The Blue Ridge Mountains are more extensive than one might think. This segment of the Appalachian Mountains traverses seven states and contains two national parks, eight national forests and a scenic parkway that extends for 469 miles. Earlier this year, we visited a section of the range outside Asheville, North Carolina. But we weren’t content to stop there. Virginia was on our minds in part because Keswick Hall, a century-old Tuscan-style retreat in Charlottesville, has been undergoing a massive renovation. Alas, we were not able to stay. The website promised a summer 2021 opening, but reservations weren’t being accepted until this month (October).
Instead, we decided to spend a few days at one of the latest additions to the Auberge Resorts Collection, Primland Resort, in southwestern Virginia. We flew into Charlotte, North Carolina, and drove two hours north, just over the border, to Meadows of Dan (population 1,418). After passing through Mount Airy, the quaint hometown of Andy Griffith and the inspiration for his fictional Mayberry, we arrived at the property’s unassuming South Gate. A security guard confirmed our reservations and set our expectations: Primland is big — 12,000 acres big — and it would take another 15-minute drive to reach the lodge.
The imposing central lodge captures the spirit and provenance of the family patriarch, being part grand hunting lodge and part French château.
The main road through this sprawling reserve is called Didier Primat Parkway, named after the French-Swiss billionaire and Schlumberger heir who bought the land in 1977 to harvest scrub oak for Primlumber kindling. Selective tree cutting continued through the 1980s, but part of the area was set aside for hunting, shooting, horseback riding and fishing. Today, as you wind your way 3,000 feet above sea level past dense forest and scenic overlooks, it’s hard to fathom that any sort of logging ever took place here.
Didier Primat felt a deep connection to this land, and he wanted others to experience it as well. To attract more guests, in 2006 he commissioned the Highland golf course, designed by Donald Steel. It was a unique proposition to build an 18-hole track on top of a mountain, but it has proved to be one of Steel’s most inspired layouts. With breathtaking views on every hole, it was named both Golf Digest’s Best New Public Course in 2007 and one of America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses in 2020.
Although Primat would not live to see the resort’s completion (he passed away in 2008), his children took up the mantle and continued to develop his vision. The imposing 72,000-square-foot central lodge, which debuted in 2009, captures the spirit and provenance of the family patriarch, being part grand hunting lodge and part French château. Set atop an emerald plateau surrounded by velvety bentgrass fairways, there is something of a fairy-tale quality to the place.
The afternoon of our arrival, misty clouds gave the property a dreamlike atmosphere. We pulled our vehicle onto the covered drive out front and were taken to the reception hall. After a brief check-in, an employee showed us around the wood-and-stone lobby-lodge, pointing out Elements restaurant on one side and the 19th Pub on the other. In the center, seating areas beckon guests to relax and gaze out enormous windows that offer an expansive view of the terrace and undulating golf course.
Besides the 26 rooms in the lodge, there are three Fairway Cottages along the golf course that hold two suites each; three adults-only Tree Houses, set high in the treetops overlooking Kibler Valley; and four two-story Pinnacle Cottages containing four units each. These were the last to debut and where our Dan River Suite was located. During check-in, multiple staff members commented on how much they loved our Bluebird cottage. When we got there, after a three-minute escorted drive, we understood why: Its position gives it the most sweeping views of the Dan River Gorge.
Our suite was a spacious 982 square feet, with high ceilings, wood floors and an open-plan living-dining room. Against one wall was a long kitchen countertop, complete with a sink, full-size microwave, Nespresso coffee machine and mini-fridge. A live-edge dining table was placed between the kitchen and the sofas, which fronted a gas fireplace and television. With two club chairs, it proved to be an exceedingly comfortable space. But the most inviting aspect of our accommodation was its large deck, with seating for eight. Blooming white hydrangeas surrounded it and their color popped against the backdrop of the blue-green mountainsides.
The resident astronomer Rani positioned the telescopes and then took us on a tour of deep space: first to the star Vega, 25 light-years away, then to Bode’s Galaxy, which is centered on a giant black hole 70 million times the mass of our sun; to Cigar Galaxy, a huge and energetic star nursery; and finally to Whirlpool Galaxy, a classic spiral cluster 31 million light-years away.
