“Relax,” ordered the massage therapist as he grabbed hold of my rigid arm.
And so I allowed my limbs to fall limp, my toes to uncurl and my mind and wallet to succumb to the allure of Salamander Resort & Spa.
After all this time, it’s nice to finally meet you, Salamander. Since 2002, the luxury Middleburg property has suffered fitful starts and stops of development. To pass the time, we played the game of “Will it or won’t it?” Well, it did, on Aug. 29.
Over the years, a few crumbs of information dropped onto our empty plates, piquing our appetite. We knew that Fauquier County resident Sheila C. Johnson was the superbizwoman behind this venture, the fourth member in her Salamander Hotels & Resorts family. We also heard murmurs about a high-end spa, exemplary dining — and horses, since Middleburg is the Land of Their Little Ponies.
With the resort finally open, we wanted to hear the real noise, not just the buzz. So in late September, I visited the property, taking advantage of every offering (spa, trail ride, bar, fitness center, room service, etc.) and every fireplace (five). Granted, the staff is still learning the trade, so I returned a month later to check up on its progress. The test: Could I fully relax in Salamander’s company, or would I need to book an emergency session with Brian to survive the weekend?
Reservation highs and lows
Salamander left the gate in admirable form. I easily booked a Friday night stay online, reserving a 545-square-foot estate room with a king-size bed, an “experiential” shower, a 40-inch TV and a balcony. As part of the Inaugural Offer (available through Dec. 5), I earned a $100 credit that I earmarked for the spa, or maybe horseback riding, or dinner and drinks — or a portion of all the above.
A few days later, my cellphone started to ring.
An employee left a message asking about my “preferences.” I interpreted the request as an interest in my personal tastes: Fuji apples in the fruit basket, please, and Diet Coke, not Pepsi, in the mini-fridge. But no, the agent wanted to remind me to book any extracurricular activities before availability disappeared.
At the spa, I knew that I wanted a facial but was unsure of which one. When I asked for advice, the voice on the phone simply dictated the description from the brochure; I read along to identical text on the Web site. I gravitated to the Purifying Facial, but he suggested the Signature Facial. Frightened by the sentence “one of our trained experts closely analyzes your skin’s needs,” I passed on the lab-coat inspection of my pores for a less intrusive scrubbing.
Plans now set, including a one-hour afternoon trail ride, I could kick back and — ring, ring, ring. Yes, spa, what’s up? Oh, you can’t remember when I’m coming? No, not a Saturday in December; this Saturday. Oh, you’ve forgotten which treatment I scheduled? The purifying facial. Yes, thank you. See you this Saturday.
On my second go-around, Salamander had cured its case of the hiccups. I reserved the 575-square-foot terrace double queen by phone, in addition to a well-being massage with Brian, a recommendation from a prior guest. I received a confirmation call the night before my appointment, plus a letter upon check-in. At 4 p.m., Brian fetched me from the relaxation room; 50 minutes later, he scraped me off the table.
When I asked him how to maintain my current state of serenity, he told me to say this mantra: “I need to go back to the Salamander and see Brian.” He then repeated the word “Salamander” three times.
Life on the estate
Apologies to Salamander, but when I first drove up the half-mile lane lined with London plane trees, I thought that I’d mistakenly stumbled into a housing development. The resort’s subtlety tripped me up.
The pale yellow stucco-and-stone estate is more horizontal than vertical, more understated than ostentatious. There are no cloud-skewering towers or egoist marquees. A tiny bronze plaque on a low stone pillar announces the destination. Lower your gaze to flick a stink bug off your skirt and you’ll miss the welcome sign.
The resort carries an air of inclusiveness, rare among resorts with peak-season rates cresting the $500 line. Non-guests are invited to come indoors and stay awhile (the Gold Cup’s bar hours exceed Middleburg’s usual bedtime). On the back lawn, near an oversize chess set, I met a Vienna couple who had stopped in for a ham-and-cheese sandwich. The husband raved about the crispy bread, and the wife grew wistful for her son to marry here, not in Connecticut, as planned.
In the culinary garden, where the chefs and bartenders graze for herbs and vegetables, I bumped into Nina, a local resident who had dropped by after work to decompress. We wandered among the lettuce beds and plantings, pretending to know our agriculture. While we were debating kale vs. bitter greens, the head gardener showed up and gave us a proper tour. For our curiosity, we earned a tomato, a snap pea and a fistful of purple basil.
With 340 acres of land, you can roam the grounds in a blissful bubble of solitude without a loud band of interlopers bursting it. Fashionably overgrown paths lead from the main building to the family pool, the putting green and the equestrian center.
The horseback-riding excursions start at the barn and drop onto trails that run like dry streams through a forested sanctuary. On our ride, Moe and I trotted behind our guide and her horse, his hooves faintly clicking against rocks and roots. We paralleled a burbling creek and raced up short hills as if a basket of apples waited at the top. Back in the stables, my guide said, “When we were coming back to the barn, I looked back at your face and you seemed melancholy.” I was indeed sad to let Moe go.
