The call of the American west was for a time our country’s dominant narrative. Grand opportunities awaited, stretched across big country and vast landscapes—grand, big, vast—and in 2015, the impressive scale that made the west remains—in the Rockies, in the plains, in the rest.
Walla Walla, Washington, a town within a county sitting flush with the Oregon border, is in its geography grand, big and vast, with great green hills and gorgeous Blue Mountains running all the way to the horizon. But beneath its big sky, Walla Walla is small. It’s very small, in fact, as home to just over 30,000 people. Downtown, the buildings seem wide rather than tall, crouching around the streets just one- or two-stories up. Its blocks are effortlessly walkable, and a single-story Macy’s aside, the shops are mostly untethered to corporate America and proudly wear names like Crave and The Green Lantern and Bright’s Candies. And everyone, young and old, is really, really nice.
USA Today, among others, has noticed—naming Walla Walla separately the friendliest small town in America and one of the five best small towns in America—but the actual USA has not yet caught on. People who know wine know Walla Walla (see part 2), it of 160+ wineries, but most of the rest do not. That is changing, and changing fast.
The 1000th Courtyard Marriott, now open in Walla Walla
Last Thursday, the Walla Walla travel brand hit a new highwater mark with the ceremonial opening of the Courtyard Walla Walla. By the town’s good fortune, it was the 1000th property in the Courtyard Marriott collection, and so the ceremonial opening was heavy on the ceremony. The wine poured, and it was good, and I had the chance to check out the property in its exciting, thrilling infancy:
Courtyard Marriott is the leader in the business hotel segment, having actually pioneered the category back in 1983. That may not be news to you, but the fact remains that the Courtyard Walla Walla was very strategically, very intelligently designed to meet the needs of the modern business traveler.
The design, in 3 quotes from Marriott minds:
- A guest should “never [be] without what [he or she] might need in a moment”
- It’s built for guests who “can’t afford or don’t need to spend on services” (aka a “better room for less money”)
- Courtyard is “still the leader in the segment”
The local touch
Walla Walla is no jaded tourist circus. Its one-of-a-kind Walla Walla shape has yet not warped under the weight of tourist masses, and believe it or not, you see that in this hotel. With the right lens, at least, you see that in the hotel. It’s a Courtyard Marriott property, so there are Courtyard Marriott-standard amenities, but that’s okay—and even a good thing. You don’t become the world’s 8th-largest hotel brand (by room) and the segment leader without a proven formula. Plush bedding, free Wi-Fi, flexible dining, and low price points, for example, are all now guaranteed in Walla Walla with the Courtyard name.
But as we heard first-hand, conscious efforts were made—many of them successfully—to step outside this formula, as seen in some of the lobby furniture, which is made out of old wine barrels. Locally produced art hangs on the walls, and the lobby decor includes at least one Walla Walla landscape mural. The Exhibition Kitchen (below), a Courtyard first, is a very calculated attempt to bring winemakers, chefs and guests in the Walla Walla mold around locally inspired group dinners. On our visit to Pepper Bridge Winery (see part 2), the man behind the hotel himself—a truly fantastic guy named Chris—was paid genuine compliments on the job he’d done with the place—and in not painting over the beloved Walla Walla color.
Fun fact: The first-floor boardroom is named the Hops & Vine Boardroom, a reference to the area’s strong beer and wine scenes. The name was initially a joke, but by hotel opening, it had been permanently and officially adopted.
Preaching on behalf of a brand hotel’s local immersion is made easier by a location this great. The Courtyard Walla Walla is a few minutes’ walk from the heart of Walla Walla, which to be clear is a truly exceptional walking town. We were given a map prior to arrival to establish bearings, and one look at the map told me I wouldn’t be needing it. It’s a walk-in, walk-out hotel. More than a few of the 160+ wineries are outside walking distance, because that’s how wine works, but that’s why you have Imbibe (see part 2).
Tip: Both airports—Walla Walla (4 miles) and Pasco (51 miles) are also outside walking distance. Fortunately, there are free airport shuttles and A Plus Taxi (509-386-7388).
