Bottles and bottlenoses

James March searches for Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins on the northern shores of Virginia Beach.

Paid partnership with Virginia Tourism Corporation

Bottles and bottlenoses

James March searches for dolphins and samples America’s first in-hotel distillery on the shores of Virginia Beach.

Bottles and bottlenoses: to listen along to this story on Virginia Beach, or to pause the playback, click the play button:

“Let’s paddle with purpose!” shouts my instructor Tommy over his shoulder, as our 10-strong kayaking group hacks and slashes at the Chesapeake Bay’s rolling tides, trying to keep up with him as a squadron of white pelicans watch on from above. 

Today we’re searching for Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins on Chesapean Outdoors’ Dolphin Tour, bouncing along the northern shores of Virginia Beach – or what Tommy refers to as the ‘Dolphin Highway’. 

Virginia’s crystalline waters glitter under a dense September sun, but my oars feel like they’re ploughing through molasses at times.

Lean and tanned with a couple of small tattoos, Tommy looks like he’s been on the water all his life and he barks encouragement as we head toward the yawning mouth of the Atlantic.

Finally, the unmistakable shape of a dolphin’s dorsal fin briefly flashes above the surface, like an inverted crescent moon. 

As the morning advances, we spot further pods, each as thrilling as the last. It’s a magnificent experience, but my arms and shoulders have run out of gas as we heave back onto the beach’s warm sands. 

Luckily, I have a sumptuous sanctuary waiting. 

1927 was a big year in American lore – Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St Louis, while at home Babe Ruth smashed 60 home runs on route to winning the World Series – and it was also the year that the Historic Cavalier Hotel’s elegant brick facade rose into the Virginia Beach sky. 

Trudging up the small stone staircase beneath a sparkling multilayered chandelier, I emerge onto the hotel lobby’s marble chessboard floor to the sound of a distant jazz piano.

It’s like my weary legs have briefly transported me back to the Roaring Twenties, with ghosts of former presidents and stars of the stage smiling and shaking hands in the corners somewhere. 

I pass sepia-toned portraits of Ginger Rogers, Bob Hope and Liz Taylor on a slow stroll to my room upstairs, and inside it’s spacious and stylish, while the golden gilded mirror facing my bed is a subtle nod to an illustrious past.

These days the hotel is the epitome of luxurious heritage, yet down on the waterfront the Cavalier’s Beach Club is a total modern contrast. A short scramble down the hotel’s lush hilltop perch and across Atlantic Avenue, Cavalier guests have exclusive access to the sun-drenched pool area while the sleek wooden deck bar is open to everyone. 

Cocktail in hand and tapping my foot to the DJ’s languid hip-hop beats, I take an ocean-facing seat watching the waves metronomically break against the shore. There’s something Mediterranean about it all, though the monstrous container ships moving glacially on the horizon remind me we’re a long way from Ibiza. 

Back at the hotel, I head downstairs where the Seahill Spa allures with its mineral-driven range of quartz therapies and soaks (which, frankly, I should have used after the kayaking earlier). However, I’m intrigued by the liquid gold produced next door at Tarnished Truth – America’s first in-hotel distillery. 

Sat at a long tasting table made from a 114-year-old Pennsylvania Ash tree, Kat Walters, a brand ambassador for Tarnished Truth pours me a small dram of their Discretion Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

In a male-dominated industry like whiskey, Kat Walters certainly breaks the norm, but Tarnished Truth isn’t like other distilleries.

“It’s a fun dichotomy when people come in and look at me like ‘there’s no way this girl knows anything’ and I’m just spitting things out, and they’re like ‘Ok’,” she laughs. “And that’s always cool, like a victory in some way.”

The space we’re in is a former laundry but it’s been converted into a rustic shrine to the art of American distillation, with handsome exposed brick and stacks of wooden casks.

Walters also pours me a selection of rye, moonshine and bourbon cream, and soon after we tour the distillery’s whirring washbacks and copper stills.

The smooth amber whiskey they make here is also served upstairs at Becca, the hotel’s elegant flagship restaurant that’s split between a low-lit brass-lined evening spot and an airy Victorian glasshouse lined by green thatch palms. It’s a striking clash of styles, but it works splendidly. 

“What we execute is a mix of coastal cuisine with an homage to the classics”, Executive Chef Jonathan O’Brien tells me. “If you look at what this restaurant was back in the 1920s, it was the talk of the town, all steak and fish, so we tried to take a modern twist on that.”

One eye-catching interpretation is infusing their New York Strip Steak with Tarnished Truth whiskey, however it’s a relatively simple dish that O’Brien loves returning to. 

“I’ve been in this area since elementary school and we eat crab cakes everywhere. And I think our recipe is probably one of, if not the best, crab cake recipes. It’s just such a staple that we’ve had for so many years here.”

Indeed, such is the history at this place that it has its own mini-museum just outside the restaurant, displaying faded posters of big band concerts from the likes of Tommy Dorsey alongside early photos from when the hotel was surrounded by nothing but field and forest. 

These days Virginia Beach’s golden oceanfront is flanked as far as the eye can see with imposing hotels and blocky condos, but thanks to the Historic Cavalier Hotel’s retracted position behind Atlantic Avenue and up on a hill, it still cuts a lone and majestic figure almost 100 years later.

With the sun high and the air thick by 8am, I spend the next morning at the boardwalk catching a breeze watching the dark silhouettes of paddle boarders gently rolling across the Atlantic without a care in the world. 

I hope the Cavalier will be standing proudly somewhere behind me in another 100 years, too. 

Need to know

Getting there:

Dulles International Airport is served by daily flights from around the world, including direct flights from London Heathrow and Gatwick.

Virginia Beach is approximately 360 km (3.5 hours’ drive) south of Dulles International Airport. Amtrak train service is also available via the Northeast Regional route for those who prefer not to drive.

Best time to go

The best time to visit is late spring to autumn, spanning May to October, even November. The water stays warm late in the year and the autumn months are mild.

Summer months, particularly June to August, is when the weather is warm and perfect for enjoying sandy beaches and outdoor activities — but these are also the busiest times.

Where to stay:

The Historic Cavalier Hotel stands as a timeless landmark along the shores of Virginia Beach, steeped in rich history and grandeur.

Originally opened in 1927, this iconic hotel has hosted numerous celebrities, dignitaries, and even presidents throughout its storied past.

Must-pack items:

With its miles of sandy shores and sunny climate, sunscreen is essential for protecting your skin from the strong rays of the sun.

Beach shoes might also be useful for walking to car parks from the beach.

Bring layers in early spring and late fall to be prepared for chillier mornings and evenings.

How to do it:

Navigating Virginia Beach is relatively easy, thanks to well-connected transport options. Visitors can rely on public transit, rental cars, bicycles, and walking.

The Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) system provides buses across the area, to major attractions, shopping centres, and neighbourhoods.

Additionally, rideshare services like Uber and Lyft offer convenient door-to-door transportation.

Anything else:

Contact Chesapean Outdoors and their range of dolphin-watching tours.

Find out more or make a reservation at Becca (at the Historic Cavalier Hotel).

Book a tour and/or tasting at Tarnished Truth Distilling Company and a spa treatment at Seahill Spa to complete your holiday.

More information

This article was brought to you in partnership with Virginia Tourism Corporation.

For more information and suggested itineraries, go to www.virginia.org


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