by Irvin B. Harrell
The Cavalier used to be a playground for the rich. Before it fell into decades of disrepair, the hotel hosted 10 presidents and a collection of celebrities, including Muhammad Ali, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. It was a destination, even more than the beach itself. And that is exactly what the owners of the newly refurbished gem hope will be true again.
It took four years and some $80 million, but Virginia Beach finally has its landmark hotel back, an 85-room, diligently refurbished love letter to the 1920s and ’30s – one that’s also on the National Register of Historic Places.
Letters sculpted into the lawn boldly introduce the hotel to passers-by. And once you step onto the property you’ll find that Gold Key PHR, the company responsible for the restoration and renovation, invested not just money but also devotion in bringing the four stars back to the iconic 91-year-old hotel.
When renovations began in 2014, Gold Key focused on preserving the architecture and elements unique to the site. That’s evident as you stroll through the front doors and are greeted by beautiful terrazzo floors that have emerged from a bygone era.
The lower lobby is home to three of the Cavalier’s jewels: The Hunt Room, Tarnished Truth Distilling Co. and SeaHill, a 6,200-square-foot spa.
The Hunt Room, fittingly, was originally a place where hunters who stayed in the hotel would have their game prepared as they sat by the fire and dined in their hunting togs.
“It was a sand pit when we started work on it,” says Michael Woodhead, Gold Key’s vice president for marketing. “They restored the fireplace by removing and carefully marking all of the original bricks. Once they shored up the structure, brick by brick they put it back together.”
The Hunt Room is a comfortable place with room for entertainment, relaxation and drinks. In fact the spacious bar peeks into Tarnished Truth – which is, Woodhead says, the nation’s first craft distillery to be located inside a hotel. The distillery, which gets its name from the days of booze running in Virginia Beach, has a nice tasting room, in which you can enjoy its vodka and whiskeys.
Across the hall is SeaHill, which offers a full-service hair and nail salon, nine massage treatment rooms, deep soaking tubs, a sauna whose walls are made of pink Himalayan salt, and a retail boutique.
Upstairs, the ground floor reveals another elegant level. There you’ll find the Crystal Ballroom, amazingly restored with gold accents on its crown molding, which have been meticulously painted by hand. This space, perfect for occasions from receptions to dances, holds 200 standing, 150 seated.
Just left off the Grand Lobby you’ll discover a popular spot: the Plunge Pool. Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald was captured poolside by Tidewater Photo Service with his wife and daughter during the summer of 1927, an image that appeared in the old Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch. The diving board from the era is gone, but the pool’s beauty and relaxing ambiance has been restored, bathed by lots of ambient light, the bottom bearing the crest of the Cavalier.
Around the corner awaits the Raleigh Room, which indulges a bit in a swanky high-tea vibe with comfy chairs, vintage artwork, a cocktail bar and a grand piano. It’s difficult to pass through the Raleigh without ordering a drink and taking a seat.
The hotel’s main dining destination is Becca, which serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch with surf, turf and vegetarian offerings in an airy, elegant space. Adjacent to this area is Becca Gardens, which provides outdoor seating near a huge stone fireplace with lofty views of the ocean. Here, diners sit among many of the herbs the kitchen uses.
Nearby, the Cavalier’s Sunken Garden, with its original brick stairs descending several feet into the bottom, conjures images of the perfect wedding.
And of course there are the guest rooms. The original 195 have been reduced to less than half that, to meet today’s specifications, but those that remain are beautiful and spacious. The standard rooms breathe and the suites offer everything from spectacular views and complimentary bars to claw-foot tubs and smart devices.
But be prepared to pay for the elegance. In 1927, daily rates were $18 – a lot, back then – and now they start at about $180 in the off season. Of course, it is hard to argue against the cost when you see what has become of the old place.
“It was the hotel that put Virginia Beach on the map,” Woodhead says. “You can come to Virginia Beach and say ‘While I’m here I’ll stay at this hotel,’ but we expect that many of our guests will come here because of the Cavalier, and Virginia Beach will be a bonus.”