Being a tourist in my former hometown of Roanoke, Virginia was at first a strange thing. It is unusual to return to a city where one has spent so much time not to see friends or family, but to experience the destination as a visitor. I loved the experience though and at the heart of my visit was staying at the historic Hotel Roanoke. This grand old lady has long served the community as the preeminent luxury hotel in the entire region, a title it still holds today. It was also the ideal home base for me as I explored not only Roanoke, but all of Virginia’s Blue Ridge which is why today I want to share some of the qualities that make the Hotel Roanoke so very special.
The history of the city of Roanoke and the eponymous hotel are inextricably linked and that connection started with the arrival of the train. In the early 1880s, the small town of Big Lick, Virginia won the lottery. It was decided to place the junction for the Shenandoah Valley and the Norfolk and Western railroads in their community, which was quickly renamed to Roanoke, after the nearby river. The results were stunning and nearly instantaneous, the new jobs attracting scores of new residents and a growth rate that doubled every year, earning Roanoke the nickname Magic City. At the same time it was decided to build a world-class hotel in the tradition of other luxury railroad properties, and in 1882 the Hotel Roanoke officially opened its doors. Almost immediately, it became one of the top hotels on the East Coast and through its many decades it has withstood fires, wars and economic downturns. When the railroad moved its headquarters though in the 1980s, the hotel’s ownership was transferred and the Hotel Roanoke closed its doors after a century of service. Thanks to many concerned citizens and companies though, money was raised to reopen it after a complete refurbishment and in 1995 it once again started welcoming guests in grand style. Since then the hotel has fully embraced its past and the experience of staying at the Hotel Roanoke is as impressive and luxurious as any other.
Peanut soup is an ancient dish, at least by American standards. It was extremely popular in colonial times, especially in Virginia but its roots go back even further to Africa. At the Hotel Roanoke, it was introduced in 1940 by the hotel’s head chef on a challenge by the general manager. The now classic accompaniment spoonbread followed about a decade later and a match made in heaven was born. The bread is creamy and rich and a perfect side to the hearty peanut soup. It has been one of my favorite dishes for years, but to enjoy it at the Hotel Roanoke is to experience the “real” version. That’s just the start though of the food scene at the Hotel Roanoke and its storied Regency Room.
Originally opened in 1939, the Regency Room dining experience has been at the heart of Roanoke’s social and cultural scene ever since. Like the hotel though, it also went through a time when it lost its way, but thanks to creative chefs it is once again not only one of the best restaurants in Roanoke, but the state. It’s been awarded the AAA Four Diamond Designation, one of only three restaurants in Virginia to earn the rating, thanks to its unique blend of French and Southern cuisine. It’s one of those must-visit spots in Roanoke, but it’s not the end of the culinary story at the Hotel Roanoke.
The Pine Room is a homey pub-like space that feels like it was plucked out of the Irish countryside. With a roaring fireplace, pool tables and lots of overstuffed chairs, this is the ideal place to sit back, relax and enjoy the beverage of your choice. No matter what though, make sure you stay on a Sunday to try what has been named one of the 100 Best Brunches in America. The Grand Sunday Brunch is hosted in the Regency Room and features live entertainment, a rotating menu of classic brunch items and even a live action carving station. This is the type of brunch that requires going hungry and spending some time, which to me is the perfect brunch combination.
The Hotel Roanoke is now part of the Curio Collection by Hilton, a brand I have had lots of experience with in the past. They’re a grouping of upscale hotels and resorts around the world handpicked for their unique character and personality. The properties are carefully selected based on their character and for offering a truly unique local experience, and that is the perfect way to describe the Hotel Roanoke. In the 1930s, the hotel went through a massive remodel creating the unique Tudor look that still exists today. If you drive around town actually, you’ll notice many old homes that are done in a Tudor revival look; that’s thanks entirely to the inspiration provided by the Hotel Roanoke. The great challenge of any historic hotel though is how to balance that commitment to the past while still serving the needs of the modern traveler. It’s not easy, but thanks to some refurbishments at the Hotel Roanoke, it’s very much a modern hotel just as it is one with an incredible pedigree. Today the large hotel and conference center has 330 rooms, including 18 suites, with both luxurious and modern touches added, as well as those mountain views that first attracted guests more than a century ago. My time at the Hotel Roanoke was as comfortable and relaxing as I could have hoped for, what any great hotel should aspire to provide its guests.
Magic City Experience
Ultimately though location is everything when it comes to picking a hotel, and thanks to the very unique history of the Hotel Roanoke it is perfectly situated to experience the best of Roanoke. Since the city and hotel were both created by the railroad, it enjoys the best position in the city as Roanoke very much grew up around it. Today a pedestrian walkway connects guests to downtown Roanoke, which has been beautifully reimagined in recent years. I best experienced the renewed downtown Roanoke on a food tour that actually started at the Hotel Roanoke before leading us on a culinary experience throughout the city. When I lived in Roanoke in the 1990s, a food tour was unimaginable, but it’s a testament to how much the city has evolved in the intervening years that not only is a food tour warranted, it’s a lot of fun too. Aside from the food tour, the location of the Hotel Roanoke is ideal for just about anything you want to do in the area, whether it’s mountain biking, hiking along the Appalachian Trail, visiting Mill Mountain or just relaxing on the hotel’s grand verandah.
The Hotel Roanoke holds a special place in my heart thanks to my own personal history with Roanoke. But to return as an adult and properly enjoy the hospitality experience was more fun than I would have ever imagined. Thanks to its unique blend of history, luxury and convenience, I can’t imagine a better place to call home when you plan your own adventure in Virginia’s Blue Ridge.