Like many Brits, my images of America are part Hollywood, part romance,part television all tempered with the reality of numerous visits over the years. The big cars with their fins and chrome may be in the past, but Skamania showed me how much of my imaginings are still to be discovered, including that mournful train wail that features in so many ‘westerns’.
Standing in the Cascade Mountains (and while it is officially a Washington State lodge, you need to go into Oregon to get here) it may not be surrounded by the giant redwoods, but on the slopes of Mount Hood the hotel is in the midst of the National Scenic area of the Columbia River Gorge and surrounded by acres of beautiful pine forest.
The Columbia River Gorge is the main route through the Cascades here, and along it runs the railway as well as the freeway, Interstate 84. The drive to the hotel from Portland is all along the Oregon side of the Columbia River, crossing the ‘Bridge of the Gods’ to Stevenson. Romantic and fully in tune with my images of America, to give me what one of my childhood heroes, Mr Pastry, would have said were the ‘deep joys’.
A sister lodge to the lodge that is the Alderbrook Resort and Spa in the Olympic National Park, Skamania is being refurbished by Dawson Designs’ Seattle office, the same designers that worked on Alderbrook, now winning awards as one of the best hotels in the Pacific North West of the USA. I was privileged to be one of the first design writers to see the early results of the makeover given to the main public areas, and it was a chance to experience the hotel and the Cascades.
The cultural differences between the US and Europe are deep, and yet one is rooted in t’other. This similarity with dissonance is reflected in US interiors. Although the internationalism of design is growing along with increasing blandness, there are fortunately still enough differences of colour and texture to make trips like this worthwhile. The nature of interiors is such that unlike many other forms of design, they can truly reflect location , indeed in most interiors I would argue should reflect location. This was true at Alderbrook and certainly it looks as if it will be true here at Skamania too.
It can be a difficult balance to strike a local note without falling over a line into kitsch, but this is a line that Dawson tread very carefully and successfully. I suppose that I see Skamania, Alderbrook and Mohonk Mountain House as a kind of Yankee equivalent to the English Country House hotel, but without the snobbery. Deeply rooted in American traditions these are very relaxed establishments, child-friendly if not family centred. All have a tradition of providing conference and meeting facilities and award winning spas (in the case of Alderbrook and the Mohonk). Skamania, although only 20 years old, is upgrading its Spa and public areas as a first stage in reworking its offering perhaps with a view to winning awards and becoming a destination Spa as Mohonk and Alderbrook have done. It also has an 18 hole mountain golf course.
Like Alderbrook Resort and Spa , the reception lobby decants the guest into a superb triple height lounge with extensive use of timber in both structure and paneling. Dominated by the stone fireplace, this comfortable area with rocking chairs in front of the log fire has huge picture windows looking out to the lake behind the Bonneville dam. Currently the coffee stand that spoils the peace of the space will be replaced by a coffee shop using an adjoining space and providing an alternative route into the grounds in front, which no good American citizen seems able to enter without clutching a life-saving giant cardboard cup of coffee. The use of one side of the lounge as a corridor to outside breaks the contemplative tranquillity that would otherwise be the delight of this haven from the industrial world.
Whilst Skamania does not have the naturalist on the staff that Mohonk Mountain House does, it maybe goes one better by having a Forest Ranger office in the lobby, marked by an 8 foot high sculpture of a grizzly bear, still occasionally found in the surrounding forests I understand. Adjacent to the concierge desk the helpful Rangers supplement the information and services the concierge provides. On the opposite side of the entrance lobby is the tourist shop providing that source of postcards, local artefacts etc. that is otherwise not easily accessible without resorting to the car.
Huge car parking spaces, one adjacent to the golf course, make access easy as does having a separate conference entrance and reception area. The hotel offers twenty-three meeting rooms and over 22,000 square feet of meeting, exhibition and banquet space. In addition, Skamania Lodge offers over 40,000 square feet of seasonal outdoor venue space tucked within the forests.
