Our family just returned from a stay at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. Xanterra Resorts manages this property and and other historic properties for the National Park Server. Now Xanterra is faced with a difficult and challenging job dealing with these hotels, some of which are almost 100 years old. But you should be aware that staying in a historic building is not like staying in a typical modern hotel.
To help you better understand what you are getting into we've come up a list of questions you should ask when making your reservations.
Does the room come with a bathroom? Some of the older hotels were build in the 20s and 30s when a bathroom in the room was almost unheard of. As a result you may get a room where if you want to wash your hands you have to go out the hall and down to the left.
If it comes with a bath tub, does it come with a shower? I once discovered to surprise that at the Bright Angle lodge in Grand Canyon National Park that a room with a bath was a room with a bath only. That was fine with me but my nieces really wanted a shower and were not happy about having to go down the hall and to the left.
Is the shower mounted on the wall? Do you define “shower” the same way everyone else does? For my stay at the Old Faithful Inn, I made sure that our rooms had both a tub and a “shower”. Trouble is Xenterra's definition of some words is not quite the same as every one else's. A Xanterra shows consists of a hand held wand that you can hold over head that dribbles water. This sort of “shower” makes washing your head very difficult.
Does the hotel turn off the central heating even if there is snow in on the ground? Yellowstone had an unusually cold winter. There was still snow on the ground in July! I'm not talking about up in the mountains, I'm taking about right next to the hotel.
Unfortunately Xanterria has a policy of turning off the heat during summer. The heat does not go on until the temperature drops below 55°F. This policy is rather ridged and is not adjusted due to unusual weather conditions.
The Old Faithful Inn uses “steam heat” that is run off a central boiler. From my experience with boilers, they heat up very slowly, so if they light the boiler when the temperature reaches 55°, it will be much much colder when the heat actually gets to the rooms.
At night when we went to bed it was 66° at bed level, 64° at floor level, and 62° next to the window next to blanket hung over it to keep the wind out (more on this later).
Will we have wear our heavy coats to bed? My wife is always cold so she over packs coats. She even packed light coats for us to go to Phoenix, AZ in the summer. For our trip to Yellowstone those coats were a life saver. During the day we wore light coats or no coats at all.
During the night she wore thermal underwear over which she put a shirt, over that was a sweater followed by a heavy coat. Then she got under three blankets and a bedspread. And she was still cold.
Do the windows open? Do they close? Completely? At the Old Faithful Inn we had windows that opened — almost. The window in the bathroom had a 1/2” space between the window and the frame. That wasn't so bad except that there was a 1/8” gap where the two windows met that was open to the outside air.
The windows in the bedroom had at least a 1/4” gap open to the outside. Worse our room was on the windward side, so the cold night wind blew through the room. And remember the heating policy at the hotel does not take into account wind chill caused by the wind blowing through the room.
The windows are closed and latched. The white line in the gap to the outside. A cold wind blows through this gap.
When you ask the engineering staff at the Old Faithful Inn to fix the gaps all around the windows will they:
Use chalk to seal all the exposed cracks.
Use a carpenters square to true up the window so it fits in it's frame.
Add shims to the window to make it fit better.
Shrug their shoulders and say “We can't do anything about it.”
Now I'm not the best handyman in the world, but I do know how to fix a drafty window. It's simple, fast, easy, and actually within my very limited capabilities. But to hear the professional engineering staff at the Old Faithful Inn tell it, not only is it hard, it's beyond their capability to even conceive of a fix.
I must say that almost all of the people I met who worked for Xanterra acted with professionalism and common sense. The “Engineers” were the major exception.
Be prepared to do the engineering work yourself.
Will I need to hang a blanket over the window to keep the drafts out? My wife has a lot of experience with third world hotels so she knows what to do in even the most sever conditions. To stop the wind whistling through our room, she hung a blanket over the window to keep the draft out. It didn't completely solve the problem of the cold, but it did make it possible to sleep comfortably if you used enough coats and blankets.
Does sound carry from one room to another easily? The older hotels that Xanterra manages were built before the concept of soundproofing rooms was in place. As a result you can easily hear a conversation in the hall or the next room.
Is there a bar next to the room? One of the rooms was next to a small bar. Fortunately it closed at 10:00. While it was open you could hear lots of noise as the patrons chatted away. When it closed you could hear every bottle being replace, every cabinet being closed and locked, and the cash register being shut down.
Do you recommend ear plugs for sleeping? My wife can sometimes be overprotective so she brought ear plugs in case the noise of the geysers were too loud. It wasn't, but the ear plugs were very useful when it came to sleeping.