A wide hallway off the living area offered a double closet and a desk under a wall cutout that provided a view to the adjoining bedroom. There, we found a king-size bed and windows looking out to yet another (smaller) deck. Our bath had views of the valley through the large picture window above the tub. And opaque glass shower doors added a sophisticated touch to the rustic slate and wood finishes. One quibble: The shower did not drain effectively, and the water threatened to push onto the main floor of the bath.
Primland is not a resort where you stay in your room, lovely as it is. Over our two-night stay, we enjoyed numerous activities on the property. We signed up for a nature walk with a guide who pointed out chanterelle mushrooms and took us to scenic outlooks, and we enjoyed a horseback excursion along part of the Old Appalachian Trail. But our favorite activity was the observatory tour, hosted by resident astronomer Rani, whose knowledge and passion was infectious. Climbing the stairs to the top of the resort’s observatory, we were asked to sit around its perimeter under the deep red glow of the dome. This opened dramatically to the night sky. Rani positioned the telescopes and then took us on a tour of deep space: first to the star Vega, 25 light-years away, then to Bode’s Galaxy, which is centered on a giant black hole 70 million times the mass of our sun; to Cigar Galaxy, a huge and energetic star nursery; and finally to Whirlpool Galaxy, a classic spiral cluster 31 million light-years away. It felt like being in a fascinating science class with a teacher who never tired of her subject matter. I was so inspired that on my way out, I purchased an astronomy-themed tote bag at the gift shop!
Several different guests commented that Primland has much in common with Blackberry Mountain. As at the much-lauded Tennessee resort, the list of outdoor activities here feels endless. Besides golf, it includes RTV excursions (the best way to tour the vast property), fly-fishing, mountain biking, tennis, yoga, kayaking, disc golf and an array of shooting sports, such as wingshooting, European-style driven shoots and Continental-style released-pheasant shoots. Guests can also enjoy the indoor pool, game room and a Native American-themed spa, which notably offers four golf-specific massages.
There are three full-service restaurants on the property. Our dinner at Elements began with a crab cake appetizer, which was slightly overwhelmed by the bitterness of the accompanying piccalilli. We had more luck with the DemKota beef fillet, which was cooked perfectly to order and accompanied by whipped Yukon Gold potatoes and charred rapini. Service at dinner was reliable but proved much slower at breakfast. When our avocado toast and overnight oats — neither of which required cooking — finally arrived 40 minutes after being ordered, we barely had time to eat them before our scheduled activity. Our second dinner, at the country-style Stables Saloon, should have made for hokey fun, but it was ultimately a disappointment. Due to COVID-19, the “Southern Supper and Barbecue” buffet was served family-style, and while we got plenty of food for $45 each — a salad, starches, vegetables and meats (chicken, trout, pork chop and brisket) — it arrived all at once and nearly cold. Despite oversize cocktails served in Mason jars and an enjoyable two-piece band, the experience felt out of keeping with a luxury resort.
Daily room service and turndown service were available, but worker shortages were apparent elsewhere. Both our nature guide and horse guide were filling in for others and one long-suffering server looked as if she was going to collapse at the end of her 15-hour day. Despite staffing issues, which are being felt at hotels great and small, every employee we encountered — save for a moody horseman — was upbeat and eager to please.
Primland has carved out a little piece of heaven at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Up until now, it’s been one of this region’s best-kept secrets, but now that Auberge has entered the picture, word will doubtless get out. To those planning a stay, we suggest more than two nights, as there’s so much to do and see.
The unusual golf course; the views from our deck; the privacy of our suite; the numerous on-property activities.
The light stain on our living room’s ivory-colored sofa; a full list of activities would have been helpful at check-in because not everything appears on the website.
Though the golf course is public and open year-round, winter golf is available (at the supervisor’s discretion) exclusively for members and guests staying overnight at the resort; spa treatments are more expensive on the weekends.
