The Cavalier Reimagined

A storied hotel comes back to life in a new, reimagined style.

I dive into the cool sapphire-blue water of The Cavalier pool and feel immediately refreshed. My friend Jeri—here with me on a girlfriend getaway—sits in a swirling hot tub nearby as I swim a languid lap across the empty pool.

My mind wanders, transporting me to the heyday of The Old Cavalier, when presidents and celebrities came to stay in what was called “the finest resort hotel in America.” I envision glamorous guests with cocktails lounging around the pool and imagine a jazz piano tinkling in the background. Back in the day, The Cavalier was the place to see and be seen. One of my literary heroes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, stayed here with his wife, Zelda, soon after the hotel opened in 1927.

It was once said that Fitzgerald was inspired to write The Great Gatsby after a stay at The Cavalier. But a quick fact check uncovers the truth: The Great Gatsby was published in 1925 before the hotel opened. Even so, I sense the innocence and wistfulness of days gone by here in this storied property, the same themes that dance through the pages of Fitzgerald’s literary canon.

It’s easy to channel the past at The Cavalier, which reopened last year after $85 million in restoration and renovation. The owners took great pains to maintain the hotel’s historic ambiance, architecture, and features. They succeeded. Welcome to the reimagined Cavalier.

The Cavalier Is Still The Place to See and Be Seen

Weddings at The Cavalier Are Back In Style

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I booked a midweek stay at The Cavalier recently and invited two of my gal pals to join me: Michele, the first night and Jeri, the second. It would be a chance to reconnect with my friends without the usual distractions of modern life—plus plenty of time for girl talk. And who says you have to leave town for a girlfriend getaway, especially with this jewel of a hotel in our backyard?

Michele grew up at the Oceanfront and lived next door to a woman who ran the switchboard at The Old Cavalier. Michele remembers attending Sunday tea dances at The Beach Club and swirling across the dance floor with older gentleman. “They could really dance,” she said. Back in the day, The Beach Club was a magical spot right on the shore, where the country’s top Big Bands performed, and guests, dressed to the nines, waltzed under the moonlight. It sounds so romantic.

On a tour of The Cavalier, Cheryl, the marketing director, tells us more about its history—both real and imagined. Stories abound, some true, some not. But photos lining the halls depict celebrity guests who truly have stayed in or visited the property. Besides 10 presidents, notable guests include Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, and Doris Day.

When Cheryl shows us the Crystal Ballroom, Michele shares that two of her sisters were married at The Cavalier, and today elegant weddings at this historic property are becoming popular once again. I have to admit until this visit I never crossed The Cavalier’s threshold even though I grew up in the area.

As we stroll through the elegant lobby and around the grounds, I see the Cavalier through new eyes, and it’s everything I expected it to be: elegant, opulent, and sophisticated—with sparkling chandeliers and gleaming checkerboard terrazzo floors.

Yet the atmosphere feels relaxed and unpretentious. You get the sense that everyone’s welcome here, and they are. Anyone can stop by and take a self-guided tour. Just ask at the reception for a free booklet and begin your own journey through the past.

The Cavalier’s Suites are Ideal for Entertaining

Becca, a Fine Dining Restaurant, is Refined But Not Stuffy

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The original hotel’s 195 guest rooms have been reconfigured to 85 spacious, refurbished rooms, including 23 suites. Michele and I view the regal Presidential Suite on the top floor and imagine ourselves throwing a swanky party there. One floor down the Hospitality Suite also features a spacious living and dining area and a huge table, making the space perfect for meetings or celebratory events.

Also available are Heritage Suites, which have been designed by some of the principal investors in The Cavalier. One pays homage to Virginia’s maritime history and includes nautical décor and has a “captain’s quarters” vibe. Others represent different themes, including Mid-Century Coastal, Old World Europe, and Oriental.

Michele and I love our spacious room on the 7th floor, especially the views through our large windows. As dusk falls, we sit with a glass of wine on plush benches by the windows and point out landmarks hidden among the pines and live oaks that blanket Old Beach to the south. We catch a glimpse of the ocean, calm and peaceful, and in the distance freighters laden with containers head off to points unknown.

We head to Becca, The Cavalier’s fine dining restaurant, for dinner. The relaxing space with dim lighting is refined but not stuffy. An adjoining loggia offers additional seating overlooking the outdoor dining space called Becca Garden. The patio looks like a dreamy place to dine in warmer weather with a relaxed ambiance and views of the ocean.

Back inside, Michele and I order from a list of themed cocktails, created by the beverage curator. I choose one called Mr. Wilson, a tart-sweet gin drink named for a long-time employee of The Cavalier. Michele tries a Bourbon Toddy, soothing and warm, ideal for a cold winter’s eve.

We start with a cold first course, as our gracious server, Sean, recommends. I choose Hamachi Crudo, succulent slices of raw fish marinated in a Yuzu sauce—delicious. Michele opts for the Farmer’s Bounty salad with colorful beets and fresh greens sprinkled with goat cheese and pistachio nuts. For her main course, Michele chooses rockfish prepared over jasmine rice with sautéed bok choy that Michele says is the best she’s ever had. The rockfish is flavorful, too, with a crispy skin attached.

