'd booked us into for three nights? Well, looks (as we all know) can be deceiving. Inside, the place radiated warm friendliness and attentive care. At the end of our stay we didn't want to leave. Even my opinion of the inn's ungainly exterior changed. Now it seemed invitingly cuddly, like a big roly-poly dog.
Forget its looks. The nearly 90-year-old property rewards guests with a grand view of the wide Klamath River. Small fishing boats dot the water every day of your stay, and the inn's reasonably priced restaurant features fresh grilled salmon. You could be on the river yourself in minutes.
Bedrooms are simple but fully adequate. Most guests migrate to the spacious sitting room, which boasts a huge window looking out onto the river. A crackling fire, welcome even in summer, wards off the chill of an ocean fog. Each night we sipped wine here before dinner and returned to read or chat with our fellow guests afterward. By day, we hiked the shady trails of Redwood National Park, which all but encircles the lodge.
$69 for a woodland view; $85-$95 for a river view; $10 per additional guest; 866/800-8777; requainn.com Fly into San Francisco or Portland, Oregon.
Dupont Lodge, Cumberland Falls State Park, Kentucky
Just below the splendid Dupont Lodge in eastern Kentucky, the Cumberland River spills in thunderous clamor over Cumberland Falls. Dubbed the "Niagara of the South," it is reputed to be the second largest waterfall east of the Mississippi River. Impressive as it is, the huge falls is more famous for its radiant "moonbow," a rare rainbow effect occurring only when the glow from a full moon is reflected in the mist rising from the falls. Crowds gather for the phenomenon, said to occur nowhere else in the Western Hemisphere.
I recently missed the moonbow-a rainstorm blanked out the night sky-but I did savor the rustic comfort of the sprawling 52-room stone lodge. Majestic in appearance, it stands atop a ridge overlooking a wide curve of the Cumberland. Solid hemlock beams and knotty-pine paneling give the public rooms a woodsy look, as do the massive stone fireplaces. The dining room, catering to families, serves inexpensive home-style meals.
Many guests come to the park for white-water rafting. When I learned the lodge is encircled by the Daniel Boone National Forest, his name alone prompted me to hike some of the 25 miles of marked trails. Horseback riding is offered, and there's even a swimming pool. Bass are the fish to catch in the Cumberland.
$73 weekdays; $78 weekends; 800/325-0063; cumberlandfallspark.com Fly into Lexington, Kentucky, or Knoxville, Tennessee.
Far View Lodge, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
No place could possess a more descriptive name. Standing atop the 8,000-foot-high plateau that forms Mesa Verde, Far View Lodge presents a wilderness vista that seems to stretch forever. In the evening, Sandy and I sat on the deck outside our room counting the stars and watching the lights pop on at isolated ranches scattered across the valley far below.
Built of stone and dark wood, the 150-room lodge blends nicely into its remote, piney-woods setting. It is the most convenient place to stay to visit the park's famed cliff dwellings. You can dine at the lodge's moderately priced restaurant, the Metate Room, or more cheaply at Far View Terrace, a cafeteria.
Plan on visiting the Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America. It occupies a deep ledge beneath the canyon's rim. Following a ranger, you descend steep stone steps cut into the side of a canyon wall. The Anasazi, who once lived here, entered their community in much the same way. Exiting is trickier. After scrambling through a tight crevice, you must climb three ten-foot-tall ladders placed one atop the other up the canyon wall. Don't look back.
$100 for a standard room; $112, deluxe; $72-$102 in off-season; 800/449-2288; visitmesaverde.com Fly into Denver or Albuquerque.
Calistoga Inn and Brewery, Calistoga, California
A 90-year-old charmer, the Calistoga Inn occupies a prime spot in Napa Valley, California's premier wine region. Notoriously expensive, the valley does harbor a few budget-priced lodgings. The inn is the best of them. Downstairs is a good, moderately priced restaurant and funky bar. Upstairs are 18 clean, sunny rooms that go for $75 a night weekdays, $100 on weekends-still a bargain in the vineyards.
