The rural hills begin to lift and drop as the road narrows from four lanes to two and we make our way toward Middleburg, Va. Forty miles southwest of the nation's capitol, it is set in the lush foothills of the Blue Ridge and Bull Run mountains.
Driving down Highway 50 you feel as if you've been transported into the middle of an English countryside where low stone walls gracefully wind through the rolling terrain that stretches to the horizon. Hay bales dot the landscape with painterly irregularity. Tree-shaded lanes, clapboard farmhouses, and grand manor houses-- all are in the heart of Virginia’s horse and fox-hunt country.
In Middleburg (pop. 750), it's normal to see people in riding britches shopping in the local grocery store. Fauquier and Loudoun Counties have long been ground zero for Virginia’s rich equestrian tradition and serves as a premier training ground and destination for aspiring riders and Olympic champions. Each May the world famous Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase race attracts a crowd in excess of 50,000 at a vast, and impossibly green rolling plain called the Great Meadow. Founded in 1840, Piedmont Foxhounds in Virginia was the first foxhunting club in the United States.
The hamlet was established in 1787 by Leven Powell, a colonel in the Revolutionary War. Powell named it Middleburg because it was midway along the Ashby Gap trading route (now Highway 50) between the cities of Alexandria, Va., on the Potomac River and Winchester, Va. A young George Washington once surveyed this land. Nearly 200 years later Jackie Kennedy galloped on horseback across its lush hills as she rode with the Orange County Hunt in the 1960s.
Middleburg still occupies the same five-block by two-block grid laid out by the first president himself. It's literally a one-stoplight hamlet where boutique shops, cafes, art galleries and historic inns create a downtown just made for strolling. Billed as the oldest (1728) continually operated inn in America, the Red Fox Inn still anchors Main Street. Here steeplechasers, foxhunters and top-flight equestrians mingle with country squires, local businessmen and D. C.'s political power brokers.
The antiques shops, nearby vineyards, and the sweeping views of rolling pastures dotted with horses have year-round allure, but the headline events are the spring and fall steeplechase races and the annual Christmas in Middleburg celebration, which kicks off with a horse and hound hunt parade down Washington Street.
You will be hard pressed to find a prettier treasure-hunting village than Middleburg. Celebrated for its polished hunt-country style, talented tailors create bespoke clothing and top-notch saddlers outfit the equestrian community. Shoppers delight in affordable but one-of-a-kind gifts.
Keith and Pam Foster opened their exquisite shop, "The Outpost," in September 2012 with a cache of antique British campaign furniture, sporting antiques, tribal art, custom-designed British leather club chairs and sofas and curiosities from their travels around the globe. Also recognized as a premier golf course architect, Keith's motto: Authentic Finds. Inspired Life.
They shutter the shop each year from January to March, reopening in April with a bonanza of seductive decorative objects. Last year the Fosters traveled to England, Belgium and France as well as a personal stop to a tent camp in Kenya's Masai Mara. Some current finds include an English saddle trunk, vintage cricket balls, circa 1900 wall mount gun rack, and a pair of fencing foils. Specialized home furnishings from abroad include a hanging trifold mirror, stag horn dinner gong, and a 1920 seltzer bottle lamp.
A couple of furlongs away is the Salamander Resort& Spa that opened in August 2013. The equestrian-inspired luxury destination is the dream of Sheila Johnson, one of the wealthiest Afro-American women in the world, the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television and producer of the film, "Lee Daniels' The Butler."
Set on 340 acres, the sprawling country retreat is designed to recreate an old Virginia manor with the oversized porte-cochere, slate walkways, brick facade and the steeple on top. It is tucked away for rest, relaxation, and comfort, and is adjacent to their world-class golf course and equestrian facilities. Stepping inside Salamander visitors feel as if they have walked into a grand home, not a hotel. The lobby area is a welcoming living room with wide-planked oak flooring decorated in textured linen furnishings and soft pastels, and modeled after the nearby Johnson residence.
Off to one side is the Gold Cup Wine Bar, a fun gathering spot to enjoy the creative cocktails and extensive Virginia wine list. On the opposite side is a stately but cozy library. There, fireplaces serve as the focal point of the room along with books from all genres, vintage foxhunting paintings, stylish chess boards, and burnished wooden game boards of Scrabble and Monopoly.
