True confession: I have traveled through Birmingham, Alabama on many road trips but have never really spent any time there. On the other hand, I have had the pleasure of staying at one of the Kessler Collection’s Grand Bohemian properties (in Asheville, N.C.) and had lunch at another (in St. Augustine, Fla.) and love the interesting decor, the top-tier amenities and the way these hotels fit into their surrounding areas.
So, when the opportunity arose to participate in a Familiarization Tour of the Grand Bohemian Mountain Brook, I was very enthusiastic about making the trip. Hotel properties in the Kessler Collection portfolio seek to offer unique guest experiences and this one is certainly no exception. In fact, according to Thomas Hoffman, the hotel’s general manager, this property in one of Birmingham’s most affluent suburbs has more experiential amenities than any other property within the brand.
Art is a big aspect of the experience at this property, which opened in the fall of 2015, and the art experience begins upon arrival. Large sculptures flank the entryway of the 100-room hotel, which has the look of an upscale mountain lodge. Impressive works of art are placed around the spacious lobby and throughout the property; some are for sale and others a part of Kessler’s personal collection. Many outstanding pieces, including some made from all recycled materials, are featured in the on-site art gallery. Artwork also graces the restaurant, the spa and the halls of the conference center, a separate building that is just steps away from the hotel entrance. Even the elevators are lined with iridescent tiles.
Dining facilities are all located on the third floor and this is where I gathered with our hosts and a group of writers on my first evening at the property. The experience began in the glamorous Wine Tasting Room, with a taste of one of Kessler’s 32 unique wines from the owner’s vineyards in California.
My group of 12 then proceeded to the Wine Blending Room, where Sommelier and Instructor Demian Camacho Santa Ana explained the nuances of wine tasting and showed us how to make our own unique wine by blending our favorite varieties. My choice was a Syrah/Merlot/Malbec blend. Those who make return visits to the property have the option of having their choice blends prepared and ready for them upon arrival.
Once we had our wines in hand, we proceeded to a cooking class led by Executive Chef Clifton Holt. With some assistance and lots of enthusiasm from the participants, Chef Holt taught us how to prepare duck breasts, blue corn grits, and a shrimp and greens salad, with most of the ingredients, except the gulf shrimp, from local farms. Special touches, such as a blueberry salsa, made the meal extra tasty.
The class rooms, which are bright and spacious, with long tables that allow family-style dining, can accommodate groups of up to 25, but Chef Holt said that groups of 12 make an ideal size class. There are a variety of themes and types of food that can be created with advance planning, he added.
After that, the best thing to do is proceed to the bar and restaurant, Habitat Feed and Social, which starts indoors and opens onto a deck with a view of the city and mountains beyond. This venue is also reachable from the outside by a winding stairway and is an area hotspot, especially on weekend nights, when people gather to hear live music and enjoy the ambience, complete with fire pits.
After breakfast the next morning I got to enjoy a wonderful Signature Treatment at the Poseidon Spa, a great way to start a busy day. Then it was time to begin exploring the city.
Our first stop, the beautiful Birmingham Botanical Gardens, was just across the street. Free to the public, this 67.5-acre attraction includes more than 12,000 different plants and 20 unique gardens. We received a VIP tour of a number of special spaces for private functions, including receptions and educational sessions.
For lunch, we got to check out Galley & Garden, one of the city’s newest dining venues, located in a historic home but featuring modern American-inspired cuisine with Southern influences. Delicious!
Following that we went to one of Birmingham’s most iconic sites, Vulcan Park, where the statue of Vulcan, first built for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Mo., stands over the city atop Red Mountain. Group tours include a trip up an elevator to see the 56-foot statue up close from the viewing platform. (A bit scary for people like me with a touch of vertigo, but an awesome view of the city.) Special event spaces are available inside the museum, which includes exhibits about the iconic landmark.
Taking things up another notch, we headed to the Porsche Driving School at the Barber MotorSports Park. After a thrilling ride around the track in one of the many Porsches used at the driving school, we toured the museum, which contains an incredible array of motorcycles, cars and other motorized items. Among the special event spaces is an area that overlooks the race track.
An evening in downtown Birmingham included dinner at El Barrio, where reservations are not taken, but the wait is worth it.
Saturday morning started with a trip to Pepper Place Market, one of the best most awesome farmers’ markets I’ve ever seen, with live music, all kinds of fresh produce, organic meats and cheeses, crafts, soaps, lotions and ready-to-eat items, all from Alabama farms and businesses.
More great experiences that day included art in the garden, where a local artist shows small groups how to create original paintings.
A visit to Good People Brewery, where we learned all about the craft beer scene in Birmingham and got to sample some of their best products.
Our Grand Finale dinner, held in wine tasting room, followed by Billiards, Bourbon and Bacon in the Billiards Room, which offers a great site for extra-special VIP parties.
While the property’s meeting facilities were booked during my stay, I was able to check out the pre-function areas and found that the art and excellent design of the hotel is carried into this area. The Grand Bohemian Mountain Brook has seven event spaces, including a ballroom that can accommodate 649, for a total of 13,801 square feet of function areas.
All told, this visit was even better than I expected. The property was outstanding and Birmingham proved to be a place that has much more to offer than I knew. I look forward to returning there for future visits.
(NOTE: While free parking is available along the street in front of the hotel, spots are limited, so those arriving by car should expect to use the valet parking, which is $24 per day. One nice detail for guests who don’t want to drive around town: the hotel has a Porsche and some of the employees are allowed to use it to transport guests to various spots in the city.)
By Marcia Bradford