A Breath of Fresh Airlie

Written by Anita

May 25, 2015

Less than an hour’s drive from DC and nestled in the Shenandoah’s foothills lies Airlie, encompassing over 1,200 acres of verdant Virginia countryside. At this time of year, Airlie is abloom with flora (irises, peonies, roses, and azaleas, to name a few) and home to fauna (swans, geese, ducks, rabbits, lizards, foxes, and the occasional black bear). We recently made it our weekend home as well, having being invited to sample some of what Airlie has to offer.

Airlie started as a private residence and working farm, home to the Henry Groom family in the late 1800s. Mr. Groom imported trees from all over the world to populate the property, including majestic European copper beeches and stately Linden trees. In 1956, Dr. Murdock Head (a medical doctor, a dentist, AND a lawyer!) purchased Airlie Farm, ultimately combining it with several other nearby estates to create Airlie. In 1961, he reinvented Airlie for the first time—repurposing the property’s farm structures and residences to build a private conference center designed as a retreat for the world’s big thinkers where they could “get things done.” Indeed, over the years, it has hosted a variety of important groups, including the first annual civil rights conference (it is said that Martin Luther King Jr. planned his march on Washington and wrote his “I Have a Dream” speech here), a Kennedy foundation conference, and gatherings of the Institutes of Peace.

Flash forward to the present—Airlie is now reinventing itself once again, as an oasis for those looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city to explore decidedly more leisure pursuits. Visitors can enjoy a range of recreational activities, including fishing, tennis, volleyball, and skeet shooting. (Archery will be added soon, and a spa is planned within the next few years.) During our visit, we lounged poolside, biked the estate’s many scenic nature trails (bicycles are freely available for use throughout the property), picnicked in Airlie’s formal garden, and played darts, foosball, and board games in the Whistling Swan Pub.

Accommodations can be found nestled within Airlie’s seven historic buildings, constructed in the Georgian Colonial revival style. (Indeed, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has deemed it a Historic Hotel of America). We stayed in Farmer’s House, in a queen room swathed in vintage floral prints of pale blue and green. An overstuffed armchair offered a cozy reading nook. Despite its traditional décor, the room included modern-day amenities, including free WiFi, flat screen cable TV, in-room coffeemaker, and iPad docking stations. A nearby state-of-the-art fitness center provides access to treadmills, elliptical machines, and exercise balls. At the center of it all, Airlie House offers spaces for reading and reflection.

One thing that hasn’t changed over time is Airlie’s commitment to the environment and sustainability. It has won numerous environmental awards, among them the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s E3 designation for “exemplary environmental enterprise.” Employees are trained in green practices and complimentary electric vehicle charging is available onsite. Airlie features eco-friendly products, relies heavily on recycling and composting, and takes great pains to maintain its National Wildlife Federation-certified habitat.  Gaylord Nelson first announced his vision for what became Earth Day here in 1969, and he returned on Earth Day in 1993 to plant a tree to commemorate that event. Dr. Bill Sladen’s migration studies with Trumpeter swans and Canada geese took place here, and were featured in the film Fly Away Home. A LEED Gold-certified pavilion offers wedding venue seekers a uniquely picturesque setting.

This sustainable outlook carries over to Airlie’s cuisine. In 1998, Airlie started the Local Food Project, devoting four acres to providing ingredients for its kitchens while promoting sustainable agriculture and organic methods. Fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers are grown organically without pesticides; an apiary produces local honey, while also pollinating the expansive fields and meadows. Each year, over a ton of food is donated to local food banks, and a community garden plot offers locals the opportunity to grow their own. Jeff Witte, the estate’s culinary director and a chef at Airlie for over 12 years, told us about his efforts to locally source the majority of the meats and produce used in the estate’s eating establishments through a network of over 30 local farms. We visited one such producer, Wiffletree Farm, where Jesse Straight (a Joel Salatin devotee and fellow Virginia farmer) humanely pasture-raises the chicken, turkeys, pigs, and cattle that end up on Chef Witte’s menus.  

We enjoyed this local cuisine first-hand in the Garden Bistro, Airlie’s upscale restaurant. We started with a cocktail made with the herbal bounty of Airlie’s garden: the Spring Tea-ser (St. Germain, lavender-chai tea, Airlie honey, four types of garden-grown mint, and Bombay Sapphire gin—see the recipe here). Standout courses included the chilled vegetable medley and soup (a restorative and refreshing spinach “soup” accompanied by sliced radishes and beets, baby carrots, crunchy turnips, shaved asparagus, baby kale, asiago cheese, and edible flowers and herbs), the juicy seared lamb chops (served with sautéed royal trumpet mushrooms, pine nuts, mint, spring onions and baby bok choy, flanked by a sunny-side-up fried quail egg, and bathed in a mushroom consommé), and the savory pork and corn (a gourmet “meatloaf” of ground slab bacon, back fat, and pork loin nestled in a bed of creamy corn porridge, topped with corn shoots, fresh mache and cilantro, petite peas, tomato ‘salsa’, pickled peppers, and chopped apples, and dressed in a mango-lime vinaigrette).

Want to experience Airlie for yourself? Then sign up now for its upcoming Signature Dinner with Linden Vineyards (info on the other monthly dinners of the series available on GregsListDC), swing by for the next Friday night Wine or Beer Tasting, or buzz by its upcoming Hive Alive event.

Want to sleep on it? Then consider booking Airlie’s One Night Getaway Package (which includes overnight accommodations, a bottle of regional wine accompanied with house jams and crackers, and a traditional breakfast buffet) or the Celebrate Spring Package (which substitutes a three-course gourmet dinner and two glasses of Virginia wine for the wine/snacks). Want the best of both packages? Then plot your Weekend Escape, which includes all of the above, plus a Saturday-night reception featuring a complimentary glass of champagne and chef-crafted hors d’oeuvres.

Don’t delay--this formerly “private” place is certain to soon attract lots of “public” attention!

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