First Lady and style icon Jacqueline Kennedy found refuge horseback riding in Middleburg, VA, 50 years ago, and in the very place where she once rode, a stylish new retreat has arisen. This weekend, Salamander Resort & Spa opened its doors as the only new luxury destination and spa to open in the US in 2013.
Just an hour from the White House, beyond Beltway gridlock, and where northern Virginia’s Route 50 undulates past old Civil War markers and new wineries, Salamander Resort aims to make its mark as an escape for politics-weary Washingtonians and a destination for discerning luxury travelers.
Salamander is well on its way, with a bucolic location at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, grand country estate design, top-notch gastronomy and state-of-the art spa facilities. The 168-room resort is all the brainchild of Washington-area entrepreneur, Sheila C. Johnson, who co-founded Black Entertainment Television and executive produced the movie The Butler.
As it turns out, it’s nice to be inside Sheila Johnson’s brain, which appears to be filled with pastoral greens, creams and pale blues as displayed in the “Living Room,” an airy, elegant lounge space overlooking a 100,000-square-foot lush, sloping lawn. Johnson’s personal style and even her personal items have made it into every aspect of the resort, from bronze statues of a proud equestrian and her own children in the Living Room, which happens to be modeled after her own living room to her nature photography lining seasonally-themed hallways and guestroom walls. Nearly 20 percent of the art throughout the resort is from her personal collection, including a 14-foot tapestry once owned by Napoleon.
Her passion for horses and equine pursuits are equally apparent at Salamander with a full-service equestrian center and horse trails, suites named for her daughter’s favorite horses, right down to stirrup-embroidered bed linens. These little details are almost as striking as the property itself.
Here are a few other things that struck this traveler during Salamander’s opening weekend:
It sounds cliché but this really is the perfect place to curl up with a good book, and there are plenty for you to borrow — from aspirational biographies to gripping mysteries. The dark, supple leather chairs feel like a warm hug. I almost wished for cold weather to see this room with its fireplace blazing. There are also dark library-appropriate games like chess and backgammon.
Harriman’s Virginia Piedmont Grill
When I ordered the BBQ’d Shrimp and Grits for brunch, the waiter smiled and said “good choice.” I always pay attention to server comments and selections, so I got my taste buds ready. They weren’t disappointed when the savory and mildly sweet shrimp, atop a creamy bed of grits, reached my mouth. Johnson has gotten Todd Gray, one of the best chefs in the DC area to lead the culinary charge at Salamander, and I’d say that was a good choice. The 3-course brunch with all-you-can-drink bacon-decorated Bloody Mary’s and mimosas with fresh-squeezed orange juice is a palate pleaser.
If there is a crown jewel at the Salamander Resort & Spa, it is the spa, which turns out to be Johnson’s favorite space at the resort, according to the its director of public relations, Matt Owen. A world-class destination spa has been at the center of Johnson’s vision for Salamander since 2002 and she delivered, with just one feature, actually 2: the heated stone Tepidarium chairs that cradle and deliver warmth along every inch of the spine. My sister and I made a circuit between the chairs, the gurgling vitality pool and an aromatic steam room with a eucalyptus steam that won’t quit. We ended with a citrus drench wrap made from honey, orange juice and Shea butter, feeling completely rejuvenated.
The Salamander Resort & Spa joins Johnson’s other highly-rated luxury properties, Innisbrook, Reunion and Hammock Beach resorts in Florida, and aims for the same 5-star ratings. But even with all the high-end pampering and luxe appointments, Salamander feels surprisingly homey and inclusive. It’s kid-friendly, with a collection of books and DVDs for kids in the library, and pet-friendly with water bowls strategically placed around the property for the traveling pooch.
The fall may bring even more amenities, like ziplines and a tree-top canopy tour of the 200 wooded acres on the property, along with what I’d come back for: treetop spa treatment rooms.