THE venerable Gran Hotel Costa Ricahas undergone a massive face-lift; it is alsothe only hotel in the country to have beendeclared a historical architectural landmark.To mark this auspicious occasion, aplaque was presented in an official ceremonyMay 6 (see related article).Justifiably a source of national pride,the hotel has an intriguing history, oneclosely linked to Costa Rica’s “goldenbean” coffee. By the mid-1800s, the coffeeboom was bringing prosperity, culture andrefinement to this once-humble backwater.The National Theater was inaugurated in1897 and, by the 1920s, a nouveau elite,the coffee barons, realized there was aneed for an elegant hotel to accommodatetheir European counterparts and visitingdignitaries.For the country’s first grand-style luxuryhotel, a superb position was chosen inthe heart of San José, diagonal from theNational Theater, on the south side ofPlaza de la Cultura. Visionary businessmanLuis Paulino Jiménez, inspired by theneoclassical style and European influences,decided to build the five-storyhotel, and U.S. engineer Victor Lorenzsupervised its construction. The hotelopened its doors in October 1930.The existence of this fashionable newfacility stimulated the government to buildroads to Poás and Irazú volcanoes, and theGran Hotel can be credited in part for thedevelopment of today’s flourishingtourism industry. Notable guests haveincluded three U.S. Presidents: HarryTruman, John F. Kennedy – on the memorableoccasion when Irazú Volcano lastspewed forth fire and brimstone and coveredthe hotel in ash – and Jimmy Carter.Entertainment greats have included JohnWayne, Cantinflas and Julio Iglesias.HOWEVER, time passes. Age, andthe opening of new luxurious hotels, bothlarge and small, took its toll on the GranHotel. Gradual deterioration resulted in adowdy, drab interior, and it was obviousthis once grand old building and famouscity landmark was going to seed.But today, thanks to a new administrationthat started its remodeling project twoyears ago, the old dowager duchess hasbeen restored to her original splendor, withup-to-date additions to facilitate the comfortof guests and better serve their needsand modern-day requirements.“We have tried to maintain the classicalspirit and European charm,” said MiriamCortés, wife of president and General ManagerEric Gutiérrez. This becomes clear asyou walk around the spacious lobby andadjoining lounges filled with exemplary19th-century antique furnishings, predominantlyfrom Spain and England: tapestry-coveredchairs and sofas, a Victorian buffet,friar’s chair and a restored grand piano.Many of the items are labeled withtheir circa, and even the chairs PresidentKennedy used on his visit have beenrestored and are on display. The elaboratechandeliers, a profusion of glittering crystalcascades, beautiful floors of originalSpanish tiles and the dark wood pillars arenow superbly preserved.THE casino that dominated the lobbywith its noisy exuberance is now discreetlyhoused on the lower level. Open 24hours, it offers slot machines and games ofchance in an elegant atmosphere. EcoleTravel Service Center offers professionalassistance in four languages.El Bufo Dorado (Golden Frog Bar) is acomplete contrast to the other restaurants.Here you can enjoy an exotic cocktailamongst new wooden decor and modernleather furnishings. Restaurant 1930,located in the area where the casino usedto be, offers fine dining in elegant, spacioussurroundings, international cuisineand live classical music to add to theenjoyment of dinner.Overlooking the National Theater, theopen-air patio restaurant, Café 1930 (open24 hours) has always been a favorite people-watching and meeting spot, for bothresidents and visitors.“We’ve tried to make it like a little cornerof Europe,” Cortés commented. “Werealized security is of the utmost importancebecause of the plaza location, so wehave fenced in the patio area and surroundedit with potted palms and plants.”The strolling mariachi bands have beenreplaced by live piano music every dayfrom 12:30-2:30 p.m., and you will nolonger be molested by street venders comingto your table to sell their touristy souvenirs.Instead of sitting under the umbrellas,you can sit on the terrace, or in a tinyenclave at the end, devoted to the history ofcoffee. Old photographs of the coffee harvestand San José at the turn of the centurydecorate the walls. In addition, plans for acoffee museum and art gallery are almostcompleted.THE fifth-floor conference center,meeting rooms with audio visual equipment,convention facilities and banquetrooms have been remodeled. A state-ofthe-art gym, recreation room with largescreenTV and pool table, and high-speedInternet service are available for guests.The 120 refurbished rooms and spacioussuites with living/dining area haveorthopedic beds, cable TV, a mini-bar, coffeemaker and 24-hour room service. Manyof the rooms overlook the Plaza de laCultura or the National Theater. Ratesrange from $85-130, plus 16% tax, andinclude continental breakfast.The hotel has wheelchair access, andits prime location is close to the city’smajor attractions, museums, restaurantsand nightlife. For information or reservations,call 221-4000 or visit www.grandhotelcostarica.com.