RICHMOND, VA — The “wow” factor takes hold as soon as I walk into the palatial entrance of Richmond’s historic Jefferson Hotel —the Sistine Chapel of hotel lobbies.
“Wow,” look at that white marble statue of Thomas Jefferson standing in the centre of the lavish room.
“Wow,” is that real Tiffany stained glass in the skylight and windows hanging over Jefferson’s head?
“Wow,” I think to myself while surveying a lobby dominated by faux marble columns, museum-worthy paintings and crystal chandeliers.
“Wow,” is that an alligator in the lobby pond?
“It’s not a real one,” the Jefferson’s Jennifer Crisp assures me.
“The alligators are part of The Jefferson’s lure, though. Guests returning from their winter stays in Florida would bring back baby alligators and toss them into our pond,” she says. “Some of them actually got very large and the last one died in 1948. The cast iron replicas remind us of that very interesting period.”
Richmond’s landmark Jefferson Hotel has been “wowing” guests ever since it opened in 1895 — on Halloween — and remains the Grand Dame of Virginia hotels thanks to some tender loving care over the decades that keeps it looking young, beautiful and relevant with modern travellers.
In fact, the Jefferson is the most beautiful American hotel I’ve ever seen in the U.S. south — a European masterpiece in the heart of Dixie.
Above: A marble statue of Thomas Jefferson anchors a hotel lobby that rivals the Sistine Chapel for good looks.
While president Jefferson — Virginia’s favourite son and one of the authors of the U.S. Constitution — looms large in the lobby of the hotel that bears his name, he actually never stayed here, but 13 other presidents, including Barrack Obama, did.
But presidents aren’t the only famous people who have booked a room at The Jefferson. Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra were just two of the famous entertainers who stayed here and Old Blue Eyes, as Sinatra was known, even performed for Jefferson guests.
“Frank held one of his last concerts in Richmond and entertained guests on our baby grand piano in an impromptu performance,” Crisp tells me over breakfast at TJs, one of the hotel’s two famed restaurants. The other, Lemaire, which I dine at later that evening, is an exquisite main dining room off the impressive lobby that rivals anything on the Champs de Elysee.
A small museum, featuring faded photographs of the famous who have stayed at The Jefferson, is tucked away under the hotel’s grand staircase located off the original lobby where TJs and a lovely gift shop are now located.
The hotel’s mezzanine allows guests to get a spectacular view of the Tiffany windows and the lobby pillars and features striking paintings of former U.S. presidents — the most impressive are the ones of Jefferson, of course.
The massive two-wing hotel is one of the largest in Virginia but during the latest upgrade, the original 262 rooms were paired down to 181 spacious beauties that offer all the luxurious amenities and modern conveniences travellers demand.
Above: The Jefferson Hotel is one of the most striking buildings in all of Richmond. But beware of the gators.
Staying ahead of the pack when it comes to modernization is nothing new for The Jefferson. When it opened in 1895, guests were treated to contemporary conveniences like electric lights and elevators, plus hot and cold running water in each guest room — something as new and revolutionary at the time as today’s Internet.
During the latest renovation, The Jefferson designers added televisions in the bathroom vanity mirrors and Nespresso coffee makers to go along with the flat screen TVs, free Wi-Fi, luxury toiletries and the finest of bed linen and mattresses.
Exploring The Jefferson’s corridors is like walking around a grand museum — the hotel’s art and artifacts date back to Richmond’s golden era and most of the public furnishings are original.
The Jefferson’s high tea is a Richmond tradition and on the Sunday afternoon I arrive, the opulent lobby is filled with young southern belles and their beaus enjoying finger sandwiches, scones and tea. The only thing missing from this scene are the hooped dresses that would have been worn by the ladies’ ancestors in the hotel’s earliest days.
I’m lured to the front door of the restaurant Lemaire by the incredible aromas floating out of the kitchen ruled by Executive Chef Patrick Willis, a master chef who inherited his job from Walter Bundy, a Richmond legend who left The Jefferson after two decades to start his own room, Shagbark — the name comes from the Shagbark hickory tree that was located on a Civil War-era farm located on the banks of the nearby James River.
Above: The hotel's elegant Lemaire dining room and the lavish guest rooms rival anything you'll find in Paris.
While Bundy may have put The Jefferson’s Lemaire on the culinary map, Willis is taking it in his own direction with dishes that feature fish caught in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay and farm-to-table ingredients that grow on the lovely rolling farmland just outside Richmond.
There’s obviously lots of southern influences on the menu but it’s the freshness of the offerings that excite my tastebuds most.
Walking into Lemaire is another “wow” moment for me. The room is dripping with elegance — a room worthy to be in the Palais Versailles — and the menu features such unique dishes as white almond garlic soup, Pernod steamed mussels, cracker meal crusted chesapeake bay oysters, braised Shenandoah valley rabbit, Virginia maple glazed bone-in pork chop, cast iron seared jumbo sea scallops and my favourite, slow braised spring lamb shank.
A recent addition is a cozy bar next to Lemaire which features light fare and a sidewalk café where guests can gather on warm summer days.
Guests usually meet there for pre or post dinner drinks or just to talk about how fortunate they are to be staying in one of America’s great hotels.
• Throughout the summer (2017) months, The Jefferson will be offering some special rates to celebrate the hotel’s latest facelift. That means you can stay in this luxurious masterpiece for as little as $250 (U.S.).
For more on The Jefferson, go to http://www.jeffersonhotel.com.
• The Jefferson is located at 101 West Franklin St., 23220.
• For information on Richmond, go to https://www.visitrichmondva.com
• For Virginia tourism information, go to https://www.virginia.org
• The best way to get to Richmond is through Washington’s Dulles Airport. Air Canada and several U.S. airlines offer direct daily flights to Dulles. Richmond is a two hour drive south of Washington.