Back at the turn of the century, famed hunter and showman William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody opened a small first-class hotel in the new Wyoming town he had founded in his favorite part of the West. The town took his name, Cody, and he named the hotel after his youngest daughter, 16-year-old Irma.

Cody loved to bring his famous friends, among them the Prince of Wales and the Prince of Monaco, to Cody to hunt, and he entertained them splendidly at the Irma. When Queen Victoria presented him with a lovely cherrywood bar in appreciation for a command performance in England of his Wild West Show, he had it hauled overland to the hotel by freight wagon from the Montana railhead.

More than 80 years later, the Irma Hotel, kept spiffy over the years, is still very much in business, and Victoria's gift is still in use. And as it was from the beginning, the Irma remains the heart of old Cody. More than any place else in town, says manager Doug Greenway fondly, "it's the local hangout."

With its Old West flavor and deep community roots, the Irma represents a segment of the lodging industry that many travelers are finding a delightful alternative to convention hotels and interstate motels: America's wonderful historic hotels and inns.

Many of the hotels were once down-at-the-heels or diverted to other uses, but in recent years they have made a comeback. Restoration rather than replacement is a national trend, and the old hotels have been rescued and spruced up to greet today's increasingly sophisticated vacation travelers.

The Taos Inn in Taos, N.M., is just such a hotel. Built in 1936 by the widow of one of Taos' early doctors, and incorporating structures from the Spanish colonization in the 17th century, the Taos Inn had seen better days when a trio of new owners bought it in 1981. "It was walking a thin line between rustic and seedy," says partner Feeney Lipscomb. Nine months later, they had transformed it into an elegant Spanish colonial inn full of the flavor of its past.

"They're all different. They're all unique. They're all special in their own way. There's no cookie-cutter concept," says Trudy O'Reilly, a Dallas advertising executive who has been instumental in linking 67 Texas hotels and inns in the Historic Hotels Association of Texas.

"At the Holiday Inn," she argues, "there are no surprises. At historic hotels, it's exactly the opposite. What you're getting is not just a room, but an experience."

For many people, of course, the assurance of certain standards established by the hotel and motel chains is exactly what they want. What they often miss out on, however, is the romantic charm, the very personal service and the unusual extras in which many historic hotels specialize.

Exploring the Rocky Mountains last year, a Washington couple chanced on the Golden Rose Hotel in the scenic 19th-century gold-mining town of Central City, Colo., about an hour west of Denver. The small, three-story hotel, built in 1874, had just been richly restored to its former Victorian elegance, a place romantically evocative of the free-spending boom town of a century past. And it came with an ingratiating extra.

Tucked away in a most-modern private chamber on the second floor was a huge redwood hot tub, adjacent sauna and spacious two-person shower. Two-by-two, or whatever count they favored, guests disappeared at day's end behind closed doors for 30 minutes of soaking pleasure.

The hot tub, says Golden Rose owners Harold and Janet Pyle, was a "whimsical obeisance to modern-day taste. Skiers and hikers enjoy it after a day of tromping around." Whimsy, or whatever you call it, is what makes certain hotels special, the kind where the guests keep coming back.

Theoretically, travelers could plot a cross-country trip staying only at such historic hotels or inns (the distinction is blurry), but it would not be easy. Since many of the hotels are so small -- the Irma has only 15 rooms in its original building; the Golden Rose only 26 -- they often are known only regionally.

Within the last couple of years, however, associations of small hotels similar to the Texas organization have begun to form, primarily to get the word out to the traveling public that they exist. The Irma, Golden Rose and Taos Inn are part of a 15-member group called the Association of Historic Hotels of the Rocky Mountain West. In Virginia, 12 small inns and hotels have banded together as the Inns of Shenandoah Valley.

(A different approach is represented by two hotel development and management firms that, confusingly, are both calling themselves the Historic Inns of America. Both have plans to seek out historic hotel properties to restore and manage. One firm, based in Chicago, recently restored the Brandon Inn in Brandon, Vt., as its first project. The other, based in Annapolis, now operates the Historic Inns of Annapolis -- including the Maryland Inn -- and expects to expand elsewhere in the East.)

