I can imagine relaxing in the Cavalier Beach Club, sitting back with a gin fizz and listening to the nightly musicians including Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller or even Bing Crosby. Shiny new Studebakers would roll past and everyone was in their Sunday best to enjoy a night out on the town. Although this could easily describe New York or Chicago in the 1940s, it also perfectly describes the Golden Age of one of the country’s most lauded historic hotels, The Cavalier in Virginia Beach. Although the hotel languished for a number of years, it was recently completely renovated and brought back to its Big Band glory, with lots of quirky 21st century touches thrown in along the way. I recently had the great pleasure of staying at what is really an incredible property, and today I want to share why it is a rarity in the travel world, a hotel that is a destination in its own right.
Honoring the Past
Originally built in 1927, almost immediately The Cavalier became a hotspot for the rich and famous. Thanks to nonstop trains from cities like Chicago, the halls of the hotel were soon filled with those who wanted to see and be seen. The Fitzgerald’s, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and several Presidents all were guests of the hotel and many say that The Cavalier is what put Virginia Beach on the map in the first place. This Golden Era came to an abrupt end though in World War II when the hotel was surrendered to the US Navy and became a site for radar training. Although the hotel was returned to its owner, it had lost its pizzazz and in the intervening decades lost the brilliance for which it had once been known. Several years ago though it was sold to new owners who went through an extensive renovation and restoration process and, somewhat miraculously, brought back the luxury and hospitality that made The Cavalier, now part of the Autograph Collection, famous during the Roaring Twenties.
The Cavalier was originally inspired by the architecture of Thomas Jefferson and many of those elements have been thankfully brought back to life. It’s not an old-fashioned building though, far from it, it was renovated with the needs of the modern traveler kept in mind and the design elements may draw on the classics, but are undeniably quirky in their own right.
Sleeping in History
During the renovation, the owners reduced the number of guest rooms from 195 to just 85 standard rooms and suites, which means that just about any room you enjoy will be spacious and roomy, as was the case for me. It’s that size that impressed me as soon as I opened the door, with the light furnishings and many windows creating an airy and relaxing escape. At first blush the finishings may look traditional, until you peer a little closer. That fancy portrait in the corner? It’s a dog with a top hat. The artwork over the bed? It’s a very modern take on Ben Franklin. It’s funky without being annoying, colorful without trying to appeal too much to Millennials. The black and white tiled bathrooms hearken back to another era, but still have every modern convenience you can imagine. As with any luxury experience, the details though are what matter most, and it was the small touches like outlets next to the bed and plenty of complimentary water that meant a lot to me. While the rooms are of course nice, it’s the property itself that draws so many visitors.
The public spaces in the hotel are stunning – there’s really no other word to describe them. The main lounge and bar area feature those same quirky and yet traditional details that I loved in the bedroom, meaning that you need to pay close attention to the small details in order to appreciate all of them. And that’s just the start.
Amenities, Food and Service
Just as The Cavalier of the 1920s offered guests the opportunity to enjoy some beachside pampering, that’s still very much true today with the reimagined Beach Club. This is where all of those impressive musicians from Cab Calloway to Benny Goodman performed and in fact, The Cavalier was at one time the largest contractor of big bands in the world. Today the space reflects the needs of the modern luxury traveler, with a quiet refinement that one wants from any getaway, but especially a beach vacation. The incredible views are accentuated with delicious food, a private beach with cabanas, a members’ lounge, infinity swimming pool and much more.
Back at the main hotel there are also great amenities to make your stay incredible, including the completely refurbished plunge pool. Locals tell the story that F. Scott Fitzgerald was inspired to write “The Great Gatsby” during one of his many stays at The Cavalier and who knows, maybe he was inspired by the long days and he his family spent by the saltwater plunge pool. When built, that was yet another extravagance that set The Cavalier apart and today, it’s been brought back to life to honor that time period. It may have also been one of my favorite parts of the hotel thanks to the remarkable attention to detail and design throughout the loggia.
As with any grand hotel, food has also been an important part of The Cavalier experience and that’s certainly true today from luxurious outdoor dining to more rustic options. I enjoyed a dinner at the historic Hunt Room, another blast from the past that has been thankfully reimagined into something no one will soon forget. Originally a quiet space for duck hunters to enjoy a meal in the early days of the hotel, that same rustic feel is what I first noticed walking into the new and impressive Hunt Room. A massive brick fireplace is at the heart of the room, creating a warm and inviting space that I loved right away. The menu is just as impressive with modern twists on Virginia classics, like the charcuterie board made with local meats and cheeses and even a delicious fried quail as a main course. This is also where you’ll find the hotel’s on-site distillery, Tarnished Truth. This, the first hotel distillery in the country, features several craft spirits, including bourbon, rye whiskey and even AVA Vodka. Guests can also take flight tastings, tours and cocktail lessons here.
Aside from the hospitality and comfort, hotels need to be well located in order to impress me and The Cavalier Hotel is perfectly situated to experience the best that Virginia Beach has to offer. The boardwalk is a 5-minute walk away and all of the many sights and attractions are an easy drive from the hotel. Virginia Beach is also home to a number of LOVEworks projects that are fun to discover. An extension of the state’s famous “Virginia is for lovers” campaign, the LOVEworks project encourages local communities to come up with their own unique take on the LOVE sign and so far there are more than 160 around the state. Virginia Beach has several of these now iconic signs, which you can find via the official LOVEworks site. It’s a fun way to explore new regions and what you discover on the way to the signs is many times even more impactful than the works of art themselves.
Hotels are an important part of my travel experience; they’re a luxury in which I love to indulge. The Cavalier exemplifies one of my favorite categories of luxury hotel, the historical property. Sure, having all the latest high tech gadgets and Danish design can be great, but so can a return to a different era and a very different type of luxury. It’s funny that Fitzgerald was so inspired here, because it’s Scott and Zelda who immediately came to my own mind as I walked through the doors of the hotel. The Cavalier so perfectly evokes the glamor, and slight madness, of the 1920s and even 1930s that it’s hard not to feel like American royalty, if only for a few days. When it combines that special feeling with very tangible elements like attentive service, great food and relaxing rooms, then you have a near perfect experience. Just as The Cavalier came to define Virginia Beach 90 years ago, I have the strong feeling that it will continue to do so as we approach its centennial.