GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Mont. -- The website used words like "rustic" and "old-world style accommodations" for the lodge, but somehow I read that as "charming" and "romantic."
When I arrived at the Lake McDonald Lodge, I was disappointed to find the $179 room minuscule, the walls paper-thin, and, to my tastes, the bathroom tacky and the overall feel dingy.
But it was my own fault. When it comes to staying at historic inns, there is a cardinal rule: Do your homework.
The only characteristic that historic inns share is that they are old. Some have taken steps to appeal to modern travelers; perhaps they have had extensive renovations, enlarged the rooms, upgraded the bathrooms, added insulation, modernized the plumbing and electric, put in an elevator or improved safety features. Other historic lodges target purists. These inns have remaining virtually unchanged for 100 years or more, counting on their history or location to attract guests.
"Lodging for a lot of people when they are on vacation is a highlight of their trip," said Linda Cassell, who as a regional manager for Backroads, a travel company, has spent two decades booking historic accommodations in many of the national parks. Knowing what to expect is the best defense against disappointment, she said.
"We try to be really clear about what the lodging is like, highlighting what is nice and great about it, with realistic expectations," she said.
Clearly, Susan Buffum, who manages investments for a New York insurance company, was better prepared for her stay at Lake McDonald Lodge.
She described her room as "sparse," with a shower so small she had a hard time shaving her legs. But "I was not expecting glamorous accommodations in the parks. For me it is the opportunity to stay in a bit of history in a wonderful scenic location," she said. "I'm not there to spend a lot of time in a room."
Dan Hansen, a spokesman for Glacier Park Inc., which runs the Lake McDonald Lodge for the National Park Service, noted that the facility was "completely modern" when it opened in 1914. The rooms in the main building received some upgrades over the years, but nothing major in the past decade.
"A stay in them today is turning back the clock to a different era," he said. "We work with the National Park Service to preserve the natural feel of the property so guests can receive a truly historic experience."
He also noted that the website and brochures have "lots of pictures and accurate descriptions."
Unrealistic as my expectations were, I felt in good company when I recalled the woman I met at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort and Spa in New Mexico. She was upset because her $139 room had a toilet, but no bath or shower. Curious how such a misunderstanding could occur, I checked the hotel's website, which stated that the "charming" rooms of the historic hotel, built in 1916, have "half bathrooms (without showers), as all bathing has been done in the bathhouses for more than a hundred years."
Clearly, the upset guest didn't do her homework.
Reading the fine print -- and not romanticizing what it says -- is one way to ensure you enjoy your stay at a historic inn.
But to get the inside scoop, I asked Keith Stephens, whose company runs the Mimslyn Inn in Luray, Va. The 82-year-old inn was closed for a year in 2007 while it underwent a $3.5 million renovation.
More than a facelift, the remodel created some larger suites by decreasing the number of guest rooms from 50 to 45. Nearly everything mechanical and cosmetic was upgraded, the hotel was made compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and now "when you turn the hot water on, as you would expect, there is hot water coming out of your faucet. You don't have to wait for it to travel up from the boiler," he said.
Before booking a historic inn, Stephens recommends doing a little research.
• Check online reviews. But if you're looking at TripAdvisor, remember that the star ratings are based on the lodging's popularity, not the level of luxury. A historic inn with a four- or five-star rating means those who stayed there loved it, but in the case of historic properties, those travelers may be a self-selected group who pick places with a lot of character and are willing to overlook the lack of modern amenities.
• If the property claims to be renovated, ask what was done.
• Make sure you are clear on the terms used on the websites and in brochures. For instance, a "European-style hotel" often means one with a shared bath down the hall.
• Do the rooms have individual climate controls?
• Do the guest room doors have an electronic lock or a key? Keys can be duplicated for illegal re-entry, but electronic locks -- while not foolproof -- are recoded between guests.
• Does the building have a sprinkler system or other fire protection?
• Even within an inn, guest rooms differ, so ask for specifics about the room, and bathroom, you've reserved.
• If you'll need a cot for an extra guest, confirm it will fit in the room.
• What is the view like? Does the air conditioning unit obstruct it?
• How close is the guest room to the lobby and restaurants where noise might be an issue? On the other hand, getting a room on a top floor, away from common space, means climbing stairs if there's no elevator.
• If cable TV, Wi-Fi, coffee makers, hair dryers or cellphone service are important to you, confirm their availability.
• Don't assume the hotel has 24-hour dining options.
"Historic hotels that have maintained their historic character often don't have the benefit and the ability to add everything that you can add in a modern hotel," Stephens said.
Still, historic inns are often pricey, so many guests come with certain expectations, said Cassell. "You can put all the information you want out there, but people will hear what they want to hear," she said.
Don't I know it.