It begins in the lobby, with which the developers did a commendable job. The lobby, in fact, drew perhaps more praise at the opening than any other hotel element. It’s big, with high-but-single-story ceilings, but the space is partitioned creatively. The reception desk is basically two reception desks with a space in the middle, which by design frees the staff to step out and help guests with Walla Walla maps, etc. There’s a mural-adorned half-wall separating reception from a several different seating options, including long wooden tables and Adirondack chairs made from wine barrels. A glass-boxed, indoor-outdoor fireplace guides the comfort outside onto a patio where servers at The Bistro will bring you food. Accent is added elsewhere in the form of local art, corner nooks and some nice Walla Walla coloring.
Deeper lobby insight:
- Designed to offer extended out-of-room options
- Intentionally does not feel like a bar, at least in part to make solo women more comfortable
What really matters in the end, right? Well, the rooms at the Courtyard Walla Walla do at least what will be asked of them for their price points. My standard room, #360 on the third floor, was immediately spacious, clean and comfortable. Alone, though, these notes are not enough to win top marks, so let’s go a little deeper:
- The coloring, led by dark browns, blues and whites, works well
- The king bed was excellent, though there were more pillows than were necessary (kind of a dumb critique, yes)
- In the back right, from the bed, there’s a sleek wooden cabinet with a mini-fridge and microwave (!) inside
- There’s a Keurig machine with three cups (presumably more, if you ask)
- There are plugs everywhere, which is amazing and was a revelation
- Beside two bedside plugs (you don’t have to reach under the bed) is a USB port
- There’s a rolling desk with a chair and flat-screen TV above it
- The “Lounge Around Couch,” perhaps the featured piece, was designed specifically as an alternative work space
- Free Wi-Fi ($5.99/day for faster speeds, but I streamed a basketball game on the basic)
Room rates, generally speaking:
- Off-season: $109-$129 per night
- Summer: $149-$169 per night
- Suite: Room rate + $30
Count the attached bathrooms, as well, among the wins for the room and the hotel overall. The Paul Mitchell toiletries are nice (and standard Courtyard-wide), and the space is generous, but the standout is easily the shower. All I really want in a hotel room is a great bed, free Wi-Fi and a powerful shower, and I got all three in my temporary home at the Courtyard Walla Walla. The shower is huge, and the temperature control is not beneath the shower head but instead on the opposing wall, out of the range of the water at full blast (it’s “materially more expensive” to do it this way, but the return was apparently enough). And of course, the water pressure is amazing.
The Bistro is the quick and easy dining option at every Courtyard property, and at each it is deemed a strength. Pricing is reasonable, and service is speedy enough if you need it to be. Starbucks coffee is available 24 hours a day, literally (go to reception if The Bistro is unstaffed). As for the food, it was well-received overall, with one breakfast item in particular good enough to earn a place on Ramsey Qubein‘s phone. On the other end of the spectrum, the Rice Krispie Treat I for some reason ordered was inedible, though the Cheddar French Dip I had prior was delicious.
Note: By Courtyard policy, local beers and wines are out of the spotlight for the time being, but an effort is apparently underway to change this. For the time being, you can’t go wrong with Sierra Nevada.
The Exhibition Kitchen
As noted above, it’s a Courtyard first and an extension of the food-and-drink-heavy Walla Walla experience. It’s a little early to expand on this feature fully (there’s only one fleeting mention on the website), but the promise it holds earns it space here. In short, the Exhibition Kitchen is and will be a theater for local players from the area’s rich food and wine scene. “Winemaker’s dinner” was the teasing buzzword we kept hearing with it, so good things appear to be ahead.
There’s also a small pool, an outdoor hot tub and a small gym/fitness area. Basic hotel stuff, really, rounding out a pretty impressive Courtyard hotel in Walla Walla.
In Part 2: Where to drink wine.
For more on the Courtyard Walla Walla, check out the hotel’s homepage here.