Funny how the universe works, and by universe, I mean, LinkedIN. A while back I got a message from a PR firm asking if I was, indeed, a University of Iowa graduate and a travel writer. (Trust me, if I was going to lie, it would be about my summa cum laude status at both Harvard and Oxford University.)
Turns out there was a new rock-n-roll themed hotel that had opened up in Iowa City that was trying to stir up some organic buzz. Since I apparently checked all the appropriate boxes—I’m a proud Iowa boy, I’m a writer, and I would go to the opening of an envelope—the squad at the new Highlander Hotel invited me a for a visit.
Technically, the Highlander Hotel has been around since the early 70s. It got its auspicious start as a noteworthy supper club in the late 60s and kept expanding. Over the decades, the iconic hotel’s décor was at the mercy of countless different chains. From what I can deduce, each hotel chain made it their sole purpose to remove any hint of warmth, nuance, and charm. It somehow went from beige to beiger to beigest.
That is until hotelier Angela Harrington got her mitts on the bland beast. She acquired the 65,000 square-foot property just a few months before the pandemic hit and immediately began pouring more than $5 million into the hotel’s renovation. But Harrington had a vision during the remodel. She wanted to revisit the hotel’s heyday—back when it was the crown jewel of Eastern Iowa.
Now the hotel has a “chic meets shag” sort of vibe. It’s like stepping back in time, but with all the amenities travelers demand—including hyper-fast Wi-Fi. Bless. You can tell Harrington and her team left no (rolling) stone unturned—even the kitschy-quirky fridges in the suites look like old-school iceboxes. Want to spin an Anne Murray or Mamas & Papas album? Ask for a record player in your room.
The two-story hotel is reminiscent of an upscale travel lodge where everything centers around the pool. (So. Many. Balcony. Rooms.) This time around they’ve enclosed the pool and created a sort of urban resort. If you tire of hearing kids play MARCO! POLO!, there’s an impressive greenspace just outside the pool deck complete with firepits, games, and other sundry items. And, yes, there’s an absolutely mammoth hot tub—which screams bachelorette party shenanigans.
For Harrington, she’s just happy to see an uptick in business. She mentions the hotel went for almost 11 months with nary a single guest. Now, weekends are completely sold out. (And brace yourself, prices reflect it—especially during Iowa football home games.)
Want a quiet, romantic getaway? Visit Sunday through Wednesday. Full stop. The hotel has a party atmosphere on weekends. After an uproarious win against Penn State this past weekend, the mood in Iowa City was absolutely electric. When we arrived on Sunday to check in, the staff looked a bit shellshocked from the crush of humanity that had descended upon the hotel.
And—bonus!—The Highlander has surprisingly good eats and retro-inspired cocktails. Their bar menu offers up a smattering of food truck —everything from funky flatbreads to Japanese noodle bowls. (Get the Indian butter chicken street tacos. Seriously. I mean it.) Given that the eatery is open from 12 p.m. to 12 a.m. every day (including holidays), it’s a perfect place to get a nightcap or start your day drinking adventure early.
On our nickel tour, the oh-so helpful staff pointed out their wall of fame. Hidden in an interior office/former board room is a wall of autographs from famous guests over the years—Micky Mantle, Arnold Palmer, Glen Campbell, and Joan Baez to name a few. (Man, the 70s was a groovy era.)
In its illustrious 48 years, more than 700,000 guests have stayed at the hotel. And the revamped resort is now ranked as one of 17 four-star hotels in Iowa. (Fun fact: when Harrington bought the hotel in late 2019, The Highlander ranked dead last on TripAdvisor.com. They now sit at the very top of the heap—number one with a bullet less than six months after opening. They’ve bested 37 other nearby hotels in Johnson County.)
One-part hippie-dippie, one-part Mad Men, this hotel is bound to see its popularity grow as word gets out. For now, it’s a hidden gem—say, a mood ring if you will. Given its hospitable kid-friendly and pet-friendly status, it’s sure to be a staycation staple for years to come.