Photo by Robert Benson Photography
Photo by Robert Benson Photography

Hang Out With Classy Ghosts at the Luxurious Cavalier Hotel

And when you’re done with that, say hi to Blackbeard.

They call it the Haunted Hotel on the Hill. Because, well, it sits perched on a hill. And even if you don’t believe in ghosts, the 85-room Cavalier Hotel just seems ominous. Looming above the breezy Virginia Beach shoreline, it looks to be harboring secrets. But is it haunted? As with everything, it’s all in how you look at it.

What we do know: Its allure helped create a city. Built in 1926, the luxurious property put Virginia Beach on the map as an East Coast resort destination. With its own train depot, Midwesterners enjoyed direct, nonstop access from Chicago for first-rate amenities: think an extra handle to draw a bath from stored seawater, and a special spigot on the bathroom sink just for ice-water, kept in a bucket on the roof. There was a doctor and stockbroker on staff, a barber shop and ice-cream parlor, and the original pool used water filtered from the Atlantic Ocean (the one there today does not, but its greenery-filled open atrium design is straight out of Old Hollywood). They also kept limousines on hand to shuttle guests from steamer ships.

Ghosts or not, let us at this pool. | Photo courtesy of the Cavalier Hotel

The hotel is also the stuff of political history: the massive fireplace in the downstairs Hunt Room, big enough for a person to walk in, is where Nixon frantically burnt some of the Watergate papers. Allegedly. In fact, the hotel has hosted ten presidents, including Kennedy, Carter, Truman, and Eisenhower. And the list of celebrity clients include Muhammad Ali, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, and Al Capone—even Kim and Kanye for Pusha T’s wedding.

It’s also a boozy pioneer: The Cavalier Hotel has the proud distinction of being the first and only hotel with its own distillery. Called “Tarnished Truth,” the name is a nod to its infamous guests like Nixon and Capone. And the gin, Fourth Handle, is named after that extra handle on the bathtub for the seawater bath. Distillery tours are on offer, and the hotel’s six restaurants offer cocktails featuring the literally homemade spirits.

Spooky. But also inviting? | Photo courtesy of the Cavalier Hotel

And OK, it’s haunted. The piano in the grand ballroom has been heard with nobody touching the keys. Some have seen a World War II soldier roaming the halls. A hungry apparition frequents Becca, the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, with her dog. The elevators reportedly move on their own.

And if you encounter the ghost bellman, he’ll warn you about the sixth floor, where guests have heard footsteps and experienced cold spots. Windows open in the middle of the night. Calls go down to reception, with nobody on the other end. This was where Adolph Coors, the Coors Beer founder, was staying when he was found on the grounds, lifeless after a “fall.” His room’s windows were reportedly closed, and though suicide was suspected, the cause of death was never determined.

There is one specter you’ll want to seek out, and you may hear him before you see him. A ghostly cat scratches and meows, and sometimes can be seen roaming the grounds. During the hotel’s renovation in the 2010s, cat prints repeatedly showed up in the freshly-laid foundation; some are still visible to this day. But even if you don’t encounter the furry apparition, try the Ghost Cat cocktail in the Raleigh Room at the hotel. It’s a sweet consolation of bourbon, black walnut bitters, vanilla syrup, cream, and nutmeg.

So if you’re looking for a spooky time in Virginia Beach this Halloween, the historic Cavalier Hotel is a good place to start. Hopefully the ghost of Adolph Coors doesn’t show up. Here’s what else to do for a scare-filled trip down to the seashore.

Learn some witchy history

Over off a busy highway near the city center, you’ll come across a statue of a forty-six year old woman, kept company by a bronze raccoon. This is Grace White Sherwood (1660-1740), a farmer, midwife, and healer also known as the Witch of Pungo (the raccoon symbolizes her love of animals).

Pungo was a rural farming community, and at the height of witch hysteria in 1706, Grace was accused by her neighbors of witchcraft. They blamed her for ruined crops, dead livestock, and destructive storms. Brave Grace confronted her accusers, and agreed to a trial by “ducking”—being thrown in consecrated waters—to prove her innocence.It was a lose-lose situation: sink and you’re innocent, float and you’re a witch.

Luck was somewhat on her side: After being bound and thrown overboard Grace managed to get untied and float to the surface of the bay. She was then promptly thrown in jail for seven years, making her the last known person convicted of witchcraft in Virginia. Legend has it she is buried under a tree on the Ferry Plantation; it’s been reported that on a clear night you can see a woman with long, wet hair walking the banks of the river. And her statue? That’s off Witchduck Road. They should probably change that name.

The First Landing Cross. | Sherry V Smith/Shutterstock

Retrace the footsteps of pioneers

As one of the first places the British colonists landed, there’s deep history in Virginia Beach. The scenic First Landing State Park, right on the waterfront, is not only Virginia’s first state park, it’s the site of the actual first landing of the colonists in the New World in 1607, before they headed north to establish the settlement of Jamestown. Outside of the park, at the site where they touched the shore, the First Landing Cross was erected in 1935 to commemorate the landing.

Legend has it that First Landing State Park was also a favored lookout of the infamous Captain Edward J. Teach, aka the pirate Blackbeard. One day before fleeing, he hastily buried his treasure in the sand dunes. If you get too close to where the treasure is buried, they say, a headless pirate spectre appears, guarding his property.

Take in some seasonal festivities

You can actually get your scares in Virginia Beach year-round. In a 1910 building, The Nightmare Mansion near the oceanfront has been operating for 30 years where for just $15 entry you can get your jump scares any time you want. Around Halloween, might as well double up.

The Hunt Club Farm Fall Harvest Fair (through October 31) pulls double duty: by day it’s a petting zoo with pony rides, goats that will eat you out of house and home, farm tours, tons of gourds to purchase, and carnival rides. By night it’s the domain of terrifying characters, with a haunted hayride, a spooky cornfield, and a Village of the Dead haunted house. No word on whether the goats participate.

If you’re the type that likes to get a workout in with your scares, the Wicked 10K happens on the Virginia Beach boardwalk (October 29-30) with spooky entertainment along the course, a Friday night Monster Mile run, and a Pumpkin Smash Challenge.

And if you’re the type that would rather sample brews, the Boneyard Brewing and Cider Festival (October 30) offers dance parties, costume contests, and tarot card readings. Also, a pie-eating contest. That’ll pair well with all the booze.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She's been to Witchduck Road and survived.