Bed Check: A night at the Hotel Roanoke, a.k.a. 'The Grand Old Lady'

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 2010;

"The Grand Old Lady," as the Hotel Roanoke is known, has been around for as long as Roanoke has been called Roanoke, which is to say, for nearly 130 years. (The former railroad town in southwest Virginia was originally called Big Lick. How fortunate for the hotel that someone decided on a name change.) Perched on a hill overlooking the city, the Tudor-style building towers over everything around it and has rightly earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

So it seemed very apropos that a piano was playing when I arrived for a recent overnight. Elegant, I thought. Until I realized that it was a player piano. That was the only tacky feature in an otherwise grand lobby decorated with Czech-made chandeliers, marble floors, wood-paneled walls and brown leather chairs.

Built in 1882 by railroad magnate Frederick J. Kimball, the hotel started as a resting place for railroaders passing through town. But since a few multimillion-dollar renovations and expansions, including an ongoing one that began in 2007, it has been the place to stay for any visitors to Roanoke. Guests have included U.S. presidents, Virginia governors, theater and sports stars and -- my personal favorite -- Miss Virginia contestants. In fact, the first Miss Virginia Pageant was held at the hotel in 1953, and pictures of a couple of the winners hang on the wall in one wing. I was happy to join such an illustrious group of guests.

When I checked in, the friendly clerk handed me a chocolate chip cookie. Good thing I had the treat, because the trip to my room took longer than I expected. The building has so many wings that it's easy to get lost, and I did. Fortunately, there were plenty of employees along the way willing to direct me toward my destination.

My recently renovated room was spacious, even if the "Sweet Dreams" pillow on the bed was a bit corny. The bathroom had a nice touch: Neutrogena facial wash. That was a novelty. I liked the way the room preserved the hotel's traditional look -- the vanity cabinet in the bathroom looked like an antique -- but still had modern touches, such as a flat-screen TV.

Although I hadn't requested it, I ended up in a Club Level room. That entitled me to a free happy hour in the Executive Lounge. Well, not exactly free. Wine cost $5.50, domestic beer $4.25 and imported beer $4.75. But there were free snacks of cheese and crackers and some sort of spinach concoction. The employee staffing the room was as attentive as the front desk clerk, asking me twice whether I felt cold. I assured her that I was fine, but she called the front desk to ask someone to make sure that the heat was working properly.

I opted against having dinner in the hotel restaurant, the Regency Room, apparently one of the best eateries in Roanoke. The menu looked delicious -- the peanut soup is a signature dish -- but the ambiance seemed a little too stuffy for my taste. I took the convenient skyway that leads directly downtown to search for a less fancy dining spot instead.

But after dinner, a friend and I hit the hotel bar for a drink. The Pine Room had been an officer's club in World War II, and it looks it, with wood-paneled walls, upholstered chairs and low lighting. It was the perfect place for a nightcap on a cold winter night. We sipped our drinks near the fireplace and admired how well the Grand Old Lady has aged.

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