Long Weekend: Virginia’s Horse (and Wine) Country

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Horse heaven: Virginia’s Salamander Resort & Spa.

(Not Just) Horsing Around

Relaxation gets taken seriously in Loudoun County, Virginia.

Picnic picks: Fresh bread and Greenhill Winery & Vineyards’ chardonnay.
Creature comforts at Salamander.

By Susan Hanson
East Coasters are serious when it comes to work – and play. For the latter, many head to the rolling hills of nearby Loudoun County, aka Virginia horse country.

“The Virginia countryside is an ideal destination for humans and horses alike,” says Virtuoso travel advisor Caroline Wallace of Richmond. “Accessible from Washington, D.C., and yet a world away from city congestion, it offers peace and tranquility in a beautiful setting.” Indeed, this is where the Kennedys often sought solace during their Camelot days – Jackie’s graceful elegance epitomized the relaxed, unpretentious Piedmont style.

For horsey-set travelers in need of some R&R, Wallace recommends a long weekend getaway that includes a stay at Middleburg’s Salamander Resort & Spa, with its on-site stables, trail rides, and equine-centric programs that range from polo to yoga on horseback. Those who prefer saddle-less pursuits can explore Loudoun’s many historic sites, gourmet restaurants, and award-winning wineries (the county is known as “D.C.’s Wine Country”). Wallace emphasizes, though, that “really, you could be perfectly happy never stepping foot off the Salamander property.” Here, an itinerary for three days of respite in northern Virginia.

On the drive to Middleburg from Dulles Airport (approximately 45 minutes), stop by the nineteenth-century Aldie Mill, Virginia’s only twin-waterwheel-powered grist mill. It’s just one of thousands of historic sites that are found along the Journey Through Hallowed Ground route between Gettysburg and Monticello.

The grounds of Salamander Resort & Spa were certainly revered by Sheila Johnson, the resort’s founder and CEO. A founding partner of the BET network, Johnson envisioned an environment where guests could reconnect with nature, themselves, and each other. Set in the foothills of the Blue Ridge and Bull Run mountains, the 168-room resort accomplishes her mission with a 22-stall stable and a 23,000-square-foot wellness spa. At the latter, relax in a stone tepidarium chair before a Crushed Cabernet body treatment that leaves the skin toned and baby soft.

Nearly two-thirds of the resort’s 340 acres are in conservancy, and some 50 bird species have been identified amid its oak and sycamore trees. Grab your binoculars and a birdwatching list (the concierge can provide the latter), or take one of the resort’s fleet of allterrain Trek bikes out on the well-marked trails.

El Bulli-trained chef Chris Edwards uses fresh herbs and produce from Salamander’s organic garden in his farm-to-table fare, which has earned accolades for Harrimans grill (saddle-shaped purse stools are a perk for bag-toting guests). Try the crispy sesame cauliflower, followed by the Wagyu rib eye, remembering to save room for dessert from pastry master and

Food Network’s LEGO Cakes Challenge winner Jason Reaves. End the evening with a cedar-smoked old-fashioned in the Sundlun Library, or a bourbon flight and billiards in the paneled Gold Cup Bar.

A regular stopover for weary stagecoach travelers halfway between Alexandria and Winchester (hence its name), Middleburg is steeped in national lore. The village is an easy ten-minute walk along the resort’s London plane tree-lined drive, just enough to build up an appetite for cinnamon-vanilla French toast at Market Salamander (200 W. Washington Street). Across the street stands the National Sporting Library & Museum (102 The Plains Road), testament to the region’s importance in the worlds of equestrian, angling, and field sports. For shopping, Wallace loves The Outpost (6 S. Madison Street): “It’s a great place to find nice gifts, exquisite home items, furniture, pretty books, and the like,” she says.

“Many people don’t know that Virginia is wine country – another one of Thomas Jefferson’s contributions to the area,” Wallace adds. Middleburg’s soil and climate produce vintages that rival those from Europe and California, and there are more than 50 wineries within an hour’s drive of the resort. Notable stops include Greenhill Winery & Vineyards (23595 Winery Lane), where winemaker and Burgundy native Sébastien Marquet’s refined approach recently earned its 2014 chardonnay a Double Gold in San Francisco, and RdV Vineyards (2550 Delaplane Grade Road, Delaplane), for its Bordeauxstyle blends.

Two well-loved pursuits that define Piedmont culture: picnicking and twilight polo. Both are nicely accomplished at Great Meadow (5089 Old Tavern Road, The Plains), where the Virginia Gold Cup Association hosts its annual spring Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase classics, along with fall’s International Gold Cup (the 2016 running takes place on October 22). On Saturday evenings from May through September, pick up a blanket and a gourmet picnic basket from the resort’s kitchen and watch the mallets swing on the grass-carpeted hills. Alternatively, dinner is on hand at the historic Red Fox Inn and Tavern (2 E. Washington Street), established in 1728 with Revolutionary War roots. Ask to see its handwritten letter from Jackie Kennedy before sitting down to Virginia peanut soup and signature crabcakes.
“Farther afield in The Plains [approximately eight miles from the resort], you’ll find Front Porch Market & Grill, and, in the town of Paris, one of actor Robert Duvall’s favorites, The Ashby Inn & Restaurant, which serves a wonderful brunch.”
– Virtuoso travel advisor Caroline Wallace
Photographer Howard Allen became friends with Jackie Kennedy during the First Family’s trips to Middleburg. Copies of his book, Unforgotten Times: Jackie Kennedy’s Happy Days in the Virginia Hunt Country, are available at the aptly named Fun Shop (117 W. Washington Street).

Salamander’s equestrian director, Sheryl Jordan, started its EquiSpective program to help people become more selfaware, gain insight into their communication style, and learn respect-based (as opposed to fear-based) leadership skills. “Horses are highly sophisticated at reading every nuance in their environment,” she says. Participants discover how to listen to their own instincts and be mindful in the moment as they communicate with the horses through their energy and intention. Equally therapeutic is a morning trail ride through the countryside while its mountaintops are still shrouded in mist. Later, sit down to a farewell shrimp-and-grits breakfast at Harrimans grill; its Sunday brunch is one of the best in the D.C. area.
“Loudoun is also considered hound country, and the Salamander is very dog-friendly, with special in-room amenities. The ground floor is considered the doggie floor, for easy access to outside.”
– Caroline Wallace

Your long weekend in Virginia’s horse (and wine) country.
While northern Virginia is a year-round destination, it’s at its most magical during spring (late March through April), when bluebells and wildflowers are in bloom, and fall (October through early November), for wine-harvest events and peak foliage.
Designed to replicate an old Virginia manor, equine-influenced Salamander Resort & Spa is filled with art pieces from CEO Sheila Johnson’s personal collection (including a tapestry that belonged to Napoleon). Check out the cooking studio that opens directly into the resort’s kitchens, the spa’s experiential showers, and the giant chess set on the great lawn. Adventurous pursuits include zip-lining through the tree canopy, sunrise yoga on horseback, and holding a raptor during a falconry demonstration.
Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily and a $100 resort credit.

Originally appeared in the October/November 2016 issue of Virtuoso Traveler.
Photo Credits: (Resort & Paddock, Stable) Justin Kriel