Tucked away on 340 acres in Middleburg, Va. sits the latest addition to Sheila C. Johnson’s Salamander Hotels & Resorts portfolio (which includes Hammock Beach Resort, Innisbrook and Reunion Resort). It’s been a long time coming—Johnson first stepped foot on the grounds 10 years ago—but Salamander Resort & Spa is set to open its doors on Aug. 29. Surrounded by the beauty of Virginia’s Horse Country, you’d be hard pressed to find a better locale for a luxury resort with an equestrian flair. Throughout the 168-room hotel, there’s a definite equine flavor; but it’s the perfect balance between elegance and theme. And if anyone knows how to craft a classy horse retreat, it’s Sheila C. Johnson, who serves on the board of governors of Parsons The New School for Design in New York and even funded the college’s Sheila C. Johnson Design Center.
It began with her desire to create a destination spa in the Washington, D.C. region—something that the area has been lacking. Salamander Resort & Spa is a quick (and beautiful) hour drive from the nation’s capital, offering the opportunity to make it a day trip or experience the lavish accommodations by staying overnight. The Forbes Travel Guide Tastemaker envisioned her newest property as an iconic respite with a focus on two important parts of her life: her daughter Paige’s love of horses and wellness—with a hefty dose of luxury, of course.
As for the design of the resort, Johnson pulled inspiration from her own home just a few miles down the road. A walk around the resort will unveil striking similarities (for example, the spa courtyard looks a lot like Johnson’s own pool terrace). When you drive down the tree-lined driveway, it feels as if you’re arriving at an old Virginia manor—thanks to the oversized porte-cochère, slate walkways, brick façade, and the steeple on top. In fact, aside from the part that the building is no more than six years old, nothing about the resort shouts “brand new,” which is something Johnson strives for here. Step inside and rather than walking into a traditional lobby, you’ll enter a welcoming living room that appears to be generations old (another aspect that’s completely on purpose).
It’s hard to comprehend how much thought is put into a property such as Salamander Resort & Spa, but a closer look at various parts reveals a lot. For instance, in the living room, the wide-planked oak flooring was deliberately spaced to seem as if it had expanded and contracted over time, and there are quoins underneath the boards to allow for a bit of bounce that you’d find in worn wood floors. Two massive stone fireplaces stand guard on either side of the living room; so beautifully finished that you may be tricked into believing they were imported from an old French mansion—yes, those are new, too.
But not everything on property is brand new: A 150-year-old stallion barn has been converted into a private dining room that’s large enough for 24 guests, and all of the books in the resort’s library were purchased from the Middleburg Library, meaning that locals have been checking out these tomes for years. The small historic town was part of President John F. Kennedy’s Camelot, and Jackie O. would ride horses on the land where Salamander Resort & Spa now stands. While historic aspects are part of what makes the resort so interesting, it’s the way the culture and surrounding environment has been woven throughout that really makes it unique.
The four levels of guest rooms are broken down by seasonal theme with fall being on the top floor, offering the best views of the area’s vibrant foliage come October. Aside from the different color schemes, each floor is decorated with photographs taken by none other than Johnson herself of various horse scenes and landscapes corresponding to the season. Taking advantage of the beautiful environment, each of the 168 rooms boasts a furnished balcony (complete with a horse cutout in the ironwork), and 50 percent have working fireplaces.
The 17 suites are named after some of Johnson’s daughter’s favorite horses, while room categories are equestrian themed—think Dressage and Blue Ribbon. But for a real taste of luxury and a deeper look into Johnson’s life, book the 1,680-square-foot Owner’s Suite that’s outfitted with various antiques and collectables from her personal art and furniture collection.
The equine characteristics and exclusive touches continue into the inspiration for this luxury destination resort: wellness, in the form of a 23,000-square-foot spa that’s open to both hotel guests and the public. When you head into the locker room, you’ll walk through an octagonal space, reminiscent of a barn’s frame. The embrace of the surrounding areas is certainly present in the spa, as well; many of the treatment rooms have private terraces—yes, you can have your massage outside if the weather cooperates—and some even boast fireplaces. Spa guests can live the lavish life outdoors by the infinity-edge pool, which as we mentioned before is strikingly similar to Johnson’s personal pool terrace. The tranquil area is lined with cabanas beneath a wooden trellis; it’s sure to attract many leisure seekers.
While the horse motif is apparent throughout the resort, the most equestrian space is Harrimans, Salamander Resort & Spa’s signature restaurant. Named after the family who used to own the property, Ambassadors Averell and Pamela Harriman, the Virginia Piedmont-inspired eatery is modeled after the Harriman’s former barn—notice the octagonal shape of the dining room, the stable-like ironwork atop the banquettes and the tack room-esque private dining room that’s adorned with a handful of Johnson’s daughter’s equestrian trophies and other memorabilia. In addition to flaunting the most equine décor, Harrimans may just have the best view on-site: a 220-degree vista of the property, with the stable on one side and the 100,000-square-foot Grand Lawn on the other.
Cuisine will play a large part in the overall experience of a stay at Salamander Resort & Spa; not only is Harrimans regionally influenced, but chef Todd Gray (of Equinox in Washington, D.C.) plans to use plenty of ingredients from the culinary garden just outside of the restaurant. Next door to Harrimans sits the state-of-the-art cooking studio that will host classes—which by the way can be streamed to guest room televisions if you can’t get out of bed—and incorporate a visiting chef program. We have a good feeling this lineup will be pretty stellar, though nothing is set in stone yet.
Juxtaposing the newness of the cooking studio is the classic Gold Cup Wine Bar (a nod to the famous equestrian event), where visitors will be able to take advantage of the resort’s Virginia vintners program. Weekly sessions with partner wineries (think Barrel Oak Winery and RdV Vineyards) allow budding oenophiles to learn a thing or two about the up-and-coming Virginia Wine Country by chatting with the winemakers and sipping vino. The brick floor—5,500 pounds to be exact—is strategically chipped to look as if it has been there for years, and the bar has metal plates engraved with the partner wineries’ logos. Topping off the Virginia theme is the mural of Loudon County (where the resort is located) highlighting the various vineyards throughout the region that was painted by local artist Tom Neel.
It’s all about leisure at Salamander Resort & Spa. Guests can partake in all kinds of activities, both indoors and out. If a culinary class isn’t appealing, perhaps a game of billiards is—between the cooking studio and Gold Cup Wine Bar sits the billiards room, which looks as if it could be part of an old mansion (just like everything else on property). With so many surrounding acres, including 200 that have not been cleared, there’s an endless amount of fun to be had in the great outdoors. Venture down to the 22-stall horse barn—don’t worry if you didn’t bring your own stallion along, though you certainly can—and set out on a guided horseback ride through the miles and miles of trails. Active travelers can work up a sweat on the tennis courts, then cool off in the resort pool, while bocce ball offers a calmer form of entertainment.
Many things are still in the works, but that only gives us more to look forward to: A treetop canopy tour (we’re talking aerial walkways and viewing platforms) will be completed in the fall, adding yet another way to enjoy the beautiful environment. And the spa plans to take advantage of the trees in a similar, yet much more relaxing, way; Salamander Resort & Spa plans to debut its tree-house treatment rooms in spring 2014. So while much of what we’ve been waiting for will finally be presented on Aug. 29, the luxury resort continues to add more, giving its guests a best-in-show experience.
Photos Courtesy of Salamander Resort & Spa