"Being cute and unique and historic is not enough," says O'Reilly, who points out that individual hotels must compete with lodging chains that offer guests the convenience of a central reservation number. Additionally, older hotels tend to be in downtown locations, effectively hiding them from passing highway traffic. A few, particularly the smaller ones, are struggling to stay open.

While a central reservation system for the historic hotels is being studied for the future, at the moment the associations offer travelers a list of member hotels. And although no official inspection of each hotel is made, accepting a hotel as a member implies that it provides quality accommodations.

"We don't want the hotels to lose their individuality or character," says Ellen Ittelson, a spokeswoman for the Rocky Mountain association, adding that members generally are "familiar" with each other's establishments.

What, specifically, is a historic hotel?

Frankly, the definition is quite loose. The Rocky Mountain association requires that its members either be listed on the National Register of Historic Places or "be eligible to be listed." It also prefers that they be maintained or rehabilitated in a manner appropriate to their date of construction.

The Texas association's criteria is that "a local, state or national organization" has designated the hotel as historic. Its members range in size from a three-room bed-and-breakfast place, the Pfeiffer House in Bastrop (near Austin), to the recently remodeled Crockett Hotel, a 205-room luxury hotel in downtown San Antonio.

Within the guidelines, travelers will find lodgings dating back more than 200 years -- the Maryland Inn in Annapolis, for example -- to others built in this century, such as the Irma (1902). Some have been hotels since they opened; others are new hotels established in renovated buildings of historic interest. They may be called hotels or inns.

Historic hotels can be found in big cities, probably dwarfed by neighboring skyscrapers; at traditional resort areas, where they have drawn summer visitors for decades; in national parks, dating from a time when guest lodges matched the splendor of the natural surroundings; and in Old West ghost towns, now harvesting the benefits of their heritage.

Here is a selection of fine historic hotels from around the country:

*IRMA HOTEL, Cody, Wyo.: In the summer, about "99 percent" of the Irma's guests are tourists heading to or from nearby Yellowstone National Park, about 50 exceptionally scenic miles to the West. In the fall, hunters pursuing the region's deer, elk and antelope fill the hotel's 15 antique-filled rooms (out back are 26 motel rooms dating from the '30s). "They're regulars," says manager Doug Greenway. "They know the room they want."

In the "dead of winter," he warns guests their upstairs rooms can get a bit nippy at night. In the idiosyncratic manner of old buildings, heating for the guest rooms and the downstairs dining room are regulated by the same thermostat. Since Greenway doesn't want to heat the dining room all night long, the thermostat gets turned down.

At William F. Cody's death in 1917, the hotel, a two-story sandstone structure, was sold and is now owned by a group of Cody residents.

Except for a few items like the Queen Victoria bar, the hotel's original antiques are part of the collection of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody. It is a fascinating, quite extensive museum that includes -- in addition to Buffalo Bill memorabilia -- the excellent Whitney Gallery of Western Art and the Plains Indian Museum, a stunning display of Indian bead, feather and other artworks.

The Irma honors the showman's friends and early residents of the town he founded. Each room is named after a Cody oldtimer. There's the Vern Spencer room, for example. He was a friend of Cody's as well as a trapper and a "dude wrangler" who escorted such notables as Herbert Hoover, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy on fishing trips.

Irma Hotel, 1192 Sheridan Ave., Cody, Wyo. 82414, (307) 587-4221. Rates: $48.50 a night double in the original building, $37 for a motel room.

*GOLDEN ROSE HOTEL, Central City, Colo.: The Golden Rose is a Victorian dream. Step off the dusty streets of this rugged mountain community, itself a Historic Landmark District, and you find yourself enveloped in quiet elegance.

The new owners have filled the hotel's public and guest rooms with authentic period furnishings found at estate sales and auctions in the Rocky Mountain region. The rich wallcoverings were handscreened to historic patterns. And the bathrooms are a delight of Italian marble and brass.