In the outdoor areas, I could enjoy a solitary dance with nature. But to jitterbug, I had only to approach the entryway to join the swing of cars, dogs, luggage, wheeled carts, antsy children and excitable wedding guests.
“It’s chaotic,” said a bellhop/valet/doorman, who had driven me into town in the resort’s Audi SUV. “They want us to stay in one place, but it never works out that way.”
When I arrived the first time, I counted nine employees within 10 paces. At the entrance to the so-called Living Room, a woman dressed for show jumping — fitted blazer, tan jodhpurs, riding boots — stood like a mistress of ceremonies. Welcome, one and all, to the show.
At reception, a small alcove with a painting of a thundering horse on the back wall, the check-in attendant provided me with a key and a map. She then came around the counter to point out the route to my room. Thoughtful touch.
The lay of the land
The resort’s 168 rooms are arranged on four floors, each representing a different season. (I slept in spring.) The guest rooms are as tasteful and tailored as a camelhair coat. The color palette springs from a chocolate-and-vanilla rainbow, and the equestrian thread runs through the linens and decor: a horse print in the water closet, a metal bridle sculpture above the white pedestal tub, room number signs shaped like riding helmets. Photographs of flowers perk up a corner fitted with a glass table and a couch. The signature on the artworks reads “Sheila Johnson.”
I spent a significant amount of time on the balcony, gazing at the faintly manicured landscape. I expected a family of foxes to scurry by, or a guest to mount the bike set outside the fitness center. Both would have fit the setting, but neither appeared. Looking around, I was the only Juliet on her balcony.
So where were all the people? In the Living Room, roasting by the two fireplaces and lounging on furniture of varying coziness (from sit-up-straight chairs to slouchy couches). And in the library, a leather-and-lit retreat with more than 2,000 books and yet another fireplace (the resort must be expecting a serious chill this winter). And in the Gold Cup bar and lounge, a bon-vivant den with three large-screen TVs (sports, sports and sports) and a billiards table.
And in the gift shop, which should be called Sheila’s Closet. Among the items on display: Sheila Johnson Collection silk scarves, based on her photographs; Donna Karan’s Urban Zen jewelry and vases by Haitian artists (the designer and Sheila, a philanthropist, visited the country last year); Mistral toiletries (she’s a partner in the company); and, coming soon, clothing designs by Brett Johnson, her son.
“Sometimes she’ll bring stuff from home to sell,” a store employee told me while I sniffed Zents scents.
The boss’s name comes up often; I heard a lot of Dr. Johnson this and Dr. Johnson that. For example, I learned from a well-suited staffer that the cornflower-blue paint in the main salon is the same shade found in her home and that she also uses Mistral products. More than one employee told me about her equestrian daughter and showed me her trophies and ribbons in the private dining room at Harrimans, the restaurant. And, not to get too personal, but we shared the same massage therapist.
Johnson sightings are also common — as in, chuck your gum because Sheila Johnson is heading straight for you.
On Columbus Day weekend, a petite woman dressed in a Washington Capitals jersey and diamond studs approached my group of three. She stuck out her hand three times.
“I can’t imagine Donald Trump walking around his hotels shaking people’s hands,” said the female half of the North Carolina couple, who were attending a wedding at the resort.
The duo told her about their experiences at her Florida resorts, and I discovered that Johnson and I both have tight muscles in our feet. I asked if she were relieved that, after a bumpy journey, Salamander was finally open.
“It was a long time coming,” she said, “and we’re not finished.”
To the casual observer, the resort appears complete. There were no unfurnished rooms, undecorated walls or unmanned positions. But under the microscope, I spotted some areas-in-progress. For example, the phone in my room didn’t work (the front desk suggested that I “wiggle the wire”). In a voicemail message left on my cell, an employee slipped up her greeting, saying,”Hi, this is [name] from Nemacolin, I mean, Salamander Resort.” I found a previous guest’s brown apple slices in the mini-fridge. A spa attendant could not provide directions to the fitness center. For breakfast, room service delivered white toast; when I asked for wheat, the server told me that the kitchen had run out, even though it was only 9:30 in the morning. In addition, the resort added a 22 percent service charge and a $3 delivery fee to a $3 order. For that amount, at least take the jam out of the jars.
To be fair, I did notice some improvements between my two visits. Leaving the first time, I had to wrestle with the front door while juggling my luggage. On the second departure, I again had to push the door unassisted, but this time a bellhop grabbed the handle from the other side.
Perhaps on a third stay, someone will open and close the door to Salamander for me.
Salamander Resort & Spa
500 N. Pendleton St., Middleburg
Rooms from $295 (off-peak season) and $425 (peak) a night.