Salamander comprises 168 rooms and suites, a 23,000 square foot spa, and a dedicated state-of-the-art cooking studio. The outdoor terrace offers dazzling views of the expansive, rolling lawns outfitted with croquet, bocci, a giant chessboard and fire pits with Adirondack seating. Every Tuesday guests and residents turn up with their canines for "Yappy Hour" festivities on the terrace and surrounding grounds.
The Salamander's signature restaurant, Harrimans Virginia Piedmont Grill, is aptly named as the property was once owned by the late Averill and Pamela Harriman. Modeled after their former barn, it is octagonal in shape with high ceilings while its great expanse of windows offers the best view on-site: a 220-degree vista overlooking the Virginia hills. The ironwork and lighting fixtures all combine to work together in an old fashioned feel.
Chef de Cuisine Chris Edwards' “autumn collection” dish of vegetables from Salamander’s Culinary Garden was farm to table in its best sense. It offered a bounty of grilled zucchini, green beans, corn, tomatoes, and Hungarian wax peppers along with other garden treasures over a ribbon of triple blanched orange puree. Our entrees were a coq au vin with local Ayrshire chicken, new potatoes and baby carrots in a red wine demi glace and the braised veal osso bucco with Jerusalem artichoke truffles, mushroom puree, cocoa barley “dirt,” and stout beer froth. Both were cooked to perfection and served with warm smiles and genuine grace. Bon appetit.
Just east of downtown one of the newest vineyards is already making a name for itself. Greenhill Winery has received high marks for its Bordeaux blend labeled Philosophy and the sparkling Blanc de Blanc. A bit further down Hwy. 50 are the Chrysalis vineyards, a champion of Virginia’s native Norton grape. The winery will launch a creamery, bakery and a spectacular new tasting site on an adjacent hillside in the spring.
The National Sporting Library and Museum is dedicated to preserving and sharing the literature, art and culture of horse, angling and field sports. Founded in 1954, the institution has over 26,000 books dating from the 16th-21st centuries. There is an exhibition space in the basement where scholars and journalists can visit the rare book room.
A ten-foot, lead skinned horse head sculpture by Nic Fiddian-Green greets visitors entering the museum. Currently, "A Sportsman en plein air: C. D. Clarke," is a traveling exhibition of 21 watercolors and oil paintings that winds through the museum housed in the 1805 Federal manor house built of handmade bricks. The intimate galleries with original floors and thick windowsills, several with soaring ceilings and expansive walls, showcase 150 works, many of them on loan from other museums and private collectors.
As with most places in Middleburg, history seeps from the Red Fox Inn & Tavern's thick fieldstone walls. The original structure dates from 1728, when Joseph Chinn, George Washington's first cousin, built Chinn's Ordinary, a place for weary stagecoach and horseback travelers to recharge. Request a cozy fireside table or sidle up to the pine bar, made from an old field military operating table.
The dining rooms of the Red Fox Inn & Tavern serve up beautifully seasoned and carefully prepared selections, relying heavily on locally available ingredients, and using traditional methods of braising, roasting and smoking in true Virginia style. They are known for their crispy but moist southern fried chicken and the beautifully cooked U-10 scallops with the cranberry and mixed green salad -- perfectly prepared and paired.
Just down the street, the Red Horse Tavern offers a more casual pub menu, and with its large outdoor seating porch, provides a dog-friendly atmosphere. Try the Glenwood wrap with turkey, avocado, bacon and mixed cheeses, or the Cuban with sliced pork tenderloin and country ham for lunch or a light supper. Live music draws folks on Friday and Saturday nights, and most weeknights it's home to the local horse-people crowd.
Come December, more and more travelers fancy Christmas in a country village, and nowhere will you find a Christmas experience quite like Middleburg’s. Starting in late morning the Middleburg Hunt Review takes to the streets creating a spectacular sight as roughly 100 horses, riders in black leather boots, breeches, and pink and black hunting coats as well as dozens of hounds come parading down Washington Street. Treading on the coattails of the hunt, floats, bands, and troops pass by, and the signature antique fire trucks-- and, of course, Santa, who closes the parade riding on an ornate horse-drawn coach.