Will I have to explain the squeaking bed in the next room to my eight year old daughter? We could clearly hear what was happening in the next room when the couple next door decided to make the bed squeak. Fortunately my daughter was engrossed in her hand held game system so she didn't ask awkward questions.
How many hands does it take to open the door? Our doors were made of heavy, sold wood planks. (Very good at conducting sound – see above.) To open the door you had to turn the lock with one hand and to pull the latch with the other. And because the door is so solid the springs that hold it close are very strong. My eight year old was proud that she was able to get the door open unassisted – but then she's big for her age.
Also don't try to prop the door open with a suitcase. That big spring will throw that suitcase half way across the hall. Use two hands and lots of muscle.
Is the room lit well enough to read a book? To tell the difference between brown socks and black socks in your suitcase? The light was so dim in our room that at night I couldn't tell the difference between black socks and white ones.
I assume that when the Old Faithful Inn was build that it was lit by candle light. To preserve the ambiance of those bygone days, Xanterra lights the rooms with two 1-candlelight electric lights. Actually I looked on one of the bulbs and it said 25-Watt. Frankly I don't believe it, the light it gave off looked more like at a 10-watt light bulb.
There was no way at night you could read a book or even see what's in your suitcase. Fortunately we all carried flashlights in case we were caught outside at night on a hiking trail. We never needed them on the trails, but we did use them a lot to navigate the room. Also the front desk was nice enough to give us two extra desk lamps which raised the light level to the point we could at least see the suitcases if not what was inside them.
It is difficult to capture lighting conditions exactly with a camera. Fortunately this picture does a very accurate job of showing the lighting conditions we were faced with. (Although this picture makes things seem lighter than they actually were.)
This is a picture of the hall outside our room. It was taken on a bright sunny morning and if you look closely you can see sunlight coming in from the window in the center of the picture. It's hard to see anything else – which pretty much sums up the lighting conditions we were faced with.
What do you mean by “very close”? I reserved two rooms which I was assured were very close to each other. When I got to the Old Faithful Inn, I found out what “very close” means. To get from one room to another, you go out of one room, through a small bar, across the large lobby, through another small bar, and half way down the hall of the next wing of the hotel.
So if you are booking rooms, try and find their exact location. “Very close” is a relative term. The Sun is very close to the Earth, only 93,000,000 miles away. Only when you think in these terms is were our rooms “very close” together.
How many times have you run of of your primary type of mouse traps? Near the end of our stay we had a mouse in our room. Now I'm not upset because there was a mouse. Even the best hotels will have mouse problem now and then. Mice happen.
Also the staff was very sympathetic and helpful when we reported the mouse. The two people we talked to about the problem were very apologetic. What was interesting was they they uttered the same, word for word, “spontaneous” apology. (Obviously over rehearsed.)
What surprised me was not the mouse, but their response to it. It seems that they have a very nice box type trap which catches the mouse and hides the dead mouse from view. However when the bellboy came to our room with the trap, he told us that he had to use the old style trap as they ran out of their primary type of mouse trap.
I will say this, he was an expert mouse trapper. I've dealt with the old fashioned spring type traps and they are tricky to set. He set it the first time, every time.
But questions remain: “How did he get so skilled?” and “What happened to all those other mouse traps?”
Will you need a “mouse bag” for your snacks and other food? One of things our expert mouse trapper told us is that mice like food and are attracted to it. Given the number of mice around (we were in a national park after all) he suggested putting up the food so that the mice could not get to it.
So we created a “mouse bag”. This is similar to a “bear bag” only you don't have to hang it up so high.
The staff at Xanterra could not have been nicer. They obviously are skilled and given the authority to do their job properly. (With a couple of minor exceptions such as the maintenance staff.) Some of their facilities present some real challenges. When booking older properties make sure you know what you are getting into. Things you normally expect may not be there.
If you are staying in one of the old properties you may need the following:
Coats – For staying warm at night.
Flashlight or Camp Lateran – For seeing what's going on inside the room.
Earplugs – Some of the rooms have little or no soundproofing.
Weatherstripping – A roll of foam weatherstripping is small, easy to pack, and easy to install. It goes a long way toward sealing drafty windows.
Finally, a lot of unexpected good came from our trip. I got to learn how resourceful my wife could be in adverse situations. She has a lot of experience dealing with third world hotels and used that experience to make our hotel room livable.
My wife pointed out to me that staying at the Old Faithful Inn was just like camping. I pointed out to her that when I camped, the camp lantern put out more light, I could start the heat (camp fire) when I wanted to, and the wind didn't blow through the tent. Maybe after this stay she'll consider going camping with me.