Leaving Primland was not easy, but we hit the road and drove to our next destination, Charlottesville. Before checking in to The Clifton, we took a detour to see how the renovation of Keswick Hall was going. Dust and construction vehicles were everywhere. As of this writing, the new restaurant by chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten is open and the hall’s 38 reimagined lodgings are scheduled to open this month. In the spring of 2022, the new wing will debut with 42 additional accommodations, along with a new spa and wellness center.
After a brief welcome, the staff suggested that we could carry our luggage to the room ourselves. As they left, they called out, “If you need anything, just dial 0!”
Two miles away, The Clifton is set on 100 acres outside of town, near the Rivanna River. The traditional Colonial home was originally constructed in 1799 for Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Martha, and her husband, Thomas Mann Randolph Jr., who later became the 21st governor of Virginia (1819-1822). Fire has engulfed The Clifton twice, once in 1916 and again in 2003, so only parts of the hotel are original. The latest room renovations took place in 2018, with the addition of modern touches with an “affection for the past.” With that in mind, we were hopeful that the hotel would again merit a recommendation, but the problems started almost immediately.
Surrounded by scuffed walls and unpatched screw holes in the Drawing Room, our check-in was awkward, as we had to stand at the reception desk while the clerk remained seated behind it. We were escorted from the main house past gardens and a croquet lawn to the doors of our low-slung white clapboard Carriage House, one of the five accommodations in the Garden Cottages. Upon entering, I was surprised to find a rollaway bed I hadn’t requested under the window of the living room. After a brief welcome, the staff removed the bed, and suggested that we move our car farther down the driveway so we could carry our luggage to the room ourselves. As they left, they called out, “If you need anything, just dial 0!”
At first glance, the interior of the Carriage House, with its antique wood floors, white shiplap walls, cream-and-white color palette and sleeping loft, exuded the charm of a shabby-chic cottage. But a closer inspection revealed an undue emphasis on the shabby, despite the brass and hunter-green contemporary accents. The room had plenty of light from the French windows, but it smelled musty. The living room rug was thinning and misshapen, and the staircase was — we learned the hard way — creaky enough to wake someone sleeping. The bath looked more promising, at first. The brass Waterworks fixtures, hexagon floor tiles and double pedestal sinks were classic features, and the spacious walk-in shower offered two showerheads along with Malin+Goetz toiletries. But four tiles were missing from the center of the floor, caulking was sloppily applied, and both sink faucets were not securely fastened to the porcelain. Making things worse during our stay was that our downstairs neighbors, occupying the Meriwether Lewis room, were noisy in the morning and apparently intent on rearranging the furniture across the hardwood floors each day.
Service was also a disappointment. When we tried “just dialing 0,” as suggested, we found the phone inoperable. Using my cell to request coffee and report the broken device, the only thing I received was a cold cup of coffee; no apology or promise to fix the phone. Breakfast on the porch suffered as well, mostly due to a lack of waitstaff. One put-upon young woman was responsible for every table, and seating was limited because tables sat uncleaned. On our second day, we skipped getting a menu and ordered the same thing as the day before — a “farm to fork” spinach omelet with scallions, bacon and white cheddar — not just because it was delicious but to save our harried server time. Dinner at the formal 1799 restaurant proved to be more relaxing. The beautifully decorated room came with rich blue walls, sage-green velvet chairs and shelves of books in a matching color scheme. The roasted eggplant, served with pappardelle, spring onions, capers and Parmesan cream, was delicious. Our other dishes, pan-seared salmon with cornbread, and a coconut-lemongrass soup with mussels, were both excellent. Dinner was the highlight of our stay.
The grounds of The Clifton feature manicured lawns sprinkled with pink-flowering crape myrtles and specimen maples. Guests also have access to a small pool and enchanting short hiking trails. One leads to the five-bedroom Collina Farmhouse, and the other to an 18-acre lake past the three junior suites housed in the Livery Stables. The Manor House itself contains seven rooms and suites.
The Clifton is currently seeking approval for an expansion, which as proposed would add 25 guest rooms, 16 cabin rooms, myriad camping and glamping sites, along with a 5,000-square-foot spa. Perhaps this is the owners’ way of trying to compete with the reimagined Keswick Hall. But a good start would be upgrading what already exists.
