Northern Virginia’s Salamander Resort & Spa opens with a focus on well-being, from country pursuits to cozy spa treatments and healthful cuisine.
In the historic horse country and foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, an hour outside of metropolitan Washington, D.C., the Salamander Resort & Spa’s 340 picturesque acres offer a modern approach to wellness that builds on the best traditions of European spa retreats. This past August, Salamander’s founder and CEO, Sheila Johnson, swung open the paddock gates.
The idea to build a blue-ribbon destination spa where people could get away to relax and embrace wellness came to Johnson, who resides in the nearby town of The Plains, the moment she first stepped foot on the land 10 years ago. While her initial idea was to create a small luxury spa with no more than 40 rooms attached—think the original Golden Door in Escondido, Calif., or the Mayflower Inn & Spa in Washington, Conn.—she expanded upon the idea, creating a stately and luxurious 168-room resort (including 17 plush suites) with a serious spa and a host of wellness activities, as well as a kitchen overseen by Washington’s Todd Gray, one of the modern forefathers of farm-to-fork cuisine. Johnson is also a vegan, so animal-product-free cuisine options are available, with plans for expansion. A longtime spa-goer, connoisseur of fine food and wine, and athletic enthusiast—Johnson has ownership in three professional sports teams—she put her heart and soul (and some muscle) into creating a unique experience that focuses on enhancing mind, body, and spirit. Starting this spring, that experience includes the rigorous science behind medical evaluation and treatments and a softer side that explores equine partnerships and pastimes.
For the past year, Salamander has been working diligently with Inova healthcare, the largest health system in Northern Virginia, on the Salamander 360 Program. At the core of it, says Prem Devadas, president of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, is a comprehensive physical. “The idea is to thoroughly evaluate someone and then be able to address those things that relate not just to the person’s physical wellness, but also to the mind.” The program includes a medical staff, not only for assessment, but also for education, and a team of fitness and nutrition coaches to help guests meet their diet and exercise challenges. Guests may choose from a two-, four-, or seven-day wellness program. The resort intends to include a team that will be led by a top dermatological surgeon who will offer expert advice for guests. The approach is one of inner and outer beauty that hearkens back to the grand dame spas of Europe.
The Salamander calls to mind classic European spa haunts such as Brenner’s Park-Hotel & Spa in Baden-Baden and Evian Resort in Evian-les-Bains. Despite the temporal and geographic disparity between a nascent Virginia countryside retreat and these centuries-old establishments located in spa towns beside renowned healing waters, the comparison is a fair one, for what Johnson has created is a New World version of some of Europe’s best spa towns. What makes this possible is Salamander’s prime location: a stately country manor outside a charming village, a world-class spa, an equestrian center, fine dining, and some surprisingly good local wines—but most importantly—it possesses a vital relationship to nature.
Salamander’s walking experience is particularly appealing. Guests can stroll out the back door directly into the woods and miles of trails. Just steps from the main building is the beautiful culinary garden . . . and a few more steps after that are the state-of-the-art equestrian center and stables. Historic Middleburg’s charming main street is a mere seven-minute walk. Everything here is a short stroll away—and nature is front and center.
One of the unique outdoor pleasures on offer is the Equi-Spective Experience created by Equestrian Director Sheryl Jordan. More personal journey and leadership training than riding lesson, the program can last between two hours and a full day. Riders learn to read body language and be present in the moment during interactions with horses, which is a stepping-stone to developing leadership skills and learning one’s own strengths and weaknesses. Guests are asked to choose a horse with which to work, and even that choice can be surprisingly revealing. From balancing the assertiveness necessary to direct a horse with the relaxation that engenders trust, the program can teach valuable lessons about the responsibility of leadership and one’s own instincts.
