Great destinations have a serendipitous quality – events that appear to happen by chance (and often turn out to be a big memory of a visit). In the case of Middleburg’s 168-room Salamander Resort & Spa — 50 miles west of the nation’s capital in lush Virginia horse country — my husband, Tom, and I sensed upon arrival that very little had been left to chance, thanks to attentive staff who helped the resort and spa earn a five-star rating from Forbes Travel Guide earlier this year. We were in for a few surprises.
Resorting to art
Upon checking in, Tom — for whom painting is a hobby — noticed the impressive original art hanging on living room and hallway walls. We stopped in the Gold Cup Bar to enquire if there were information on some of the artists. Voila! We found ourselves chatting with J Douglas (who goes by “J”), the waiter who is the oil-color artist behind the painting, “Destiny,“ around the corner from us.
He told us he was a former charcoal-portrait painter who had lost everything in the last recession then began painting in oils when he took his job at Salamander. His paintings sold nationally and internationally; Sheila Johnson, founder and owner of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, collects art and purchased some of them. Note cards with reproductions of J’s horse-country paintings are in the resort’s gift shop — a memento of our visit, which was off to a serendipitous start.
Basketball, yoga, zumba — oh, my!
On the way to our room we saw one guest pointing out to another the basketball court situated next to the putting green and tennis courts. Basketball? Available on a first-come-first served basis (as are fishing poles and glow-in-the-dark bocce sets), basketballs are complimentary. Youth Basketball offers $30 per 30-minute session, an opportunity to up one’s game with an instructor.
En route to the spa, I overheard the person at the Fitness Center’s activities desk booking reservations for the falconry experience as well as for archery. I hadn’t noted any of these activities online — but then I had only been interested in the spa, dining, hiking — and seeing the beautiful horses I’d read about as part of Salamander’s equestrian program (see online details for trail rides and lessons).
After pre- and post-treatment time in the spa’s relaxation lounge (complete with snacks made daily by executive chef Ryan Arensdorf), I passed a couple of family members renting lightweight Shinola bikes while the other two opted for mountain bikes. This was a Tuesday, but clearly a lot is going on at Salamander all the time. At 4 p.m. daily, the fitness center features family games such as corn hole, flag football, Ultimate Frisbee, kickball and whiffle ball.
More adventurous activities, such as zip-line tours, require advance reservations so it’s good to check out the activity schedule before leaving home. Not all activities require a high energy level, as family crafts such as teddy-bear-making engage guests along with wine and whiskey tastings and yoga and zumba classes — plus area events such as the popular (bring your dog!) Yappy Hour every Tuesday, beginning in June, at the Gold Cup Grand Lawn (resort pet-friendly brochure online).
Bring your palate, work off the calories
Look for hands-on cooking weekends (approximately $500 per person), where guests work with master chefs in classes that include indulging in an extensive tasting menu or breaking bread at a multi-course brunch before the chef departs. For shorter classes, consider an Italian one (approximately $120) — or learn to make donuts from scratch while sipping your favorite coffee drink. Active adults can opt for wine and cider bike tours ($90 per person Friday and Saturday), leaving from the resort for Boxwood Estate Winery and Mt. Defiance Cidery and Distillery.
Salamander’s “Harriman’s” offers more formal, gourmet dining options. Chesapeake benedict and shrimp and grits comprised our relaxing breakfast. In the early evening, the Gold Cup Grill allowed us to order to-go and take our grilled ahi tuna, burger, salads and drinks out to the large brick patio where we overlooked the grounds as a family was enjoying themselves as “pawns” in a chess game on the giant lawn board.
Guided hiking and biking is available off-site as well as on the resort’s 300-plus acres of woodland and pastureland. We chose to hike at our own pace, including a stop at the culinary garden, where multiple fruits and vegetables included everything from blackberries to sugar snap peas. Last was a stop at the refurbished 100-year-old barn to visit Little Cupcake, the miniature pony that greets guests every Friday and Saturday in the resort’s living room. A large horse — boarded for rest after an injury — appreciated our attention, too.
Insider’s Tip: Save time for Middleburg’s compact downtown district, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. An eclectic mix of antiques and gift shops, art galleries, clothing boutiques, and cafes such as Market Salamander – where we chose grab-and-go gourmet fare, the town is home to the National Sporting Library & Museum, dating to 1954.
For more information
Salamander resort and spa: salamanderresort.com, 844-497-0555