ON THE ELEVATOR after checking into the Ahwahnee Hotel, I met a man attending a Chef's Holiday event. He had made the same trip every January for the past 13 years. “Never been here before?” he inquired, in that friendly tone that visitors seem to pick up almost immediately. “You're going to love it. This is absolutely the best hotel in the world.”
And I hadn't even made it to my room yet.
What a beautiful room it was, elegant and gracious without being pretentious, with American Indian furnishings and a stunning view of the towering granite cliffs. This 124-room hotel was designed to look like part of the rocky landscape and to take in the views from every window, especially the soaring ones in the grand dining room that overlook Yosemite Falls. The Ahwahnee is an architectural wonder, considering its location in the middle of the wilderness and the effort it must have taken to construct it.
There is no way to describe the wonder of the Yosemite Valley, the seven-mile stretch often known as the “incomparable valley” where this hotel is located. Its massive granite monoliths, some rising almost 9,000 feet, are draped with waterfalls, and the valley floor is dominated by sequoias and crystal-clear lakes. Images of Yosemite are certain to inspire incentive qualifiers, but few people realize they can visit the park in first class.
Enter the Ahwahnee, which was built in 1927 with the explicit purpose of luring wealthy visitors to Yosemite. Its Bracebridge Dinner, a three-hour, Renaissance-style affair, has been a standard event on the social register since the hotel opened. Over the years, the management added Chef's Holidays and Vintners Holidays, held in the early part of the year, that allow guests to mingle with celebrity chefs, attend daily seminars, and enjoy gala dinners. Either would be a highlight for an incentive group. If there is business to be done, six rooms are available, accommodating up to 80 people banquet-style and 100 for a reception.
Yosemite in winter, you ask? In fact, the winter months might be the best time for groups to visit the park, which is accessible year-round (a 2.5-hour drive from Fresno Airport). You'll find a fraction of the tourists at this time of year, and plenty of activities, from ice skating to skiing at California's oldest ski mountain, Badger Pass. I recently read the account of another travel writer who visited in winter and fantasized about being snowed in and forced to spend a couple of extra days. After my trip, I couldn't agree more.