New owners, new direction for beloved Guerneville resort
It's a new era for Guerneville's Highlands Resort, now rebranded as The Highlands. Christian Strobel, founder of Basecamp Hotels, and Russian River chef and entrepreneur Crista Luedtke bought the resort this spring from Lynette and Ken McLean, who operated the property since 1995. Strobel is a long time successful hotelier, and Luedtke and her team are the folks behind nearby boon hotel + spa, and boon eat + drink, modern German restaurant BROT, and El Barrio mezcaleria on Guerneville's Main Street.
Strobel and Luedtke, working with new General Manager Cathy LaPlante, hope to keep the friendly, welcoming retro atmosphere that generations of visitors have enjoyed while upgrading the facility and adding new options for guests.
One of the most significant changes to the historic resort, which has been around since the early 1920s when it was known as Highland Park Lodge, is an end to clothing-optional swimming. Luedtke says it's an effort to be more inclusive. The resort's new website says, "So keep your pants on. It's going to be a fun new adventure... and we can’t wait to see your new suit!" Luedtke says, "there are a handful of people who are not happy about that change, but we're getting more and more people who are happy about it." The pool, formerly open for day use, will now be limited to guest use only to reduce crowding and keep the property quiet and peaceful for overnight guests and neighbors. In keeping with Highlands' long-standing tradition, the resort will still be clothing-optional this July 26 through August 2 at the pool for the festive Lazy Bear weekend.
The Highlands will also be adding fully decked-out glamping tents in spots formerly used for "pitch your own tent" camping. The new tents will have king beds, battery powered USB charging ports, nightstands, and luxury amenities. Note that the glamping tents are not dog-friendly. However, dogs are welcome in three of the cabins, where solid walls can muffle noise that might wake up tent guests.
"We want to continue to honor the gem that this place is," says Luedtke, "and continue to work on upgrading and improving the cabins because they're perfectly lovely but haven't been updated in quite some time. Our vision is rustic modern cabins with a fun, comfortable vibe."
Some locals have expressed concern that the Highlands and other local properties with a historically LGBTQ focus are catering to a broader audience these days.
Luedtke says, "I think we are much more of a like-minded welcoming inclusive community here and that doesn't have to mean gay or straight, that means everyone who wants to enjoy the beauty of this place. Also, if you ask any business owners who have been out here long enough to know, you'll hear that in order to have a sustainable business model you have to be open to everyone who comes. Are we still a gay resort? Sure. We're also a queer resort, we're a trans resort, we’re a resort that wants to welcome everybody who wants to appreciate the beauty of the Russian River. In order for a business to be sustainable and not just serve one market segment, you have to evolve."
Other local hospitality pros agree. Larry Boeger, partner at Timberline Restaurant at the iconic Buck's Roadhouse, and Russian River Chamber board member says "Things change. R3 is very mixed now. There are no exclusively gay resorts or clubs left. The Rainbow is very mixed as well."
One thing that won't change is the famous muffins, a Highlands tradition. Luedtke says they're still serving a delicious breakfast, baking muffins, and quickbreads and scones onsite, and the lobby always smells like baked goods. Yum!