Loudoun County: An embarrassment of riches

Whether it’s beer and wine, horses and history, or just good old-fashioned fancy digs, Loudoun County has all you need for a good vacation.

LEESBURG | They’ll show you the hop picker that sorts the pollen from the cones and the stems. It was made in Germany and used for years in Lithuania before the founders of Vanish Farmwoods Brewery bought it, had it sawed in half for shipping and then re-welded it here in a drafty barn so they could create the freshest and most reliable hops for their craft beer.

Photograph by Todd Wright

They process their neighbors’ hops, too, helping to stoke the energy around Loudoun County’s 23-plus breweries – more than any other county in the state. They’re even building a “sour room” to catch the front of that trendy beer wave, too.

Photograph by Todd Wright
Vanish Farmwoods Brewery

But you don’t have to hear the whole backstory. You can skip the tour and just hang out in the brewery’s picnic-tabled dining room, pairing pints with pulled pork and maybe singing along with – or talking over – the local talent.

“When you have a beer and they explain it to you and you know where it came from, it makes it a completely different experience,” says Jennifer Buske-Sigal, media relations manager for Visit Loudoun, the organization working to lure ever more visitors to the area.

Vanish is so named because open land was disappearing here in Loudoun, an hour west of Washington and 20 blood pressure points more relaxing. The owners bought the acreage in part to protect it from the relentless rows of semi-identical Monopoly houses, with their vinyl siding and gaping garage doors, the metastases of urban sprawl that was spreading after the opening of Dulles Airport in the southeastern part of the county.

Instead the owners planted hops and opened a brewery, now overflowing onto a dog- and kid-friendly lawn with a playground and pairs of cornhole boards. It’s like so many places in this county of hills and vistas and winding roads, of horse farms and towns so quaint they make your teeth itch, of Civil War history and sprawling golf courses and white-columned antebellum mansions. There are capacious resorts and re-created historic towns, festivals and fairs and a slew of trendy breweries, wineries, meaderies and distilleries, all more or less connected by a fleet of Lyft drivers willing to convey you safely back to bed.

Photograph by Todd Wright

The thing about Loudoun County is that it aspires: to craft great food, to add amenities to upscale resorts, to create the most authentic Civil War feel in its B&Bs, whether in a picturesque town or on sprawling acreage in the country. You can stay in one of the resorts and golf all morning, take a cell phone photography class after balcony yoga, or lie still and let someone else knead out your sore muscles.

The Lansdowne Resort and Spa, a bucolic four-diamond hotel, is surrounded by a neighborhood of the very McMansions the owners of Vanish thwarted, yet is embedded in 476 green and golfable acres along the banks of the Potomac River.

Photograph by Todd Wright
Photograph by Todd Wright

The theme here is intensely local. The in-room glasses look like cut-off wine bottles. The drawers are designed to look like steamer trunks, an homage to river travel. The books on the shelves bear titles like Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide and The Last Days of Haute Cuisine. The art is of winery signs and photos of old barns. A wedding party spills out onto the flagstones. Guests sip local whiskey around the fire pit. Where the tree line dips and stops, that’s the river. Where it rises again, that’s Maryland.

You can head up to Sunset Hills Vineyard, one of 40 wineries in the county, where owner Mike Canney can name all six of the Amish brothers who restored the Civil War-era farm but still has his eyes on the future. Sunset Hills, one of five farms the Canneys own, has enough solar panels that each Earth Day Canney and his wife, Diane Canney, invite Tesla owners up to charge their batteries directly from the sun. The Tesla company got so excited that it is paying for chargers to be installed to be used year-round.

Photograph by Todd Wright
Sunset Hills Vineyard

By its very nature, Loudoun County is a place to slow down, to be immersed. The nation’s horse and hunt club capital, Middleburg, is here. It’s a town so cute and so horse-crazy that its coffee shop is named Cuppa Giddy Up. The walls of the town’s restaurants and hotels hang heavy with horse memorabilia and art, and among the people striding the cobblestones in riding boots and breeches are actual equine owners, riders and trainers.

The main drag is named after John Mosby, a Confederate colonel who used Middleburg as a base camp during the Civil War. Storefronts here are of stone dug more than a century ago from farmers’ fields. Banks and mills and stables have been converted into farm-to-table restaurants, bars, gift shops and antique stores. Half an hour of winding road away is Morven Park, with its 22-room Greek Revival mansion that was home to Virginia Gov. Westmoreland Davisand now hosts an equestrian center and a carriage museum. Fancy a bit of polo? This is the place.

And the food! The median income in Loudoun is more than twice the national average, and there are restaurants intent on soaking up every dime of it. Not that meals are unexpectedly expensive, only that the food is exceptionally good, competing for the palates of people who eat out often and have more than enough choices.

Photograph by Todd Wright

In the new and trendy section of Leesburg there is The Conche, named not after the shell but after the machine developed more than a century ago to churn and stir chocolate, which is a key ingredient in the chef’s signature dishes. Thus you have ground sirloin stuffed with braised short ribs and shallot jam, all drizzled with a chocolate barbecue sauce and paired with a cocktail of applewood-smoked rye whiskey and chocolate molé bitters, each dish a treat for the eyes as much as the tongue.

There’s Hunter’s Head Tavern, the building constructed in the mid-18th century, the meat from heritage breed livestock raised right outside the restaurant’s windows, and the Red Fox Inn & Tavern, one of the oldest continually operated inns in the country, where you can dine at tables (or the successors to those tables) once graced by Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Or drive out into the country to Patowmack Farm for a menu that changes daily, depending on what is in season. You’ll be served slowly, one course at a time, inside a glass conservatory with views of both the Potomac and the mountains, the ingredients foraged from local fields.

Photograph by Todd Wright
Patowmack Farm’s chef Tarver King

Loudoun County definitely trends toward posh. Friendly, yes – nearly everyone wants to talk about the provenance of their business, their building, their beef, their beer. They want to explain the process, the intention behind what they’re selling.

Photograph by Todd Wright

Some of the towns have apps that will guide you through walking tours, some highlighting all of the town’s history, some focusing on the plight and accomplishments of African Americans. There is history aplenty here, in the county where President James Madison decamped with the Constitution during the War of 1812, as the British torched the capital.

Photograph by Todd Wright

The land itself is rolling and verdant, the opportunities for outdoor play plentiful. Zip through the treetops, gallop on horseback down a country road, raft down the river, clip clop through town, waving to fellow tourists. If you know how to sit a saddle you can participate in a hunt, or you can just tour stables and ogle champion horses.

Photograph by Todd Wright

Loudoun is a long weekend, a summer getaway, an opportunity to immerse yourself in rich history or to merely eat rich food and drink the best of what the land has to offer. To relax, be pampered, walk and see and do. Or to just lie next to the pool and not do a darn thing.

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