Shangrila. The word evokes paradise, a mysterious far-away place of permanent 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—three hours or so west of Tidewater. When I finally arrive, I wonder, “What took you so long?”
A college friend and I enjoyed a girlfriend getaway at Shangrila Guest Ranch in South Boston a while back. We spent the weekend riding, catching up, and hanging out. A winery visit and dinner at an upscale restaurant in nearby Halifax added to the fun. But Shangrila is also a perfect destination for families and couples looking for a taste of the Old West. Grab your boots and let’s go!
Find Harmony and Contentment on Horseback
Ride For A Cause with Ride For Hope
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. Shangrila exudes harmony and contentment, a place where you’ll feel right at home.
Robin and I stayed on the second floor of the ranch house above the dining room. We loved 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 and Julie also welcome guests who bring their own horses.
At a cookout and campfire Friday night, we met 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 were having their own girlfriend getaway. These women meet up every year at a different dude ranch and had traveled from Florida, California, and Ohio all the way to Shangrila.
We woke up Saturday morning, eager to ride. But first breakfast! We dug 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 makes food taste better, don’t you think? Robin and I enjoyed our hearty breakfast and 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. Gary, who leads the horseback riding treks, prides himself on his horses and makes sure to match each rider with a suitable horse. He chose Sonny for me and Robin rode Pretty Boy—both, gentle, easy-going horses.
Our visit coincided with The Ride for Hope, an annual event which raises funds for cancer patients and attracts 200+ horsemen and women, many from out of town. Being part of this event was a thrill, and soon after we saddled up, riders began passing through the ranch, which is on the trail route. People rode in groups, and soon our bunch headed through the woods—happy to be part of this fabulous ride that combines fun, friends, horses, and nature, all for a worthy cause.
Everywhere we looked, folks on horses were having a ball. “People live for the weekends,” Gary said, “when they get on their horses and ride.” As we rode along, I noticed how happy and relaxed everyone looked. 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. That’s why I love riding so much—horses connect you to the simple pleasures of life.
Enjoy a Wine Tasting at Hunting Creek Vineyards
Then Experience Upscale Dining at Molasses Grill
Later that afternoon Robin and I headed off on our winery adventure to Hunting Creek Vineyards. 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 front porch perfect for sipping wine, which is exactly where Robin and I sat after our tasting.
You can buy wine by the glass, so we picked one we especially liked—Indulgence, a Bordeaux blend—and settled into our rocking chairs for a relaxing chat with Sandy, who also works as a nurse. She and Milt, a doctor, opened Hunting Creek Winery in 2008, their dream come true. Soon Milt arrived, covered in grease after working on a tractor, and joined us. Robin and I felt like we were with old friends.
In fact, everyone we met seemed 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 there, but overall the peaceful vibe seems to rub off on the inhabitants. At least that’s how it appeared to me.
However, just because the region is less populated doesn’t mean there aren’t any 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 drove to the town of Halifax, where an upscale restaurant called Molasses Grill awaited.
The menu features Southern-inspired cuisine, as well as a fabulous list of cocktails, beer, and wine. I ordered a ginger cosmopolitan, which was spicy-sweet and refreshing. Robin and I decided to graze and started with the calamari, a terrific dish of delicately fried calamari served over a decadent cream sauce that tasted of tomatoes and capers.
Milt had told us to try the house-made sausage, so we shared the evening’s selection, a savory beer-bratwurst blend that had just the right amount of zip. Next Robin and I ordered a Hanger Steak Salad to share—lovely chargrilled slices of steak served atop a generous portion of fresh greens bathed in peppercorn-buttermilk dressing. We saved room for dessert—a trio of house made ice cream—and barely managed 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 woke up to spring showers. Robin and I were hoping the rain would stop long enough for a morning ride before we headed back home. Breakfast brought us and the other guests to the dining room, where we enjoyed a repeat of Saturday’s plentiful, delicious fare. As we ate, we shared stories of the night before. Most of the other guests had gone to The Ride for Hope party, where they danced and kicked up their heels to live music.
Luckily the rain stopped after breakfast, and we were thrilled to enjoy another ride. Gary saddled up the horses, and we took off for the silent woods. Here surrounded by the verdant green trees, I felt a sense of contentment. Soon a light rain began to fall, yet I was so enchanted by the moment, I barely noticed.
Happiness isn’t something you’ll find in a mysterious, magical place far, far away. It’s in Shangrila—waiting for you.
To ride at Shangrila Guest Ranch, children must be 10 years or older or have significant riding experience.
For more information, visit
This story was previously published in Tidewater Women.