The Highlander in Iowa City is a 1960s-era landmark that has been given a new lease on life, thanks to an independent owner-operator with vision and an affinity for old buildings with a story.
Angela Harrington completed her first heavy lift in 2017 with the renovation of a sprawling two-story school building that became Hotel Grinnell. When I visited for a story in 2018, the hotel lived up to its slogan, “Upscale in style. Laid back in spirit,” with a cleverly executed school-days theme. It’s the perfect spot for a business conference, family reunion, retreat or destination wedding. Three particularly novel features: two bunk rooms that sleep 10, a 376-seat auditorium and bikes for tooling the halls and the town.
When Harrington bought The Highlander in late December 2019, the retro revival was announced as The Bohemian Hotel. The more she learned about the 86-room hotel and supper club, the more she felt its name should be retained.
“It was soon clear that The Highlander was an Iowa City icon. Everyone has a story about the hotel,” Harrington says. Documentation of those stories helped her win a local landmark designation for the urban resort, which sits just north of Interstate 80 at Exit 246.
The Highlander scored dead last on Trip Advisor’s listing of Iowa City hotels when Harrington assumed ownership.
“It was horrible,” she says, remembering the 16 buckets catching water from leaky roofs on her first walk-thru. “This week (mid-January), we were No. 1. We’re feeling pretty spunky about that.”
COVID-related restrictions closed The Highlander in 2020 from mid-March to July 4. The derecho that hit most of Iowa on Aug. 10 was a one-two punch, knocking out power.
Rather than close again, Harrington and her core team improvised with generators and personal laptops. “We filled the hotel with locals and disaster crews for 17 days,” doing everything ourselves, from housekeeping to bartending to maintenance.
The hotel has 65,000 square feet for guests to unplug, unwind and reconnect — a social distancer’s dream. The pool area is a huge plus for families. The atrium-like space is large and bright and has comfy deck furniture arranged in pods. Twelve guest rooms on the perimeter of the pool have sliding doors and private patios for direct access.
You’re likely to see locals here, too. Day passes, for a fee, are available for designated hours evenings and weekends. Rates include a poolside room for changing and hanging out.
“This has always been a place for multigenerational experiences,” Harrington says. “We’re starting to see girls trips, ‘brocations’ and guests who say, ‘I just had to get out of the house.’”
The Highlander may not be perfect — yet — but Harrington and her team sure have a groovy take on hospitality. And once this pandemic is behind us, it's gonna be rad.
Record players and vinyl LPs, available for check out to your room.
A giant white board for Pictionary and other drawing games in the lounge.
Signage and swag with peace signs, trivia and 1970s lingo.
Hallway floors painted in psychedelic lava lamp swirls.
Masks are required for staff and guests in public areas.
Rooms are left open for 24 hours between guest stays.
No-contact check in and check out; communication is via text and email.
No room service or midstay housekeeping services.
Fresh towels and linens and hair dryer available upon request.
Mini refrigerator available upon request.
Limited food and beverage service in the lounge and Snack Shack.
No in-room coffee maker; high-end self-serve coffee station in Snack Shack.
GOOD TO KNOW
There is no elevator so if mobility is an issue, be sure to request a ground-floor room when making your reservation.
Swimming is at your own risk; no lifeguard is on duty.
Pets are welcome.
Iowa City is home to the University of Iowa and that means eating establishments, bars and coffee shops galore in the downtown area. Shopping, too. For recreation, Coralville Lake is nearby. Lovers of wine and spirits should head to Cedar Ridge Winery & Distillery about 10 miles from The Highlander. The tasting room is open daily, serving lunch and dinner, plus free flights of spirits and wine upon request. Distillery tour available with advance reservation. Details at crwine.com.