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Into the Hills
David Hagedorn | Photo: Justin Kriel, Courtesy of Salamander Hotels and Resorts | October 28, 2013
Entrepreneur Sheila Johnson’s new Salamander Resort & Spa gallops into Middleburg.
About 40 minutes into the hourlong drive from downtown DC to the new Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Va., the cares of the city disappear as the strip-mall stretches of Route 50 morph into verdant hilly roads. The air changes, too, and becomes crisp and clean. This is a perfect decompression destination for the weary in need of pampering, whether you’re celebrating an anniversary, birthday or, in my case, a honeymoon.
Accomplished businesswoman Sheila Johnson fell in love with Middleburg and determined not only to make a home nearby in The Plains, but also to open a luxurious resort on 340 acres of prime, horse-country terra firma. It took her 10 years to do it—the project was put on ice during the economic downturn, and she still had to convince the locals of her positive intentions—but she created something truly memorable.
Though the front door is barely a half-mile from the town’s main street (you can easily walk there), the hotel is not visible from it. As you make your way up the winding driveway, you see the low spread of buildings. The magic of Johnson’s vision comes into focus: The resort’s design—a commingling of 19th century architectural tradition and contemporary flourishes—enables guests to see into the Commonwealth’s rich history while still playing a part in its ongoing development. The other trick is Salamander’s pedigree: The place seems like it’s been rooted here for a century. It’s a feat rarely pulled off in new resorts, save for gems like the Lodge at Torrey Pines and Bermuda’s Rosewood Tucker’s Point.
Common space—including a majestic, high-ceiling living room, wood-paneled library, billiard room and the Gold Cup wine bar—comprises the heart of the resort. Fireplaces abound, setting a tone of warmth and welcome. The great room is flanked by the luxe spa and wellness center on one side and the compound’s fine-dining restaurant, Harrimans, on the other. Harrimans also doubles as a state-of-the-art culinary studio for cooking classes and intimate meetings. A chic, understated ballroom made for fairy-tale weddings gives way to a dramatic stone terrace overlooking a manicured culinary garden, already a hot spot for private farm-to-table chef dinners. Beyond the garden is a pristine barn that houses the equestrian center’s 14,000-square-foot, 22-stall stable. Riders heading out to the trails pass through the resort’s expansive fields throughout the day.
The resort’s 168 rooms are divided into four floors, each with a seasonal theme. We stay on the fall floor, a bottle of bubbly and a snack of goat cheese-stuffed crepes await us in the sitting room of our commodious suite—one of 17 at Salamander, all of which have gas fireplaces.
Our suite houses a king-size bed, double closets, a chaise lounge and a 40-inch flat-screen television. The double-sink bathroom also has a screen, but we’re more drawn to the deep pedestal tub and marble shower with body jets—a perfect mini massage—before heading to cocktails on the Grand Lawn’s stone terrace. We head to Harrimans for dinner—we opt for shrimp and grits, plus steak—and watch the day fade on the countryside just outside the room’s windows.
The next morning, we take our room-service breakfast out to the suite’s balcony to enjoy the sunshine while reading the morning paper. After a jaunt into town for lunch, we hit the spa, starting off with a whirlpool and a steam. We then have a private Rasul treatment, where we spread exfoliant and detoxifying mud on each other before rinsing off with an invigorating shower. I’ve never had a more satisfying, cleansing spa treatment—and the 80-minute deep-tissue massage that follows is one of finest I’ve had. The resort’s heated infinity pool serves as the day’s anchor. We sit poolside, Champagne in hand, and take in the splendor Johnson has created. Waiting a decade for her masterpiece was certainly worth it. Packages from $370, 500 N. Pendleton St., Middleburg, Va., 540.687.3600, salamanderresort.com
With chef Todd Gray of Equinox fame as Salamander’s culinary director, it takes a phone call to bring DC’s top toques to the resort for its monthly visiting-chef series. On Sunday, guests enjoy a welcome reception and dinner; Monday’s lineup includes a cooking-class lunch in the resort’s interactive cooking studio and a four-course dinner followed by a fireside chat with the chef. This month, Top Chef’s Bryan Voltaggio headlines. Nov. 17-18, $895 per person, including two nights’ accommodations
As part of Salamander’s equestrian program, director Sheryl Jordan has put together an Equi-Spective Experience. The sessions (hourly or in four- or eight-hour increments) don’t require horseback-riding experience. The focus is creating trusting relationships with horses through groundwork and round-pen exercises, learning fundamentals of horse grooming and leading, and trainer-supervised riding, whether bareback or with a saddle.