Fred A. Bernstein

El Tovar

A grand lodge near the Grand Canyon

Published in The New York Times, August 7, 2005

Published: August 7, 2005

THE BASICS As we approached the Holiday Inn Express, about six miles south of the Grand Canyon, in early June, we decided to make one final phone call to El Tovar. Of the half-dozen lodges on the rim of the Canyon, El Tovar is the most famous. But despite several attempts, we hadn't been able to get a reservation. (Rooms are booked more than a year in advance.) We crossed our fingers while an employee - who admitted she was new - kept us on the phone interminably. Eventually, she came up with a room, with two queen beds, for the affordable price of $155. We would have paid that much for a pup tent, given the location. And El Tovar is hardly a tent. Built in 1905 to accommodate tourists arriving by railroad, it reopened in April for its 100th anniversary, after an extensive renovation.

True, it isn't the Ahwahnee, the spectacular lodge at Yosemite, but a more down-to-earth building resembling a three-story log cabin. The building's historic significance creates one drawback: for much of the day, there are crowds of tourists in the lobby. But if you wake up to see the sunrise at the canyon you can have the hotel pretty much to yourself. Oddly, even after the renovation, there is no elevator, so you might request a room on the ground floor.

THE ROOMS Comfortable, with touches of the West (Craftsman-style armoire, hammered copper table lamp). Only a few rooms have views of the canyon. Our room, No. 6415, overlooked a pine grove and a parking lot beyond. Prints on the walls depicting the Grand Canyon seem redundant, with the real thing outside.

THE BATHROOMS Like the bedrooms, they are modest and comfortable: white-tiled, with new Victorian style fixtures and shampoo from Caswell-Massey's ProTerra (not to be confused with Xanterra, the company that manages all the lodges in the Grand Canyon National Park). The sunflower showerhead is delightful but guilt-inducing (various hotel and park publications stress the importance of conserving water).

AMENITIES The canyon is the only amenity that matters. The trick is to wake up in time for sunrise - on June 9, it was at 5:11 a.m. Our wake-up call came, as promised, at 5, and 10 minutes later we were standing at the edge. At 6:30, the dining room opened for breakfast, and we nabbed a window table. (The $9.75 breakfast burrito was superb.) Then it was off for a hike down Bright Angel Trail. The trip to the first trail house - a mile and a half from the rim - took about 40 minutes; the return took about twice that long. We were back at El Tovar in time for checkout (11 a.m.) and lunch in the Arizona Room of the nearby Bright Angel Lodge.

ROOM SERVICE The restaurant will deliver to your room, but it's hard to imagine anyone choosing that option - the dining room, with its vintage murals of Indian rituals and copper-with-stained-glass chandeliers is a big part of the hotel experience. At dinner, the roast duck with cranberry port glaze ($21.90) was terrific. A bottle labeled "Grand Canyon Merlot" (actually from Northern California) was satisfying ($23).

THE BOTTOM LINE With tax, and an optional $1 donation to the Grand Canyon Foundation Fund, a standard room is $166.10. If you can't get a reservation, do what we did: book a room at one of the many hotels south of the park, and try El Tovar again on the day of your arrival. (To its credit, the Holiday Inn Express allowed me to cancel my reservation, free of charge, even though I didn't give the required 24 hours' notice.) The other Xanterra lodges are less luxurious, but all have great locations.

El Tovar, Post Office Box 699, Grand Canyon, Ariz. 86023; (928) 638-2631; reservations (888) 297-2757; online at