Maybe it was the morning Van Cliburn's bathtub overflowed, the pianist too busy with Bach sonata he was banging out on his second-floor hotel room Steinway to notice the flood. The water seeped through the ceiling of the Regency Room's restaurant, dripping from the crystal chandeliers onto patrons who hardly looked up from their spoonbread.
Or perhaps it was the weekend Sheena, Queen of The Jungle, pranced through the lobby in her leopard skin suit, the next morning eating breakfast on the hotel floor brandishing a hunting knife.
The Hotel Roanoke, one of the last independently owned vestiges of Victorian hospitality in America, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. And as for any grande dame with a checkered past, choosing favorite memories to illustrate its charm and elegance is nearly impossible.
J.P. Morgan used to stop here on his way south. Amelia Earhart was a frequent guest. Special railway cars filled with vacationing city dwellers stopped on the well-kept tracks across from the Tudor-style mansion, its occupants unloading steamer trunk after steamer trunk for the traditional eight-week stay.
The guest list goes on: Gen. Dwight Eisenwhower, John D. Rockefeller, Danny Thomas, Joe DiMaggio, Ethel Merman, Victor Borge, Richard Nixon as a young politician, Ronald Reagan (as a not-so-young governor), Gerald Ford.
Built in 1882 by the Norfolk and Western Railway, the 425-room hotel feels more like a quiet country inn, an oasis of charm and elegance stuck in the middle of this sleepy southwest Virginia town.
"We're the world's best kept secret," boasts general manager Peter Kipp, sipping a glass of white wine before dinner one night recently.
Welcomed under the maroon and tan awning behind the huge circular fountain ringed with orange and yellow marigolds, guests are ushered into the spacious lobby, filled with fresh flowers, antiques and fine oriental rugs. The service is old-South impeccable, the vittles delectable, from the lamb chops broiled to a rosy pink perfection to the famous spoon bread to the flaming cherries jubilee.
In the morning, guests are awakened by the two sweetest words in the English language: "Room Service." A steaming pot of coffee and warm sweet rolls are placed on the white linen sheets, while the Blue Ridge Mountains loom in the distance through the open windows.
Then a shower in the black and white tiled bathroom (when was the last time you saw a huge white porcelain sink with oversized knobs and a separate tap for ice water?) and a short walk over the railroad tracks to one of the great tobacco shops in the country: Milan Brothers. Rows of Dunhills and Comoys gleam in the spotless cases, and the Milan brothers themselves are always in attendance, offering advice on imported cigars and their own blends of Virginia tobacco. Around the corner, crates of fresh vegetables sit on the long wooden porches of the city's old market, which also offers fresh flowers, oysters on the half shell and just about everything else to satisfy a hedonist's tastes.
I had lived in Washington for 10 years and never knew there was a Roanoke.
"That's the first question we usually get asked," says Peter Kipp. "How do you get to Roanoke?"
You can fly or you can drive, the latter preferred by city dwellers who can't get enough of the Blue Ridge during the fall season. It's a five-hour trip, but well worth it.
My husband and I drove down for a weekend recently (straight down U.S. Route 29, lunch in Charlottesville, then picked up Interstate 81 south) and found the Hotel Roanoke a welcome change from those quaint, cramped country inns that are usually mobbed this time of year. We were shown to our room on the fourth floor. It was small, and the window looked out over the air conditioning ducts. We asked the bellboy if we could see another room, perhaps one with a view. Certainly, he said. Five minutes later we were shown to another room, larger and looking out at the mountains. No problem, the front desk said.
That's when I knew I liked the Hotel Roanoke. It reminded us of the Caribbean. No problem.
"It's the personal touch," says Peter Kipp, explaining the hotel's attraction. "That's what it all gets down to. That's what it's all about."
After a swim in the pool (with year-round cover) and cocktails on the terrace, we were subjected to the same sinfully polite treatment by a towering maitre d' who ushered us to an intimate table. Consider the scene: a dinner music combo reminiscent of the 1950s, white linen-covered tables dotted with pink carnations in silver bud vases, heavy silverware, spotless crystal, lovely china piled with broiled lobster tails washed down with a bottle of Fume Blanc. After dinner, we headed down to the basement nightclub, where visiting jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd held forth to a full house. A few drinks, a few laughs and the next thing we knew Charlie Byrd was sitting at our table telling stories until 3 a.m., while a strange woman drunkenly read my palm and her companion pressed his red knit necktie into my hand as a souvenir.
It was a luxury liner on land. All you had to do was stumble back to your room, trying not to trip on the vacuum cleaner cord belonging to the nice man who was polishing the marble floors at 5 a.m.
We fell asleep to the lull of a coal train chugging in the distance.
The next morning coffee in bed (the room service is divine), then down to the dining room for brunch. The scene was pure, hometown Americana as silver-haired matrons sipped champagne cocktails and families gathered in their Sunday finest, Mom wearing a yellow mum corsage and searching in vain for the pearl earring lost the night before during a mid-meal fox trot.
We ate our eggs benedict with Smithfield country ham and drank cup after cup of steaming coffee, vowing to make The Hotel Roanoke one of our favorite, not so-so-secret getaway spots.