First impressions matter. And that’s especially true when you’re experiencing a new hotel for the very first time. The Cardinal Hotel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina wows guests the moment they come through the doors to enter the lavish lobby of this freshly opened property. It welcomed its first occupants on April 27, 2016, which just so happened to be the building’s 87th birthday.
Looking around, you might have the feeling of déjà-vu. The space has a familiar air about it. That’s because the 22-story building, which began its life in 1929 as the world headquarters for R.J. Reynolds, the giant tobacco company, served as a prototype for the Empire State Building. It was meant to dazzle and impress without being gauche. The architectural firm Shreve & Lamb replicated its design – on a much larger scale – for the beloved New York landmark two years later.
If visit the Empire State Building and The Cardinal, you’ll make the connection. Inside, they both have ornate brass elevators doors, strong geometrical lines and gleaming marble floors. Outside, the overall silhouettes are similar – dramatic and commanding.
After the plunge in demand for tobacco throughout the south, Reynolds put their headquarters up for sale in 2009. It sat empty for four years in the downtown core of Winston-Salem before being rescued by Kimpton Hotels who bought it in May 2014. The San Francisco-based company saw its potential as a luxury boutique hotel. Winston-Salem was starting to blossom again and move past its reliance on the tobacco business. Tax incentives when it joined the U.S. National Register of Historic Places also helped broaden the building’s appeal to potential buyers.
It’s a gamble that has paid off for Kimpton’s Cardinal (named after North Carolina’s state bird). Within just a few months of its debut, the hotel can already boast numerous sold-out nights – 174 rooms, including 36 suites spread over six floors all spoken for. That might explain why during a recent stay I was told my room was not yet ready – at 4:50 p.m.! Ah, the price of success. The good news was that I had arrived just in time for the nightly, hour-long complimentary wine hour, held in an inviting spacious, sofa-filled space, a.k.a ‘the living room,’ off the lobby.
With time to tour the property, it’s not difficult to understand why the hotel has been successful right out of the gate. It’s an interesting mix of fun, sophistication, and comfort. Though it doesn’t have a swimming pool, it does have an adult play area on the lower level (the former boiler room) where guests can go bowling (complimentary loan of shoes included) at the on-site alleys.
Next door, hit the basketball court and shoot a few hoops, or challenge a fellow guest to a friendly game of ping pong. Television screens, one a massive 81 incher, ensure sports fan don’t miss a thing. To get to the recreation area, take the stairs (boring!) or swoosh down a twisting slide designed for grownups still in touch with their inner child.
It’s clear that The Cardinal caters to active travelers and young professionals. Along with the play area, it features a well-stocked gym open 24 hours that is just as large as those found outside of a hotel setting. Packed with cardio equipment and weight, it’s a light, bright space that entices even the most committed coach potato. Active types can also borrow one of the hotel’s cruiser bikes to explore downtown highlights like the gallery-dotted arts district. Or stay in your room and do some yoga, thanks to mats in each guest room.
Back in the lobby, a crowd is happily sipping wine and munching on canapés, surrounded by whimsical works by local artists. Across the foyer, early dinner guests are gathering at The Katherine Brasserie & Bar, the restaurant on-site which borrows the name from the wife of R.J. Reynolds. In just a few hours, the place is hopping with hotel guests, condo owners from the higher floors of the building and locals, who are sampling artisan crafted cocktails and French-American cuisine with mains like lobster pot pie and country fried duck breast.
The Cardinal is a social place that goes beyond just serving as a hotel. It’s a hub for the community. Even if you don’t know a soul in the area, you can connect with locals here. Failing that, the property has loaner goldfish on hand. Guests can take their new aquatic pals to their room for the duration of their stay. If traveling with four-legged companions, they’ll be welcome, too – and at no additional charge and with no weight and size restrictions. It’s very pet friendly.
Humans will feel comfortable as well. The rooms are thoughtfully designed and decorated. Though this is a historic property, there’s no chintz or foofiness to be found. It’s all about the streamlined aesthetic, luxurious finishes (like buttery soft Frette linens) and a calming color palette (cream, black, blue, browns with a shot of hot pink or turquoise), befitting a boutique hotel, with a playful side.
Kimpton tapped into the talents of North Carolina’s notable furniture designer to furnish its rooms. (The state is often called ‘the furniture capital of the world’ because of the plethora of manufacturers and the High Point Furniture Market, an event that draws more than 100,000 exhibitors and buyers from around the globe.) One of the night tables is suspended from the ceiling with ropes, a nod to porch swings found in the south. A whimsical deer skull with black antlers hangs over the bed. Carpeting incorporates portraits of R.J. Reynolds and Colonel Joseph Winston (the Winston behind naming the city Winston-Salem), a nod to local history.
The only drawback to my room was the constant hum of the hotel’s large ventilation and air conditioning system just outside my window. It sounded like a jet warming up on the tarmac. To some, it may be white noise. To others, it might be enough to disturb sleep. Your best bet is to ask upon check-in to be placed in a room far from that ruckus. And one more tip: To get free wi-fi, sign up online for the Kimpton Karma Rewards program at no charge.
Michele was hosted by The Cardinal, but, as always, her opinions are her own.
Photos courtesy of The Cardinal and Michele Sponagle