Recently I spent a weekend getting away from it all. My goal was simple, to go on a digital detox and not be online for an entire weekend. While this may not seem like much to most people, for someone who lives online as I do, it was a challenge. As soon as I arrived at the Salamander Resort though I knew I had made the right decision for my weekend getaway. Tucked away in the rolling farmlands of Virginia amongst the horse farms and wineries, it feels like a world away, even though it’s a short and very easy drive from the Washington, DC metro area. The Salamander Resort & Spa is one of the newer luxury properties in Virginia, but it’s already one of the state’s most well known and I had long wanted to visit and see what makes it so special. While I was only there for a short, if not relaxing, weekend, I quickly understood why everyone loves this resort so very much.
Where and What is Salamander?
Middleburg, Virginia is a small town that has had an unusually profound impact on our nation’s history, thanks in large part to its proximity to the capital. Just 20-minutes from Dulles International Airport and 40-minutes from DC itself, the town is close by, but driving in it felt as if I were closer to my own hometown far away in the Blue Ridge Mountains. While the civil war touched this community, it wasn’t until the 20th century when the well to do began to notice the town. Fox hunting and equestrian activities drew visitors from around the world, earning it the nickname as the “Nation’s Horse and Hunt Capital.” Over the years Middleburg has attracted the attention of many notable personalities from John. F. Kennedy to Elizabeth Taylor and even former First Lady Laura Bush. There’s something special about the community, as I discovered while spending an afternoon exploring the compact but lovingly maintained 19th-century downtown. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the businesses include shops and restaurants and even the oldest continually operated inn in the country. But it was a different sort of inn that had attracted me to the town, a large 340-acre property known simply as the Salamander Resort.
It’s an odd name, taken from the code name for a WWII hero, but it’s also a nod to the mythical creature the salamander that can walk through fire. That’s exactly what the resort’s founder and visionary Sheila Johnson has had to do many times in her own life, all to amazing success.
As one of the co-founders of BET, Johnson has long been an important fixture in Washington, DC, also serving as owner or partner in three DC sports franchises. Salamander wasn’t her first foray into hospitality; Johnson also owns several other impressive properties, including the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in Florida. Maybe it’s her impressive background and experience that ultimately convinced Middleburg to allow the construction of what has become one of the region’s most impressive getaway destinations.
Any great luxury getaway, and especially a destination resort, is necessarily all about the experiences we enjoy while there. It’s important what the hotel offers to help guests detach and enjoy themselves, and luckily for me I was spoiled for choice at Salamander. Given the region and city’s fame for all things equestrian, Salamander has a robust program for anyone with an interest in horses. Spanning all ability levels, there are plenty of ways horse-lovers can get out and enjoy being with these beautiful animals. Salamander has a large Equestrian Center with 22 stalls and plenty of trails and unique programming for guests and visitors. While I like looking at horses, I’m not a big fan of riding them and so I looked to the resort’s other activities, of which there are many. One thing though that caught my eye in particular was something I hadn’t seen before at a hotel – the Cooking Studio.
Adjacent to the main kitchens, this isn’t merely a demonstration kitchen. It’s a uniquely designed workspace where guests attend any number of classes and lessons. I was in luck though, the Saturday of my visit was a planned class on desserts and ice creams, led by the resort’s impressive Executive Pastry Chef, Jason Reaves. Under his expert guidance, the class spent a few hours learning how to make ice creams, sorbets, cookies and more all on our own. Donning aprons and armed with recipes, Chef Reaves guided us through the process, but individually we all did our own work. In all honesty, this was one of the most fun experiences I’ve had at any hotel or resort anywhere. There’s nothing like learning how to cook something delicious from a professional, and being able to walk through the professional kitchens and watch the chef work his own magic was amazing. Naturally, the sweet reward at the end was a delicious selection of ice creams and other tasty treats, the perfect end to the experience. If desserts aren’t your thing (which is a little odd) there are any number of different classes and demonstrations offered, but whatever your interest, make sure to enjoy at least one activity at the Cooking Studio.
For something a little more active, I took to the trees. Set in the beautiful forests surrounding the property is a zip line course, a tree top experience that is just as fun as it sounds. For more than two hours we zipped from tree to tree with our instructors, walked along rope bridges and just enjoyed being outside on a nice Virginia summer’s day. I love balancing active pursuits with, well, less active, and the zip line was an exciting way to cap off an amazing weekend.
Salamander though is ultimately a luxury resort, and the amenities and design are both equally important at this expansive estate. Designed to look like a country manor, that’s exactly the feeling you get walking in through the front doors, the large common room full of comfy couches and chairs, a distinguished but relaxing place to enjoy some time. All of the public areas follow that same ethos, a relaxed country estate not lacking in luxury, but inviting at the same time. It’s hard to pull off those two concepts, but Salamander Resort seems to excel at it. It’s a feeling that is thankfully carried through to the rooms themselves.
The “standard” guest room is anything but standard, large spaces with spacious sitting areas, dining tables and more than half even have a beautiful gas fireplace. Walking in I thought I had been upgraded but, no, this is just what every guest to the resort enjoys. The rooms also feature a large 40-inch flat panel TV and a smaller 19-inch version in the bath. Speaking of the bath, I was immediately in my happy place as I walked in.
Marble shower with multiple jets, a pedestal tub and amenities to make even the most critical guest smile. Another standard feature I loved is the private balcony, each one with table and chairs perfect to enjoy those expansive countryside views. It’s a place to get away from all of your concerns, a safe haven and was a room I didn’t want to soon leave.
The Cooking Studio should have been a dead giveaway, but food is a very important part of the experience at Salamander Resort and to experience the best of what they have to offer, there was no better dinner choice than their Harrimans Grill. Harrimans bills itself as a Piedmont grill, taking the best of the local Piedmont region and incorporating it into everything they do. While there are a variety of options for all tastes, asking around I found out that they’re particularly well known for their steaks, which luckily happens to me my favorite meal.
Ordering a filet with a host of sides, we enjoyed one the best steak dinners we’ve enjoyed in a long time, followed by S’Mores next to the fire pit just outside. It was the perfect foodie evening but it’s just one of the many dining options found onsite. From casual to more formal, there’s a lot of choice here and thanks to those excellent chefs, all of it is delicious.
The DC region does not suffer from a lack of great luxury hotels and resorts. Both the District and Virginia have many from which to choose, each different and each special to be honest. Salamander Resort appealed to me so much for a few reasons, not the least of which is how close it is to the city. A very easy drive from Washington, its position in rural Virginia really does make it feel like a world away. Add in more activities than you could ever possibly do in one stay, great food and some of the best service I’ve enjoyed in a long time and you really do have a resort that quickly surpasses all expectations. This is a fun but elegant getaway and a destination I can’t wait to revisit and continue exploring.