The Golden Rose occupies a prominent street corner in Central City, once known as the "the richest square mile on earth" following the discovery of gold in 1859. Old mine works can be visited, and in the summer, Central City, which retains much of its 19th-century appearance, is a bustling tourist attraction.

The Central City Opera House, built in 1878, stages what has become a respected and successful summer opera season featuring promising young American singers. At the bar in the nearby Teller House, you can see the haunting old portrait of a beautiful Victorian young woman painted on the barroom floor, the famous "Face on the Barroom Floor."

The Teller House, once a regal hotel built in 1872, is about to be restored by the Golden Rose's owners. It already houses an excellent restaurant and an authentic western saloon, and the couple plans to redecorate 34 guest rooms, perhaps as soon as next summer.

The Golden Rose, built of brick in 1874 following a fire that swept Central City, began life as an all-purpose deli, fruit stand and liquor store. In 1911, it became the New Central City Hotel and later the Chain O' Mines Hotel, and for awhile it was run by the opera company. It couldn't have been lovelier than it is now.

Golden Rose Hotel, P.O. Box 8, Central City, Colo. 80427, (303) 825-1413. Rates: $48 to $77 per night double; suites available.

*HOLBROOKE HOTEL, Grass Valley, Calif.: The first Holbrooke was built in 1851 in the booming '49er gold-rush country in the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento. A wood structure, it burned to the ground in 1855 in a huge fire that ravaged the community. It was soon rebuilt of brick and stone and hung with iron shutters, a style seen throughout the California Gold Country. This is the building that remains standing.

During its heyday, the Holbrooke welcomed three U.S. presidents -- Cleveland, Grant and Benjamin Harrison -- and writers Mark Twain and Bret Harte. By the 1950s and '60s, however, it had become merely a boarding house above a restaurant, and in the 1970s the guest rooms were converted to offices.

But that is all changed now. In 1980, new owners refurbished the downstairs dining room, the Golden Gate Saloon, claimed to be one of the oldest in continuous operation west of the Mississippi. And this past May, they completed restoration of the 17 guest rooms, redecorating them with antiques and furnishings of the 1890s.

The bathrooms, though fully modern, have been furnished with large clawfoot tubs (with a shower connection), and old-fashioned-style toilets were scavenged from a building being torn down across the street. The beds are brass four-posters, and the color TV and telephone are hidden in antique credenzas. Many of the rooms look out over the second-floor veranda, a typical feature of many buildings in the region.

Grass Valley, a community of narrow, winding streets, is at the northern end of California's Gold Country, and remnants of its mining history can readily be seen. The old Empire Mine here is now a state park, offering informative tours of hard-rock mining operations.

The Holbrooke is about two hours northeast of San Francisco and about an hour west of Lake Tahoe. Behind the hotel, a livery has been converted to 11 more rooms.

Holbrooke Hotel & Restaurant, 212 West Main St., Grass Valley, Calif. 95945, (916) 273-1353. Rates: From $40 to $125 (for a suite) a night double.

*TAOS INN, Taos, N.M.: A fine old adobe structure, looking properly Southwestern, the Taos Inn sits at an altitude of 7,000 feet in the very heart of this famous mountain art colony and resort. In the neighborhood are more than 50 art galleries, and some of America's most beautiful mountain scenery is only a short drive away.

Formed from a number of Old Taos buildings, the 40-room hotel encircles what was once a small plaza. An old town well stands in the center of the hotel lobby. The building is a blend of warm earthen colors, rich wood beams and wrought-iron trimmings.

When Dr. T. Paul Martin arrived in Taos in the 1890s, he bought the plaza and its surrounding buildings, renting the extra rooms to writers and artists. It was in his dining room, according to a hotel history, that the famed Taos Society of Artists was formally organized in 1915. The hotel remains the scene of artists' gatherings and shows.

During the recent remodeling, the guest rooms were furnished with "Taos-style" furniture, custom-made by local craftsworkers; beds were covered with handloomed Indian spreads; and wood-burning fireplaces in the rooms were designed in the tradition of the Pueblo Indians. The restaurant, appropriately, is named "Doc Martin's."

