Shangrila. The word evokes paradise, a mysterious far-away place where everyone lives forever in a permanent state of bliss. They say it’s beautiful, harmonious, and isolated from the outside world. But no one has ever discovered it. Like a mirage, Shangrila glimmers in our collective conscience, a dream we all have that never comes true.
I found a place not far away that comes close, a place where people do what they love among people they love, where horses graze in idyllic pastures and gentle breezes blow through the trees, a place that feels wide open—both in space and time. Where is this Shangrila? In a lovely part of our state called Southside Virginia, a region I’ve never explored before—about three hours west of Virginia Beach. When I finally arrive, I wonder, “What took you so long?”
A college friend and I plan a girlfriend getaway at—where else?—Shangrila Guest Ranch in South Boston. I’ve heard about Shangrila from a fellow horse lover here in Tidewater, who spent a weekend there riding with her daughter. “You’ll love it,” she said.
Yes, I’ll admit I’m a little horse-crazy and so is my friend, Robin, who lives in Richmond. We envision a weekend of riding, catching up, and just hanging out in a place where nature is the main attraction. To add a little excitement to the mix, we’ll visit a couple of wineries and dine at an upscale restaurant in nearby Halifax. It sounds like the recipe for a perfect getaway: chillin’ with an old friend, riding horses through the woods, tasting new wines, and savoring good food. What more can you ask for?
HARMONY & CONTENTMENT
It’s an easy drive to South Boston. Route 58 takes you through 150 miles of pastoral countryside and rolling hills with hardly any traffic. Robin and I chat the whole way, and before we know it, we’re pulling onto a gravel road that leads to Shangrila. The ranch is tucked away off the main road surrounded by 500 acres of forest and fields.
Shangrila is owned by Gary and Julie Holmes, who met on a trail ride in North Carolina, fell in love, and wanted to share their love of horses with others. They opened Shangrila in 2001, the fulfillment of a dream, and now they and their two young children welcome guests from near and far. Recently, Gary hired a young couple to help on the ranch, Brookes and Jessica. Altogether Shangrila exudes harmony and contentment, a place where you’ll feel right at home.
Robin and I stay on the second floor of the ranch house above the dining room. We love the rustic décor of our lodgings as well as creature comforts like a fridge and microwave in each room. Other accommodations at the ranch include a cute-as-a-button cabin with a loft that sleeps four and a historic four-bedroom cottage that sleeps up to eight, perfect for a large family or group of friends. Gary recently created a few campsites as well and can accommodate guests who bring their own horses.
At a cookout and campfire Friday night, we meet some of the other guests at the ranch: 70-year-old Linda, a friend of Gary’s, who trucked her horse up from Raleigh for a weekend of riding; Anneke, a repeat guest from D.C., who brought her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend; and a group of gals who are having their own girlfriend getaway. These women meet up every year at a different dude ranch and traveled from Florida, California, and Ohio all the way to Shangrila.
We wake up Saturday morning, eager to ride. But first breakfast! We dig into piping hot scrambled eggs, maple-flavored bacon, and sausage served with fresh fruit and bagels. Being out in nature always seems to whet my appetite and food tends to taste better, don’t you think? Robin and I love our breakfast as well as getting to know the other guests better.
Gary and Julie have 28 horses at their ranch, which are kept on open pasture—not cooped up in a barn. The horses appear healthy and happy, and you can tell they’re well cared for. Gary, who leads the horseback riding treks, prides himself on his horses and makes sure to match each rider with a suitable horse. He chooses Sonny for me and Robin gets Pretty Boy. Both are gentle, easy-going horses.
Today we’ll be joining The Ride for Hope, an annual event which raises funds for cancer patients and attracts 200+ horsemen and women, many from out of town. It’ll be exciting to be part of this event, and soon after we saddle up, riders start passing through the ranch, which is on the trail route. People ride in groups, and soon our bunch is heading through the woods—happy to be part of this fabulous ride that combines fun, friends, horses, and nature, all for a worthy cause.
Ahhh, this is what I’m talking about. Being on Sonny gliding through nature makes all my cares and worries disappear. According to Gary, “Riding a horse is the most relaxing feeling that you can experience.” I suspect there’s a study somewhere that analyzes the serotonin boost horseback riding brings about. To me, it’s a little like magic.
