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Life of a Salamander

Salamander Hotel Resort & Spa
Last fall Forbes and USA Today each published their own lists of key hotel openings to watch in 2013. Among the roll call were the usual suspects and destinations: There was a Waldorf-Astoria in Panama; a restored palace that will be a Four Seasons in St. Petersburg; in London The Shangri-la Hotel at The Shard, Europe’s tallest skyscraper; the long awaited Peninsula in Paris; Mandarin Oriental in Shanghai; a Ritz-Carlton and St. Regis both in Abu Dhabi; a Regent in Bali, and a Washington D.C. Capella from Horst Schulze.

Oh, and yes, don’t forget Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Virginia, several winding roads from the nearest highway about 30 minutes past Dulles International Airport deeply into the state’s famous horse country. In fact, Salamander made both lists.

While the name Salamander may not be well known outside the hospitality industry, the person behind the company is: Sheila Johnson, co-founder of BET (Black Entertainment Television), a company she started with her former husband and sold to Viacom for $3 billion in 2001.

Salamander Resort Stable resized

The company currently manages three Florida resorts – Innisbrook Golf Resort & Spa, Reunion Resort and Spa and Hammock Beach Resort. In a video on the company’s website Johnson refers to Salamander as her third act (her first act was as a concert violinist and teacher prior to BET). She says that running hotels is similar to cable television as both are about entertaining people and are fun businesses. The hotel is modeled after her personal home, and when it opens in August guests enter the front door not into a lobby but a living room. Keeping the theme of welcoming guests into her home, there will be personal pictures and furnishings from her real home that will be part of the hotel.

Of course Middleburg itself has an interesting history: Established in 1787 it was the site of two skirmishes during the Gettysburg Campaign of the Civil War. Jacqueline Kenney was know to ride horses on the former Pamela Harriman estate where the resort is now getting its finishing touches. Middleburg was recognized in 2008 by then First Lady Laura Bush for its preservation efforts by designating it a Preserve America Community. And despite the village’s serene exterior (the resort is a brisk walk from the town) Middleburg has in more recent times been home to Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Wagner and Oliver North.

The hotel itself has been referred to as “Montage of the East” and during a hardhat tour it’s clear that the budget is no expenses spared. There will be 168 rooms, including 17 suites set on 340 acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Johnson has put 252 of the acres into a conservation easement and it will open with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. All of the suites and many of the rooms will have gas fireplaces. The expansive spa will have 14 treatment rooms including a couple’s suite with indoor and outdoor space. There is a pool dedicated for spa patrons and a full hair and nail salon.

Notable features include a Cooking Studio with broadcast television capabilities, a full on equestrian program supported by a 22-stall barn, picturesque grounds with bocce, croquet, tennis courts, a pool complex and miles of biking, hiking and riding trails. Some 50 wineries are within an hour of the resort and access is provided for guests. There is also a Jack Nicklaus golf course guests can use. Other diversions include sporting clays and whitewater rafting.

There is no shortage of restaurants and places to grab a bite to eat or enjoy a glass of wine. Johnson has lured Obama favorite, Equinox chef Todd Grey as Culinary Director. If you are worn out from activities, there is a both a sports bar with multiple televisions and a reading room that has been stocked with over 3,000 books purchased from the Middleburg Library.

For the resort, which will be a member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts, family getaways are expected to be popular, and a main focus is on meetings and events with plenty of indoor and outdoor space. In fact the hotel has already been booked for a full takeover. While the resort is convenient to Dulles Airport even closer is Leesburg Executive Airport where Johnson owns the FBO (she took it over last October).

And what’s in a name? Salamander is Johnson’s tribute to World War II hero Bruce Sundlun who after being shot down joined the French resistance and worked secret missions to rescue imprisoned Allied soldiers under the code-name Salamander. Johnson met him when buying his nearby estate that he had named Salamander. When he told her the story of the name, she asked if he would let her use it, and he agreed. In her video Johnson says salamanders are according to myth “the only animal that can walk through fire and still survive.  Even if you chop of its limbs, they regenerate.” Needless to say any salamander that wanders onto her new resort is likely to be well fed and pampered.