When Sheila Johnson, founder and CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, set out to open a resort one hour outside Washington, D.C., she intended to create a leisure experience that reflected not only her style, but also the horse and wine country that surrounds the 340-acre property. A founding partner of BET among many other ventures, Johnson’s brand is known for converting hotels, resorts, and inns to make them better embody the character of their locales. The Salamander Resort is the first new-build property for the company.
Now after more than two years and more than $100 million, the 168-room Salamander Resort and Spa is scheduled to open in August in Middleburg, the pastoral heart of Northern Virginia. It’s an area that began attracting horse breeders, trainers, and huntsmen around the turn of the century, and today, Loudon County leads the state in horse ownership and is home to 100-plus equestrian events, including the Virginia Gold Cup and the International Gold Cup steeplechase races, which both attract tens of thousands of equestrian fans annually. During her husband’s presidency, Jackie Kennedy frequently rode her horse on Middleburg trails, including ones that cut through the current Salamander property.
Catering to equestrian-minded travelers, Salamander resort features a 22-stall stable, an Olympic-sized riding ring, and miles of beautiful trails that cross through woods and meadows. The resort even goes so far as allowing guests to bring and board their own horses. “The Middleburg area has equestrian events that take place throughout the year, and the resort will be the kind of place that many of the participants can bring their horses to,” says Prem Devadas, president of Salamander Hotels and Resorts. “It’s called equine tourism.”
And the Salamander has plenty of other experiences to offer guests who travel without horses. The resort celebrates the local food and wine scene—and plays into the growing culinary tourism trend (see “Food Matters” sidebar)—with a regionally focused culinary program. “That’s one of the things that luxury travelers are interested in—authentic experiences, discovering new lifestyles—we think food and wine play a big part in that,” Devadas says. Within an hour’s drive from the resort, guests can find more than 50 wineries, and even closer, Harrimans restaurant and the Gold Cup Wine Bar feature many of these area wines on their menus. “We are working with winemakers in the area to create experiences that you really can’t have at other resorts,” Devadas says. To that end, the resort will play host to area winemakers, having them regularly stop in to lead afternoon tastings in the wine bar. “We want them to bring their expertise to our resort so our guests can try their wines and then decide if they want to visit their wineries.”
Devadas expects that the guest mix will be split evenly between leisure travelers and corporate and national association meetings. He also sees a large number of international guests, given the resort’s proximity to D.C., the Northern Virginia tech corridor, and Dulles Airport. All of that is good for Middleburg, and Devadas acknowledges that the town’s partnership is critical to the resort’s success. “A resort like this is going to bring affluent guests from around the world that might not normally discover Middleburg,” he says. “Wineries are excited about getting these new visitors. What’s important to us is integrating these things into the whole experience. We want the winemakers to be the ones to share the story of the wines we feature in the resort.”
That community commitment includes giving access to the resort’s restaurants, spa, meeting space, and equestrian facility to locals even if they aren’t staying there, so non-guests can take horse-riding lessons, for example. “Our vision was to create something that was authentic to its region and to the town of Middleburg,” he says. “It was important to be true to this horse country, wine country, and to the history of Middleburg.”