Everywhere we look, folks on horses are having a ball. “People live for the weekends,” Gary says, “when they get on their horses and ride.” As we ride along, I’m amazed at how happy and relaxed everyone looks. Riding horses requires you to be in the moment, to experience the physical presence of the horse beneath you, to listen to the creaking of the leather saddle, to feel the shrubbery brush against you, to inhale the fresh smells of Mother Nature, and to realize that life is really about living, not waiting for the chance to live. I think that’s why I love riding so much—horses connect you to the simple pleasures of life.
Later that afternoon we head off on our winery adventure. Our first winery, Hunting Creek Vineyards, proves to be so much fun, we never make it to the second one! Owned by Sandy and Milt McPherson, this out-of-the-way winery is worth finding. The tasting room is a rustic log cabin, which the couple restored. Out front is a cozy porch perfect for sipping wine, which is exactly where Robin and I head after our tasting. You can buy wine by the glass, so we pick one we especially like—Indulgence, a Bordeaux blend—and settle into our rocking chairs for a relaxing chat with Sandy, who also works as a nurse. She and Milt, a doctor, opened Hunting Creek Vineyards in 2002, their dream come true. Soon Milt arrives, covered in grease after working on a tractor, and joins us. Robin and I feel like we’re with old friends.
In fact, everyone we meet seems extraordinarily friendly. Gary believes people in the Southside region are happier. His theory is the wide-open spaces keep people calmer and less likely to lose their cool. It makes sense to me. We live in a busy metro area with 1.5 million residents, where traffic is a fact of life and everyone, it seems, is in a rush to be somewhere else. In Halifax County, by contrast, the population hovers around 36,000. That’s not to say, there aren’t problems in Southside Virginia, but overall the peaceful vibe seems to rub off on the inhabitants. At least that’s how it looks to me.
Just because the region is less populated doesn’t mean there are no big-city amenities. Besides art, music, dance, and theatre, good restaurants can also be found. After saying goodbye to Milt and Sandy, Robin and I drive to the town of Halifax, where an upscale restaurant called Molasses Grill awaits.
As we walk in, it feels like we’ve left sleepy Southside behind. The vibe in Molasses Grill is hip and trendy, and the atmosphere is electric—due in part to the fact that it’s Prom Night and decked-out teenagers are relishing a glamorous evening of white linen tablecloths and romantic candlelight. The décor of Molasses Grill also suggests we’ve been transported to a big city. The historic building on Main Street features exposed brick and a 12-foot ceiling. The restaurant is packed, and we feel lucky to be here.
The menu boasts Southern-inspired cuisine, as well as a fabulous list of cocktails, beer, and wine. I order a ginger cosmopolitan, which is spicy-sweet and refreshing. Robin and I decide to graze and start with the calamari, a terrific dish of delicately fried calamari served over a decadent cream sauce that tastes of tomatoes and capers.
Milt told us to try the house-made sausage, so we share the evening’s selection, a savory beer-bratwurst blend that has just the right amount of zip. Next Robin and I order the Hanger Steak Salad to share—lovely chargrilled slices of steak served atop a generous portion of fresh greens bathed in peppercorn-buttermilk dressing. We save room for dessert—a trio of house made ice cream—and barely manage to fit it in.
In fact, all the desserts, dressings, marinades, and sauces are made from scratch at Molasses Grill, whose kitchen is headed up by Chef Stephen Schopen, a transplant from England who prides himself on the quality of his fare. He and his wife Karen opened Molasses Grill in 2005 and have been thrilled with the support from the community. The seafood, meat, and produce served at the restaurant are sourced in Virginia and North Carolina when possible, and the flavorful food reflects the chef’s commitment to quality. Personally, I plan to go out of my way to dine at Molasses Grill again. It’s that good!
The next morning we wake up to spring showers. Robin and I are hoping the rain will stop long enough for a morning ride before we head back home. Breakfast brings us and the other guests to the dining room, where we enjoy a repeat of Saturday’s plentiful, delicious fare. As we eat, we share stories of the night before. Most of the other guests went to The Ride for Hope party and had fun dancing and listening to a live band.
Luckily, the rain stops after breakfast, and we’re happy we can enjoy another ride. Gary saddles up the horses with help from Brookes and Jessica, and we take off for the silent woods. Surrounded by the verdant green trees, I feel a sense of contentment. Soon a light rain starts up again, yet I hardly notice. I’m so enchanted by the moment.
Here in Shangrila, happiness isn’t something you find in a mysterious, magical place far, far away. It’s right here—waiting for you.
For more information, visit