Salamander Resort & Spa
In Middleburg, Virginia
Story by Kathleen Mansfield, Photography by Salamander Resort & Spa
It’s a relaxing drive into the heart of Virginia horse and wine country. The drone of planes from the airport fades as my view transforms from city roads and steel to living storybook illustrations of whimsical cottages and dry stone wall fences. I can tell we’re close by how green and bright everything is – droughts are clearly not welcome here in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Horses, cows, and wild deer graze on the countryside, and I begin to count numerous vineyards planted on steeper slopes. The historic village of Middleburg is only 40 minutes from Washington Dulles International Airport, but it might as well be in Wonderland. It certainly feels as though I’ve stumbled into someplace magical.
Known as the Nation’s Horse and Hunt Capital, Middleburg has a rich history dating back to 1787. More than 160 buildings in town are on the National Register of Historic Places, many still in use as charming shops and art galleries, local businesses and private residences.
The weather and terrain in this part of Virginia, specifically Loudoun County, are ideal for horses and grapes, which explains the nickname. More than 40 world-class wineries exist here, along with dozens of horse estates. My destination is home to one such equestrian center: Middleburg’s exquisite Salamander Resort & Spa.
“THIS IS WHERE LUXURY & LEISURE COEXIST.”
We pull onto the resort property, and I’m already impressed. 25 acres of equestrian property lay to the right of the drive, along with a culinary garden and ample green lawn; to the left, fields of wildflowers, a putting course and a pool. And straight ahead, the inviting main entrance of a masterpiece. The resort’s brochure says it best: “this is where luxury and leisure coexist.”
Salamander is an equine-centric property designed by Salamander Hotels & Resorts CEO Sheila C. Johnson with inspiration from her own home in Middleburg and with influence from her daughter’s love of everything horses. Featuring large details like original equestrian artwork from around the world and small details like numbered riding helmet plaques designating each of the 168 guest rooms, the hotel is tastefully and elegantly decorated without overstating.
Each floor of the hotel highlights a different season of Virginia’s Piedmont. I’m on the top floor, conveniently the best view of autumn foliage and thus themed in fall colors artfully blended with the signature Salamander blues and tans seen throughout the hotel. Mrs. Johnson herself took many of the photos on the walls and thoughtfully designed bridle bit bedding and throws for comfort. The décor throughout the hotel is cozy and elegant, designed to look lovingly aged when in fact the resort was built in 2013.
From a room patio or balcony, as well as from the restaurant terrace, resort guests have impressive views of some of the natural wildflowers and forest on the property. 270 of Salamander’s 340 acres are preserved and untouched. Some of this land can be seen along the wildlife trails, which resort guests and day visitors can explore on foot, bicycle or horseback. There is also a zip line canopy tour of the forest, part of Empower Adventures.
Empower Adventures offers outdoor experiences that excite, challenge, and engage participants while promoting communication, team building and leadership skills. The programs are ideal for corporate groups as well as personal relationships. It’s just part of Salamander Resort’s goal to not just relax, but to also step outside one’s comfort zone toward self-improvement. My zip lining experience, just after an afternoon storm, is invigorating and educational – the instructors teach my group not just about zip lining and taking that daunting step from solid footing into empty air, but also about the forest, terrain, and animals surrounding the course.
Self-improvement continues at the Spa at Salamander, an amenity that rejuvenates with its atmosphere as much as its services. The preparation area, styled like an upscale barn, leads into a spacious and modern blue-tiled room with a heated pool, wet and dry saunas, an “experience shower” and heated lounge chairs. 14 private treatment rooms and one couple’s suite are available for spa treatments, some even offering outdoor massages in appropriate weather. Were it not July, I would not hesitate to enjoy a massage in the Northern Virginia sunshine.
Outside, an infinity pool lined with cabanas offers fascinating views of the wildflowers beside the hotel, and poolside service provides lunch and signature cocktails. A state-of-the-art fitness center has indoor and outdoor equipment options. Back inside, a full service salon provides hair, nail and makeup stations for guests. The Salamander Spa is perfectly primed to revitalize guests during their stay at the Resort, and many take advantage.
