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Photo courtesy of Shangrila Guest Ranch
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Photo by Terrie Lantor
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Photo by Dianna Allen Portrait Design
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Photo by Molasses Grill
"I’m heading to Shangri-La,” I gleefully tell co-workers, alerting them that I’ll be out of the office for a day. Borrowed from James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, the name suggests a remote paradise, cut off from the world. It’s what draws me and my daughter, Olivia, to the Shangrila Guest Ranch, about 120 miles southwest of Richmond near South Boston, for an end-of-summer outing.
1.) The Ranch
Leaving behind the city life of Raleigh, North Carolina, Gary and Julie Holmes acquired their 800-acre property with the idea of offering a getaway where visitors can ride horseback through the woods (a network of 125 miles of trails includes adjacent land owned by neighbors), groom horses if they wish to, catch fish in a pond, feed farm animals, collect eggs, enjoy home-cooked meals and sleep in a comfortable cottage. The season for all-inclusive packages winds down around Thanksgiving, but hourly and half-day trips are available year-round, weather permitting.
I tell our guide, ranch manager Jessica Randall, that I’ve had “a little” experience riding horses, but I quickly realize how unfamiliar I am at handling them — especially navigating between trees, across creeks, and up and down hills. Fortunately, my Tennessee Walking Horse, Biggie, is used to novice riders. With several riding lessons already under her belt, Olivia seems much more at ease on Pretty Boy, a Spotted Saddle horse. About an hour into our ride, it starts to rain — hard — which makes us feel like wilderness adventurers. We forge on and arrive at our destination soaked, but happy.
The Holmeses meet us at the Back Porch Store and Grill (5013 Cluster Springs Road,  753-3353). We wrap ourselves in towels supplied by Julie. I warm up with tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, and Olivia digs into a pork barbecue sandwich and fries while we chat with Jessica and Gary about life on the ranch.
3.) Main Street
After lunch, we head into town and look at some of the antiques and consignment shops. We’re also interested to discover Lantor’s, a family-owned women’s clothing boutique that’s been around for 108 years, and I’m able to shed my wet jeans when I find a linen skirt and coordinating top for less than $15 in the gently used clothing section in the front of Mike’s Radio & TV at 317 Main St. — in the back, there’s a workshop filled with TVs. We discover the cozy Southern Plenty Coffee Shop (206 Main St.) after their 4 p.m. closing time but make a note to stop there on the next visit for caramel apple cake or a butternut squash, mushroom and goat cheese tart.
4.) The Prizery
In South Boston’s historic warehouse district, theater performances (such as last summer’s Les Miserables, shown), concerts, art exhibits and music lessons take place in The Prizery, a 38,000-square-foot renovated building near the Dan River where layers of tobacco were once pressed (or “prized”) into barrels for shipping. Artistic director Christopher D. Jones, who was instrumental in the effort that led to the arts center opening in 2005, shows us the 250-seat Chastain Theatre, where a production of Charlotte’s Web by the Halifax County Little Theatre will be onstage from Nov. 21 to 30.
5.) Fine Dining
For a nice dinner out, The Prizery’s Jones recommends a couple of local favorites: Bistro 1888, where chef/co-owner Margaret Moorefield serves up dishes like hoisin-and-brandy-marinated pork tenderloin with gingered cranberry applesauce or shrimp-and-scallop etouffee. About five miles north in Halifax, along U.S. 501, there’s the Molasses Grill, co-owned by chef Steven Schopen, a native of Kent, England, whose experience includes restaurants in Germany, Sweden and Morocco. We can’t stay this time, but I have a feeling we’ll be back.