I choose two appetizers instead of a main course: a plate of small but flavorful charbroiled oysters and another small plate featuring tartare on a crostini crowned with a quail egg and sea urchin mousse topped with truffle cream sauce. I loved the tartare’s creamy texture and myriad flavors. Back in the room, Michele and I enjoy more girl talk before falling into our comfy beds, where we sleep like babies.

The Only Hotel with Its Own Distillery

Tarnished Truth Tour + The Hunt Room = A Perfect Evening

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The following afternoon I meet Jeri, who grew up with me in Sandbridge, for a tour of Tarnished Truth, the on-property distillery renowned for its bourbon. Located next to the lower lobby, it’s adjacent to the Hunt Room. There’s also a shop where spirits and related products can be purchased.

We join about seven others for an informative tour led by Lexi and learn about the distilling process as well as TT’s product line. Next we proceed to a private barrel-lined tasting room and sample spirits, beginning with the 3-year bourbon, my favorite with nuanced pepper and caramel notes. The 9-year-bourbon is smoother, drier, and more elegant—good for sipping. The distillery also produces moonshine, vodka, and gin, a new addition to the line-up that boasts floral notes and a hint of spice in addition to juniper.

Next up is cocktails in the Raleigh Room, my favorite space in The Cavalier. Talk about swanky! The elegant décor, richly appointed furnishings, and colorful eye-candy art surround a gleaming bar. We sit on a comfy couch and a server materializes almost immediately. I’m in Malbec mood, but Jeri orders a cocktail with Earl Grey-infused gin, lemon, and hibiscus bitters. It’s beautiful and tasty to match.

When evening falls, Jeri and I head to The Hunt Room, where a happy crowd fills almost every table. I love the tavern’s wood-paneled, hunt-club vibe, its cozy bar, and huge open fireplace. Stuffed critters of all shapes and sizes grace the walls and mantels: raccoons, foxes, bears, birds, and deer—and vintage shotguns are showcased behind glass.

We order bourbon cocktails, natch: a Manhattan for me and an Old-Fashioned for Jeri. Both arrive with coasters on top, which when removed release wisps of smoke, adding another dimension to the sensory experience. Indeed, the cocktails are swoon-worthy, ideal for sipping and enjoying slowly.

To start, we try the fried oysters and cheese curds, both lightly breaded and flavorful. We also sample the Virginia Smoke and Cure charcuterie board. It’s my favorite: Olli’s cured meats, oil-cured olives, pimento cheese, and crusty bread.

Our mains are also delicious: a 40-day aged ribeye steak for me served with scalloped potatoes and a duck leg with flash-fried Brussels sprouts for Jeri. Our affable server, Tyler, provides excellent service, and we take our time relishing the excellent food and ambiance. Afterwards we sit in front of the toasty fire and listen to a local guitarist play and sing. We love the cozy vibe of The Hunt Room, and I look forward to coming back with my hubby, Peter, one evening.

Journey to Nirvana at SeaHill Spa

Try a Massage on the Quartz Sand Table: Pure Bliss

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The next morning it’s time to unwind in the SeaHill Spa, a luxurious spa with a full-service salon and an assortment of options for relaxing and escaping reality for a while. Jeri and I can’t wait to try everything. After the pool and hot tub, we head to the ladies-only area, where we try the sauna, steam room, and another jetted tub. Ahhh.

There’s also a Himalayan salt cove adjacent to the relaxation area, as well as heated chaise lounges, the perfect place to close your eyes and become one with the universe. Jeri and I agree we could lounge here all day.

And did I mention the hostess serves mimosas and wine to spa guests? Of course, tea and citrus-infused water are also on hand, and with all the detoxing we’re doing, hydrating with water is a necessity. But, we still indulge in one mimosa. It’s almost lunchtime, right?

Jeri has to return to the real world, so we say goodbye, and I await what becomes the highlight of my stay at The Cavalier, an over-the-top massage on the spa’s Quartz Sand Table. This is a first for me: a table filled with heated sand, upon which a sheet is placed. Just like on the beach, my body gently presses into the sand, making a mold that fits perfectly.

Then Terri, my therapist starts to work her magic. First she makes sure I’m comfortable, helping me settle a bit in the sand, and then she commences my journey to nirvana. The treatment is that amazing.

Terri applies pressure to my back, arms, legs, and face using quartz-filled poultice bags, and then with strong, deft hands, she massages me head to toe, unkinking all my kinks. The warm sand feels wonderfully soothing.

Turns out a German invented the treatment to help his wife who suffered from fibromyalgia. She found that lying in warm sand while on vacation reduced her symptoms, so her husband built a sand table that she could lie on. It’s a cutting-edge treatment, especially with the addition of therapeutic massage, and I’m thrilled SeaHill Spa has it among its offerings. Terri begins and ends my treatment by gently chiming on a brass bowl, the gong sound singing like a distant echo in my ears.

It’s a fitting end to my visit to The Cavalier, where echoes of the past reverberate across the decades. But there’s no reason to look back. Luckily, we can enjoy this stately property right here and now. The reimagined Cavalier is the perfect place to start new traditions and create our own happily-ever-after stories.

For more information, visit www.cavalierhotel.com.

Peggy Sijswerda

Tidewater Women Magazine, Editor & Co-Publisher.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com
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