All of Salamander Resort & Spa’s programs are designed for self-improvement, whether through relaxation, rejuvenation or enrichment. The equestrian center is able to do all three, offering services such as trail rides, riding lessons and horsemanship. A spectacular 22-stall barn has plenty of room for Salamander’s horses and overnight equine guests, as well as coveted equestrian amenities like tack rooms, laundry rooms, and an office space. Stalls are a spacious 12×12 feet and include ceiling fans, a luxury for a horse. An outdoor arena with Thor Turf footing is the perfect spot to train. One of Salamander’s most fascinating programs, available to guests and outside visitors, is the equestrian center’s “Equispective.”
This eye-opening experience is one-of-a-kind not just for Salamander but for all resorts. The program was developed by Equestrian Director Sheryl Jordan with a focus on self-awareness and leadership development.
Jordan is a long-time veteran of the horse business and created Equispective to be a source of personal discovery, an experience in which participants learn about their communication and leadership styles through their interactions with horses. “People learn a lot about themselves from horses,” she said, “that they can apply in their life, whether it be personal, social, or professional.”
The Equispective program teaches participants to listen and respond, rather than react. “Horses are highly sophisticated animals and notice every nuance in the environment. This makes them excellent at educating people.”
“The cool thing about horses,” Jordan said, “is that they teach you to be very clear with your intention, your energy, and your action.” These are the main components of her program and are skills that horses excel at naturally. The idea is that they use their energy to set boundaries and communicate nonverbally, which is seen in herd hierarchies.
“The lead mare in a herd uses pressure from the back of the herd to move the herd forward. She gives them the freedom to choose where they go – shade, water, better grazing – but encourages them to make contributions and decisions. This style of respect and support-based leadership, rather than fear-based, translates to better leadership.” Imagined in a social or business setting, it is clear why this way of thinking is so important, especially for those in leadership positions.
Equispective makes people more sensitive to how they are truly communicating, and provides tools toward self-awareness and self-confidence – which are the backbone to honest and clear communication. Self-confidence, Jordan said, is vital.
I personally notice this as I watch another class participant, Laura, interact with Patrick the Quarter Horse inside a round pen. New to horses, Laura is apprehensive about the concept of using “energy” to move a horse without voice, movement or equipment. It shows in her introverted posture and her hesitant step, and her first attempt at asking the horse to follow her is unsuccessful. But then Jordan reminds her to be confident in her ability. As soon as she changes her stance, I see Laura physically change – she is straighter and walking with purpose. This increased energy and confidence is noticed by Patrick, and he swivels his ears toward her and follows. Laura’s eyes light up and the energy in the round pen brightens.
It is easy for me to visualize how Jordan’s Equispective program would be successful, but seeing it firsthand is another experience entirely. Salamander Resort & Spa is the only resort that offers such a program, and sets itself apart in the resort community not just with Equispective but with its team of equestrian professionals like Jordan who makes Equestrian such a fun and educational experience.
TASTES OF SALAMANDER
Salamander is aptly suited as an event venue with elegant ballrooms, meeting rooms, and convertible community spaces like its terrace, open hallways, restaurants and lawn space. The barn at the equestrian center is also used for special events such as weddings or the annual Twilight Tastings event, where local wineries, breweries, and distilleries fill the stalls and offer samples of their locally made crafts to the residents and guests of Middleburg.
The wineries of Loudoun County are numerous, though each is unique in its design and product focus. RdV Vineyards, for example, concentrates its efforts on two flagship red wines and produces other styles in a limited capacity for friends and family or for onsite consumption only. Open to visitors by appointment, RdV has quickly established itself on the same level as the esteemed wineries of Bordeaux, France. The winery has helped put this part of Virginia on the map along with dozens of others.
Harrimans Virginia Piedmont Grill, Market Salamander and Gold Cup Wine Bar, three of Salamander’s excellent dining options, take advantage of their location in the heart of horse and wine country and pour local wines like RdV as well as craft beers and distilled spirits. They also make great use of the resort’s culinary garden and bee hives; many vegetables, berries, herbs and honey used in menu dishes, including for Harrimans Cooking Studio, are grown on resort property. The culinary garden is peaceful, just steps from Harrimans, and before dinner I enjoy a stroll through its rows of blossoming wildflowers and squash and listen to the bees hard at work.
As my Middleburg weekend ends, I order a glass of RdV’s Friends and Family red blend from Gold Cup, sink into an Adirondack chair on the terrace, and listen to the Sounds of Salamander, a weekly Sunday treat of live music, as the sun sets on the trees overlooking the terrace lawn. I can’t wait to return to this hidden gem of a resort and town. Maybe in the fall – I hear the leaves are beautiful from the height of a zip line.