Once in the hotel everything you might need is here. All the public areas open up onto the terrace with views across the Columbia river valley, including the fire pit, an idea spoiled for me by many of these installations using gas to fire them rather than burning real logs. Here real wood may be the fuel, and it is in the huge lounge fire, unlike the silly ceramic gas log used at Alderbrook. The two dining rooms offer plenty of menu variety and choice with the main restaurant, styled in a vaguely deco timber-work finish. The deco feel comes from the use of pale timber joinery plus the spacing and styling of the square lanterns throughout.
The main restaurant offering includes a menu based around the use of a wood fired oven. It also offers a choice of seating styles from booth to open table, with a large servery area in the centre. The space is flexible with one end being loose furniture, enabling parties to dine together whilst small groups can gain some privacy using the more private booth style seating area.
The bar and bistro, subject of the recent refurbishment, majors on locational keys, with again a huge stonework fireplace with the head of an unfortunate moose dominating. Antler and horn are used by the designer throughout, and tables offer varying seating locations, numbers, heights etc. making for an interesting space that divides itself into zones neatly and easily.
The bar has witty references to other areas – there is a small grizzly supporting shelves for example, echoing the entrance area sculpture, and the area behind the bar has a painting representing the surrounding woodland. Funky details abound – a hollow log, stools made from sections of tree trunk, a pair of moose antlers (seems as if the moose population in this part of the States is a favourite prey of the hunters) and patterning when used is indicative of native Americans traditions. The overall effect is very comfortable visually and physically, enhanced by fireplaces and typical high quality service. Both the refurbished bar and the new lounge area are proving very popular with guests.
The layout of the building plan separates off the conference area from the main areas, placing the potential for noise from gatherings at the opposite end in what is a very large building from the space occupied by the spa and pool. The pool hall itself is a handsome space, open into the roof timbers, and the skylight providing reflection in the water. Its glass doors open onto outside terraces, one of which is occupied by the outside area of the very cramped spa. The treatment rooms for the spa are conversions of bedrooms I suspect, and as such they lack panic buttons, soundproofing or any of the real luxury trappings expected in a European spa. As such they will need considerable lift if the spa is to operate in a way that will draw spa aficionados in from areas around, as happens at Mohonk, where the 1990’s spa addition has proved very successful.
Whilst effective as treatment rooms, there are only two spaces, alongside the small gym and the pool areas. The outside pool for the spa is a successful and slightly romantic piece of design, using large rocks to create an illusion of a river section for the whirlpool area. However again the outside relaxation area is quite small and the whole spa seems out of scale for such a large hotel.
The conference areas themselves have their own terraces and breakout zones, easily serviced from the hotel kitchens. With their own reception desk and lobby area, they offer clients the opportunity to create an event that can run quite separately from the hotel, with its own entrance etc., allowing conferences a feeling of some exclusivity. They are also placed at the same end of the hotel as the golf course allowing an easy interaction between the two.
The outdoor spaces also include an amphitheatre down the slope from the hotel, whilst the lawns in front lead onto forest walks and the wild beauty of the Columbia Gorge. Bedrooms are large and well laid out generally although the suites are a lot less convincing. The bedrooms take advantage of their width to have large desk areas, and all have spaces that are almost big enough for walk-in wardrobes. The arc of the building gives most views of the river gorge.
The suites often have open fireplaces in them – although unlike Mohonk where the guests are trusted to light their own log fires, here the fires are gas effect. Safer perhaps but certainly less romantic than going to sleep to the flickering light of burning logs. I find it curious that where the suite has a lounge with settees etc. the log fire is nonetheless placed in the bedroom, so the opportunity to have that romantic evening sitting in front of the fire is lost, but maybe that is just an English concept of cosiness.
Skamania, like Alderbrook, reaches into the heart of America – the heart that embraces wilderness and the natural world (not the one that then goes out and slaughters it with automatic weapons). With easy access for skiiing in the winter, walks and wild life in the summer, water sports on the Columbia and a large slice of the history of development and exploration that led to statehood for Oregon in 1859 and Washington State some 30 years later the hotel is well placed to provide a luxury escape for the urban populations from surrounding states.
From a visit in August 2012. © Words and Photographs Patrick Goff