Our delicious meals; the pretty grounds; the sense of history.
The sorry state of our Carriage House room and bath; the lack of counter space or shelving in the small bath; the noise from neighbors.
The entrance to the 4-mile Saunders-Monticello Trail is a 10-minute drive away and is accessible to walkers, cyclists and even those in wheelchairs.
Arriving at the palatial 181-room Jefferson Hotel in downtown Richmond and experiencing old-fashioned service and hospitality was a relief. A bellman swooped in to take our bags, gave us a thorough room orientation and delivered a bucket of ice, all within minutes of arrival. Our 700-square-foot Richmond Suite was residential in feel and utterly traditional. In the living room, dark wood furniture was offset by the almond-colored carpet, sofa and walls, while a chandelier and sconces provided elegant lighting. In the bedroom, thick room-darkening custom drapes were effective, while the white-duvet-covered king-size bed, with abundant pillows, proved very comfortable. Nothing here was too technologically cutting-edge to operate and everything functioned properly. The only surprises were good ones: Our room came with a convenient half-bath near the door; our huge full bath positively gleamed with Carrara marble and chrome fixtures; and there were three televisions, including one in the mirror of the bath. When it was time to order room service, breakfast was delivered promptly on a formal delivery cart and picked up in a timely manner.
The Jefferson Hotel has had time to fine-tune this level of service. Opened in 1895, it was built by the tobacco baron and philanthropist Lewis Ginter and featured every modern amenity of its day: electric lights and elevators, an electronic signaling system for room service, and hot and cold water in the bedrooms. From its very first party — for the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson and his “Gibson girl,” Irene Langhorne — it seemed destined to have a storied life of its own. It has been the inspiration for Hollywood films (“My Dinner With Andre” and “Gone With the Wind”); the hotel of choice for visiting dignitaries, presidents and celebrities; and a home for a handful of pet alligators, which maintain a presence in the form of bronze sculptures in the fountain at the entrance. However, throughout its 126-year history, this Southern grande dame has had its share of misfortune. It suffered two destructive fires and served as a makeshift residence for transient government recruits during World War II. Having been put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, it fell into disrepair and temporarily closed in 1980. Over the years, it has seen multiple renovations.
Today’s Jefferson Hotel is a marvel of bold architectural styles that reflect the Beaux Arts vision of the original architects, Carrère and Hastings, combined with later rococo and Edwardian alterations. In the magnificent rotunda, enormous faux-marble columns anchor the space and a grand staircase leads to the upper lobby, the Palm Court. Here, a life-size statue of Thomas Jefferson, Ginter’s hero, presides in the center surrounded by nine original Tiffany windows. For those interested in learning about the fascinating history of the hotel, there is a small museum off the rotunda containing original photos, newspaper articles and artifacts.
During our stay, the downstairs restaurant was closed due to COVID, but we had elegant breakfast and dinner experiences at the formal Lemaire, which features Virginia-grown ingredients in a Southern-inflected menu. One morning my egg-white omelet was bursting with huge chunks of crabmeat. At dinner, my Little Gem Caesar salad came with plenty of Parmesan and piquant white sardines. A main dish of saffron campanelle with ratatouille, basil and tomato coulis sounded appetizing, but the texture of the vegetable and the pasta were too similar, making eating a whole bowl a bit of a chore. Our brown-butter scallops were a better choice, as they were delicate and rich while the accompanying cauliflower and watercress were flavorful additions.
The iconic Jefferson Hotel has become an integral part of the fabric of Richmond. It is grand but homey, dignified but welcoming — the perfect place to celebrate a wedding, to have Christmas dinner with family, or serve as a sophisticated base in the center of a vibrant Southern city.
The polished service; our comfortable residential-style suite.
The spa, located in corner of the gym, feels like an afterthought.
There is an impressive array of amenities for guests with disabilities, including lowered closet bars, low bed heights, wide doorways, accessible light switches, closed-captioned TV, roll-in showers and more. The popular Sunday Champagne brunch is suspended until 2022.