Riding lessons tailored to ability are offered, as well as evaluations of riding technique and massage (for both human and equine guests) to help ease some of the sore spots that evolve from sitting a saddle. The stables are in themselves a stunning setting for occasional whimsical dinners and regular yoga classes. The truly well-balanced and daring can also try yoga atop a horse. The resort has 12 horses of its own, but reserves a wing in the stable for equine guests. The equestrian program runs year round and includes sleigh rides, snowfall permitting. Equestrian activities are not limited to the resort—guests can don statement hats and attend the fall and spring Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase races (the spring event transpires on the same day as the Kentucky Derby, May 3, 2014) or witness weekend twilight polo matches with a guide and civilized tailgating at the nearby Great Meadow. And do not be too surprised to see a pack of hounds trailed by galloping horses during the fox hunts that ride through town—and across the property—several times each week.
Five miles of walking, horseback riding, and biking trails snake through the resort, and Trek mountain bikes are available for rent. Guests can golf at one of several nearby courses, including gaining privileges at the private, Jack Nicklaus–designed Creighton Farms. In addition, tennis enthusiasts can reserve time on two hard-court tennis courts. Those traveling with children will appreciate the outdoor family pool area with its water feature that is a short walk beyond the spa’s infinity pool. The family pool area is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Expect more outdoor pursuits—from an ice skating rink to zip lines through the tree canopy—to open during the next year or so.
And speaking of trees, this spring a treetop treatment room will open to complement the 14 deluxe treatment rooms in the 23,000-square-foot spa. Most rooms have either a gas fireplace or a private outdoor treatment terrace. In the secluded Spa Courtyard, relax in a chair by the raised fire pit or enjoy a cabana beside the heated infinity-edge pool and whirlpool, which are open year-round. The spa, run by the very able Penny Kriel, formerly of Mandarin Oriental, is experimenting with farm-to-table seasonal services and treatments tailored for riders and golfers. The Rider’s Relief (available in 50- or 80-minute sessions) focuses on releasing muscle tension and mobilizing the joints. Golfers will appreciate the Quirogolf massage, a therapeutic treatment that helps align the body and uses golf balls as an extension of the therapist’s hands to go deeper into joints and muscles.
Spa facilities include a whirlpool, a steam room, and some fun, experiential showers with touchscreens that allow users to choose pressure and temperature, as well as tiled, radiant heat loungers. The expansive fitness center contains an indoor pool, a spacious sauna, state-of-the-art equipment, and a movement studio. Personal training is also available.
The smartest thing Johnson did was to leave well enough alone and let nature speak for itself: 200 of the resort’s acres have been placed into a conservation easement. Salamander Resort & Spa combines the best of town—from fine dining to sophisticated health and wellness treatments—with the woods and whinnies of the country.
Rates start at $275 per night in low season and $425 in high season. Half-day and full-day spa packages are currently available, from $350 (half day) to $615 (full day). www.salamanderresort.com
established in 1787 by Revolutionary War lieutenant colonel and Virginia statesman Leven Powell—is such a brief walk from the Salamander Resort & Spa that it is almost a part of it. The main street’s four or five blocks are lined with iconic steepled churches and the historic stone buildings of boutiques and inns. Another of Sheila Johnson’s ventures, Market Salamander (www.marketsalamander.com), has become a popular breakfast and lunch spot, where gourmet goodies can also be packed for picnics. The Fun Shop, owned by the mayor’s family, sells everything you never thought you needed but do (www.thefunshop.com). Pet lovers—the resort is dog- and horse-friendly—might pop into Wylie Wagg (www.wyliewagg.com). The French Hound (www.thefrenchhound.com) is one of the top restaurants in the area, known for its wine list and traditional French bistro cuisine such as boeuf bourgingon, steak frites, and homard, a truffled lobster pot pie, as well as its apple and ricotta beignets. At the resort end of town, visitors do not want to miss the National Sporting Library and Museum (www.nsl.org), which houses a collection of more than 24,000 volumes of books dating from the16th century to present day on the art and culture of equestrian, angling, and field sports as well as exhibits of American and European animal and sporting fine art. Tally-ho!