The drawback: The rooms share toilets and showers, although each has a sink. The management calls the arrangement "European style," and indeed, the inn is as nice as any European shared-bath pension where I have stayed.
The inn stands beside a stream in the heart of Calistoga, a pretty town that retains the look of the frontier West. Its cluster of modest hot spring spas offers off-price mud baths and massages.
A rare and beautiful place, the Napa Valley has blossomed into a mostly upscale theme park for wine buffs and food lovers. But if you're careful, you can explore as I do for next to nada. Sip vintages at smaller wineries near Calistoga, such as Dutch Henry Winery or Vigil Vineyards, which don't charge a sampling fee. And be sure to drop into the Oakville Grocery in Oak-ville, a sophisticated country store where you can make a picnic of free samples of cheese, sausage, mustards, and crackers.
$75 weekdays; $100 weekends; 707/942-4101; calistogainn.com Fly into Oakland, San Francisco, or Sacramento.
Chico Hot Springs Resort, Pray, Montana
I've been back to the century-old Chico Hot Springs Resort several times, and I always recommend it to any friends heading for Yellowstone National Park. Located just north of the park, it's a wonderful introduction to the Old West. Cowboys off the range still tie up their horses at the hitching post in front of the resort's saloon. Try local game in the lodge restaurant, or drive a few minutes back to the main road for cheaper fare.
The 102-room lodge is tucked at the base of 10,960-foot Emigrant Peak, surrounded by Montana's wide-open Big Sky Country. The main lodge, sporting a big old-fashioned porch, is a bit weather worn, and some of the rooms (basic at best) share baths. So what? Just outside are two huge, hot springs-fed swimming pools-hot and hotter. I arrived mid-winter on my first visit. I savor the memory of floating in the pool during a snowstorm, watching the deer browse on the mountainside above.
$45-$60, rooms with shared bath; $85-$109, with private bath; 800/HOT-WADA; chicohotsprings.com Fly into Bozeman, Montana.
Bright Angel Lodge, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
If the Bright Angel Lodge sat any closer to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, it would tumble right over the cliff. This spectacular location alone puts Bright Angel at the top of my list of inexpensive national park lodges. Another plus: It was designed with southwestern flair by Mary Colter, the park's noted architect. You get upscale style at a budget rate.
The 89-room complex, completed in 1935, features a main lodge, adjoining wings, and a cluster of rustic-looking but quite comfortable cabins. In the main lodge, where you will find a family-priced restaurant, huge peeled-log beams adorn the ceiling and the floor is of stone. Doors are etched with Native American designs. The stone fireplace rises ten feet high.
$50-$56, lodge rooms without bath; $68, with bath; $81, cabins without a rim view; $107, with view; 888/297-2757; grandcanyonlodges.com Fly into Phoenix.
Fort Lewis Lodge, Millboro springs, Virginia
When you check the rate below, you will see that Fort Lewis Lodge, a 3,200-acre Blue Ridge Mountain farm, charges $150 a night for two. No, I'm not cheating here on the "under $100" rate. The price includes a complete, all-you-can-eat dinner and breakfast with beverages for two people. This qualifies it, I think, for my list. Once on the premises, you don't have to spend a penny more-unless you want wine or beer with dinner.
Furnished with country-style antiques and quilts, the lodge's 18 rooms look bright and cheery. Most guests come simply to relax and soak up the fresh air in the quiet surroundings. Some cast for trout in the clear, clean Cowpasture River, which splashes across the property. On my visits, I spend a lot of time bobbing around in the old- fashioned swimming hole, carved at the base of a towering rock wall.
$150, room with dinner and breakfast for two; 540/925-2314; fortlewislodge.com Fly into Washington-Dulles or Roanoke, Virginia.