BET co-founder, 'Butler' producer Sheila Johnson opens long-awaited Salamander Resort and Spa

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I remember sitting with Sheila Johnson discussing her then-newly acquired script for The Butler in downtown Middleburg, Virginia a few years ago.

Johnson, one of the few black female billionaires in the world, really believed in the movie. Along with 40 other producers, Johnson funded the project, and a dream became a reality. And a great success. The Butler has made more than $100 million dollars at the box office since its release in mid-August 2013.

How fitting that Johnson is now living her dream yet again, having recently cut a festive blue ribbon on her new luxury destination’s opening day, August 29, 2013. “The house that Sheila built” is what friends and family call the Salamander Resort and Spa located in the lush rolling hills of Middleburg, where horses roam near over 50 Virginia wineries.

Johnson’s luxury dream come true

“I want people to feel like they have walked into a grand home, not a hotel,” Sheila said in her emotional remarks to guests, which included Johnson’s 89-year-old mother. Supermodel Beverly Johnson, fashion designer Donna Karan, designer Kaye Unger, CNN’s David Gergen and Mrs. Rachel Robinson — widow of the late baseball great Jackie Robinson — were also in attendance.

The sprawling resort is the latest of Sheila Johnson’s properties, and the first of its kind in the Commonwealth of Virginia — and, in fact, the entire mid-Atlantic region of the United States. Located just outside of the Revolutionary War town of Middleburg, Salamander offers the quaint experience of country elegance, and Jackie Kennedy-esque charm, with a historic, small town flare.

Looking radiant in a royal blue dress, sporting natural hair, Johnson looked more relaxed and at peace than ever before. The consummate professional and original co-founder of BET after all, she never lets them “see her sweat,” as the saying goes.

An all-star assemblage

Joined by Pam Williams, co-producer of The Butler, Project Runway‘s Tim Gunn, point guard John Wall of the Washington Wizards, and Middleburg Mayor Betsy Davis, Johnson spoke emotionally about her passion project.

“Today we go from vision to reality,” she told assembled guests. “The Salamander represents resilience, resolve and renewal which is something that means a lot to me. For me, this is personal.  I moved to Middleburg at a challenging time in my life. I came here in search of a new foundation, a new happiness, and a new way forward. Middleburg was my refuge. In Middleburg I found serenity, and friendship, but most of all, I felt at home.”

Johnson was not exaggerating when she said the relaxing destination was also a symbol of strength. Named after a World War II B-17 bomber pilot, the secluded country estate takes the nickname of Bruce Sundlund, who escaped imprisonment by the Nazis by hiding with the Maquis, a resistance group. They gave him the code name “salamander,” which is also an amphibian creature that, in myth, can walk through fire.

But the Salamander Resort — sitting on over 340 acres of breathtaking land — is all earthy reality that promises to stir the senses with revitalizing pleasures. Legend has it that upon his return to Virginia after the war, Sundlund acquired 200 acres of property that he named Salamander Farm.  He later sold the property and retired to Rhode Island.  Johnson purchased the land some years later and was granted permission to retain the name by Sundlund.

A sprawling country retreat

The sprawling property sits in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains located just one hour southwest of Washington, D.C., and 20 minutes from Dulles International Airport. Tucked away for rest, relaxation, and comfort, it is adjacent to a world class golf course and riding facilities.

“This project is one of the biggest in the state of Virginia,” said Pren Devadas, president of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, of the renovated and expanded grounds.

On the grand opening day, several hundred guests were given a tour of the 168 rooms and suites, 22,000 square foot spa, a dedicated state-of-the-art cooking studio, the Gold Cup Wine Bar, stately library, and a fabulous entry “great room” decorated in textured linen furnishings and soft pastels.

Resort chefs treated guests to Virginia Piedmont cuisine — the purple cauliflower was delicious — fine wines, and an assortment of fresh vegetables, pastas, meats and dishes that were cooked to perfection, all served with warm smiles and genuine grace.

Quiet and peaceful grandeur

But none of the decor and amenities compare to the picturesque outdoor terrace that opens to face the sprawling property. Those rolling lawns and foliage immediately envelop the senses and calm the spirit.

An equestrian-inspired retreat, with the feel of a modern Versailles, Johnson outdid herself in terms of the accommodations and designs. Was this a theme sparked by Johnson’s newlywed daughter Paige Johnson Payne, an avid horse rider and competitor, who has been featured in Town & Country magazine? It’s highly likely.

After seven long years of dreaming, investing, building, pushing, pulling, politicking, and staying the course, just as she did with The Butler, Johnson finally saw her dream of the perfectly luxe refuge realized: the grand Salamander Resort and Spa.

Sophia Nelson is a writer and author. Her book, ‘Black Women Redefined’ is now in paperback. Follow Sophia Nelson on Twitter at @IAmSophiaNelson.