- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 6, 2008

Under the bright Middleburg, Va., sun, Sheila Johnson crouches before two nameless and mildly grouchy swans, the newest residents of Salamander Farms.

“What should I name you?” she asks the long-necked birds, her voice soaked with sucralose.

Ms. Johnson turns to Peter Baysdell, the manager of the 200-acre estate and the birds’ de facto caretaker.

“Where are they from, Oklahoma?”

“Actually, they’re from Chicago,” Mr. Baysdell replies.

“Chicago? Ooooh! How about Michelle and Barack? They’re Michelle and Barack Obama!”

A friend points out with a chuckle that the birds are white, but that’s irrelevant. Ms. Johnson is comfortable with her whimsical homage to the senator and presidential candidate from her home state of Illinois, who she has supported with both her money and influence. As easy as it was for her to ship in swans to add character to the pond of her estate, she also has traveled to South Carolina and other locales to lend support to the presumptive Democratic nominee.

“I am thoroughly impressed by him,” Ms. Johnson says. “I am impressed by his passion. I am impressed by his vision. I am impressed by his mind. He’s just an amazing human being.”

Ms. Johnson does not, however, spend her typical day toiling for Mr. Obama, or anyone else for that matter. There’s a company, Salamander Hospitality, that needs running. Someone needs to look after the Washington Mystics basketball team. There are also films to produce and promote and a number of philanthropic causes begging for attention.

On this day, Ms. Johnson has allowed herself to take it easy, having flown back the previous night after helping her son, Brett, go through orientation at the University of Arizona. Tonight, she will host a dinner for an old friend traveling up from Florida. Tomorrow, she may drop by a party hosted by her friend Mark Ein, a local venture capitalist and owner of the new Washington Kastles tennis team.

But her attention is never too far away from her businesses. Lately, she has spent considerable time going over plans for a new luxury hotel up the street in Middleburg. The $130 million Salamander Resort and Spa is scheduled to open in about two years; most recently, Ms. Johnson has been reading voraciously on the new spa trend of “body detoxification.”

Travel + Leisure Magazine named Salamander’s Woodlands Resort and Inn, near Charleston, S.C., as No. 1 in service among North American resorts. It is one of the few American properties to earn a five-star rating from the Mobil Travel Guide. Salamander also last year bought the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in Tampa, Fla., which recently became host to a new PGA Tour golf event.

“I want to capture a unique market, where people can feel a total escape,” Ms. Johnson says. “Anyone can go to any midsize or midlevel hotel. That’s not what I want to do. Everything I do I try to aim for excellence. Because that’s what I feel is important. I want to have my handprint, my thumbprint on anything I put out there.”

Even the dinner on this night will have Ms. Johnson’s fingerprints all over it, literally. Donning a green apron, she coats a tray of Cornish hens with oil and herbs, turning them over in her hands like duckpin bowling balls. She has not bothered to remove the diamond rings that glisten on her fingers.

“I love to entertain,” she says, as if the words are part of a song.

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