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Gristmill: The Grand Hotel

Thu, 03/21/2024 - 08:52
A 34-foot-tall King Neptune made of bronze is one somewhat insane sight to be taken in on the Virginia Beach boardwalk.
Julie Greene

What a good thing it was that Carl Fisher's dream of Montauk as the Miami Beach of the North wasn't realized. You see this, you can't miss it, when you visit Virginia Beach, equally bounded by water, just as beachy, every bit the vacation spot, and yet lined with towering hotels that nearly out-Vegas Las Vegas. They effectively block any view of the ocean whatsoever from the main drag.

The place is similarly hurricane-threatened, too. Where once was trod a charming wooden boardwalk, now heels are punished by three miles of concrete, wide enough for a two-lane highway, all doubling as a sea wall, what with the 30 feet of reinforcing steel sunk beneath it. Endless rooms rise up just behind, all facing the replenished, duneless sand, oddly not right, somewhat ochre in appearance, and unnaturally deep, clearly hosed onto the beach from offshore by an Army Corps that's got a contract to keep doing so till 2050. Or the Big One. Whichever comes first. 

But man cannot live by beach alone. Old Mr. Fisher might eat his heart out at the sight of the Cavalier Hotel — mammoth, yes, but stately and brick-built in the 1920s, in the age of the great hotel vacations, wisely set back a ways on a rise, and, more to the point, saved and renovated, not dismantled and carted off New York City-style. To the tune of tens of millions of dollars? So be it. You'll never find a better Bloody Mary, hair-raisingly suffused with spices, or a more flavorful herb-roasted French dip with caramelized onions, airy horseradish cupped just so on the side, or, that night back at the bar, a better cup of joe than the bourbon-laced latte, dashed with sugar-cinnamon syrup and nutmeg, the booze distilled on premises.

They're the kind of meals that make a weekend. Even if you happen to be staying at a cinderblock Days Inn down among the gin mills and souvenir shops. 

Back on the beach, you might stumble across a relic of preservation or two, a handsome and whitewashed 1903 Shingle Style lifesaving station, for one, now a museum, and, as with the grand hotel, another surprise of a municipally backed initiative, a midcentury Dairy Queen deemed important enough to merit a $12 million city expenditure a little over a year ago. It was leased back for continued operation, because what's a waterfront without soft serve? 

In this case, it's the C.P.F. that can eat its heart out.  

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