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Salamander Resort and Spa is set on 340 acres in Virginia horse country. Photocourtesy of Salamander
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Drinks and meals are served in the Salamander's Billiard Room. Photo by JustinKriel/courtesy Salamander
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Créme de la Créme table and linen store Photo by SusanWiniecki
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The property includes a 25-acre equestrian facility with nine paddocks and a22-stall stable. Photo courtesy of Salamander
A farm wedding in Fauquier County's Markham community lured my friend Melanie and me to Virginia horse and wine country in September. Though Saturday afternoon was drizzly for the wedding, we hit clear weather on the drive from Richmond and blue skies heading home through The Plains on Sunday. One of the highlights of the weekend was staying at the recently opened Salamander Resort and Spa, the brainchild of BET founder Sheila Johnson, in historic Middleburg. After no more than 10 minutes on the property, we were admiring a large painting of the Middleburg Christmas parade by Richmond artist Andras Bality, which was gracing one of the long hallways, and learning that Todd Gray, the resort's culinary director (and co-owner of D.C.'s Equinox restaurant, among others), would be visiting Richmond in October. From the magnificent estates and visually stunning shops in Middleburg to the coziness of The Rail Stop Restaurant and galleries in The Plains, this weekend getaway had me humming the Green Acres theme song as I wended my way back to Interstate 95 and thinking that Eva Gabor would approve of time well spent.
The Salamander ( salamanderresort.com ), which opened on Aug. 29, sits on 340 acres within walking distance of shop-packed Washington Street in Middleburg (actually, there is a trail that leads you right into town). The resort, in part, is fashioned after Johnson's own home — an open, welcoming living room with soaring windows greets guests. To the left of it is a handsome library for game playing and intimate conversation, and to the right is the resort's casual restaurant, the Gold Cup Wine Bar. Original equestrian artwork lines the entrance hallways, and touches such as stirrup-patterned bed blankets and oversized iron lighting fixtures with interlocking horseshoes add panache. Rates at the luxury resort start at $275 for midweek specials that are offered through the website. During peak times, room rates start at $425. Another option in the center of town is the historic Red Fox Inn ( redfox.com ), built in 1728.
My favorite shop in the heart of downtown Middleburg was Crème de la Crème, a table and linens store founded in 2000 by the couple who also own the Lou Lou boutiques in Middleburg and throughout Northern Virginia. Bright, patterned tablecloths in the windows lured you in, and the astounding array of imported European ceramics and tableware made me want to throw a dinner that very night. The letterpress card selection, tucked in an alcove behind the cash registers, was outstanding, too. Close seconds were the Ayrshire Farm's Home Farm Store for takeout items, and women's clothing shop Betsey, especially for its special events with guests such as Project Runway alum Wendy Pepper, who still lives in Middleburg. In The Plains, be sure to stop in at An Artful Life Gallery, representing 30 U.S. artists and artisans.
Getting a table before noon at the Gold Cup Wine Bar at the Salamander was the key to a quick lunch before Saturday tours and events got into high gear at the resort.
Small-plate pairings with many Virginia wines are the draw, but a beautiful Cobb salad along with a toasted Virginia ham and cheddar on ciabatta were the fuel I needed for exploring Middleburg. An early Sunday breakfast in the resort's main dining room, Harrimans (named after former property owners Averell and Pamela Harriman), was low-key as well. Don't miss Sheila Johnson's "Favorite Vegan Bittersweet Chocolate Croissants" or the honey-pecan granola-encrusted whole wheat French toast. Also, be sure to take a walk through the property's culinary garden and peek inside the culinary studio, where classes are offered Wednesday through Saturday. Sunday lunch became brunch at chef Tom Kee's The Rail Stop Restaurant in The Plains. Blueberry-cornmeal pancakes with blueberry compote had me at "cornmeal."
The Salamander's Equestrian Center, whether you ride or not, is an ethereal, light-filled building in which you can just admire the horses or opt to mount one for one of the four ticketed trail rides that are offered daily on grounds where Jacqueline Kennedy used to go riding as first lady. The Salamander's spa is a study in beauty, with an impressive stone-clad and fountain-filled entrance and a row of plush white chaises awaiting your massaged body. From Oct. 30 to Nov. 2, the Second Annual Middleburg Film Festival will bring directors, conductors, stars and premieres to town again. Last year, the film The Butler was screened during the festival. (It helps that Johnson was a producer of the film.) On your way out of town, visit Chrysalis Vineyards, where the grape developed in the early 19th century by Richmond's own Dr. Daniel Norton is grown.