Taos Inn, Post Office Drawer N, Taos, N.M. 87571, (800) TAOS INN. Rates: From $50 to $75 a night double.

*THE BRANDON INN, Brandon, Vt.: The Brandon, in the heart of central Vermont's famed inn country, has served the village of Brandon since 1786, initially as a rest stop on the road north from New York City. The present four-story red brick structure dates from the mid-19th century.

Brandon Village, a Historic District, is a typically charming New England community of central greens and 18th- and 19th-century brick and white frame buildings. The quiet countryside is a spring-through-fall attraction, and nearby are downhill and cross-country ski areas for winter sports.

The Brandon sits on five acres of manicured lawn and gardens, sloping to the Neshobe River, which, says the management, is a "very fine" trout stream. Its 55 rooms are furnished with antiques and reproductions, and the color scheme of the interior is appropriately 18th century.

The Brandon Inn, 20 Park St., Brandon, Vt. 05733, (800) BRANDON. Rates: Summer, from $49 to $56; ski packages, including meals, in the winter.

*SONIAT HOUSE, New Orleans: Outside this small hotel's thick walls, New Orleans drips with humidity. Pass through the long stone carriageway, and you reach the refreshing comfort of a shrubbery-filled garden courtyard. A small fountain bubbles into a fish pool, and cushioned chairs invite you to sit beneath a tree or an overhanging balcony. A discreet, well-stocked self-service bar is always open.

The Soniat House, set in a quiet but convenient corner of the city's historic French Quarter, dates from 1829, when a prosperous plantation owner, Joseph Soniat Dufossat, built a Creole-style town house for his large family. By this century it had become an apartment house. It was rescued in 1983 by Rodney Smith, a traveler and antique-collector, who has restored it beautifully to its early elegance.

The two-story Soniat has 25 luxurious rooms or suites, either opening onto the courtyard or onto a wide iron balcony overlooking Chartres Street. It is hard to say which setting is more pleasant. A continental breakfast of New Orleans biscuits and coffee is served each morning on a silver tray, and you can enjoy it in your room, in the garden or on the balcony.

Soniat House, 1133 Chartres St., New Orleans, La. 70116, (504) 522-0570. Rates: From $105 to $200 a day double.

*EXCELSIOR HOUSE, Jefferson, Texas: This charming little Northeast Texas hotel comes recommended quite highly. Lady Bird Johnson, who grew up nearby, makes a weekend visit about once a year, says the management, and in one guidebook has described the hotel as "marvelously inviting." One of the 14 rooms is named for her.

Built in the 1850s, the Excelsior was once one of the West's leading hotels, drawing such notables as President Grant, British playwright Oscar Wilde and members of the Barrymore family on tour.

At the time, Jefferson was a thriving commercial community of 30,000, located at the end of a steamboat passage up the Mississippi and Red rivers to the bayou and lake at Jefferson. It was a shipping port for farmers and merchants from the inland communities of Dallas and Fort Worth.

But in the 1870s, the city leaders, meeting at the Excelsior, refused to give financier Jay Gould the land he sought for a railway. Storming out of the Excelsior, he reputedly roared a "curse": "Grass will grow in your streets." And without the railway, that is just about what happened. Jefferson's population now is only 3,000, "if you stretch it," as one resident says.

By the 1950s, the hotel had deteriorated when the women of the Jesse Allen Wise Garden Club concluded it should be saved. They launched a campaign to buy it, which they did, and pitched in to refurbish it themselves as a functioning hotel. Today a six-member board from the club continues to manage it.

The Excelsior is in the heart of the Texas pine country, which has become a rural getaway for urban Texans. The building is two-story Victorian, painted all in white. A second-story balcony of lacy black iron decorates the front. The back opens on to a fine brick patio, fountain and garden. Inside, European and Texan antiques fill the rooms.

Only breakfast is served at the hotel, but it is a "plantation" spread of ham, eggs, juice, grits (of course) and the Excelsior's own much-praised orange-blossom muffins.

Excelsior House, 211 West Austin St., Jefferson, Texas 75657, (214) 665-2513. Rates: $25 to $50 a day double; breakfast, $4.50.