Every so often a resort comes along that seems to redefine the notion of a hideaway for a new generation. Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm opened in 1976, and for decades it has been a consistent favorite of Hideaway Report members. Earlier this year, the Farm gained a sibling, Blackberry Mountain, located 9 miles away on an elevated perch overlooking Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Blackberry Farm was the creation of Sandy Beall (founder of the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain), while Blackberry Mountain was the brainchild of his son, Sam Beall, who took over running the family business in 2001. From Blackberry Farm, the Bealls had long gazed across a peaceful valley to the wooded slopes of Chilhowee Mountain. The only thing that disturbed their serene contemplation was the thought that its slopes could be purchased and developed, and their view disfigured. So when 5,200 acres of Chilhowee came up for sale in 2007, the Bealls acquired the land for a reported $20 million. In collaboration with North American Land Trust, the family set aside 2,700 acres for conservation in perpetuity, while the remaining 2,500 acres were earmarked as the possible site of a wellness retreat, one that would be a harmonious addition to its natural surroundings.
This February, Sam Beall’s vision became a reality. Tragically, he was not there to attend the opening ceremony, as he had been killed in a skiing accident three years earlier, at age 39. It had been left to his widow, Mary Celeste Beall, to complete her late husband’s project.
Blackberry Mountain is located just 18 miles southeast of Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson Airport, and our transfer took less than 35 minutes. After leaving the highway, the landscape rapidly turned wild, and the last stretch of the drive was up a steep, winding road, with sturdy metal barriers on some of the bends. Our driver commented on the frequency of black bear encounters. The main lodge turned out to have been constructed from rough-hewn blocks of honey-colored stone that had been quarried on the estate. Set on a slope, it overlooked a tract of densely forested land that rolled and dipped before culminating in a distant ridge of hills.
Inside, our first impression was of high ceilings, huge windows and a clean, modern design employing expanses of local wood and stone. There was a sense of space and an atmosphere of calm. Taking a brief tour, we discovered that in addition to the reception area, the ground floor contained the Whippoorwill Lounge with a log fireplace and cocktail bar, plus the Three Sisters restaurant. A sublevel housed the spa, which led out onto a panoramic pool deck.
The accommodations at Blackberry Mountain comprise 18 Stone Cottages (1,200 to 1,475 square feet), five multibedroom homes (2,290 to 4,500 square feet) and six Watchman Cabins (675 square feet), the last category located at the top of the mountain, a seven-minute drive from the main lodge. Our Thunderhead Cottage was situated on a hillside about 100 feet above reception and was virtually within walking distance, but we accepted the offer of a brief ride in a dark-green golf cart. (Every room has a dedicated buggy; otherwise, to move around the property, guests summon one of the Lexus limousines that are constantly on call.) Although the vegetation had yet to grow back completely after the construction, the cottage had already merged into the terrain and seemed almost like a natural outcrop.
Despite being extremely easy to get to, Blackberry Mountain feels surprisingly remote.
Heavy wooden doors set into an exterior wall opened into a stone-flagged porch with two pale-gray loungers and a fireplace. From this enclave we entered our accommodations, a junior suite arrangement, with armchairs set beside windows that afforded a view of the valley and a king-size bed facing the other side of the indoor-outdoor fireplace. The color scheme was a harmonious mix of cream, slate, beige and shades of blue. The steeply pitched ceiling made the bedroom seem much larger than it actually was. Overall, the design was a successful combination of elegant contemporary lines and rustic wooden doors and furniture.
Off the bedroom we found an area containing both a wall of spacious built-in closets and a large marble-topped wet bar and pantry with a coffee machine, a fridge, various wines and an imaginative selection of snacks. This space merged into a light and attractive bath, which came with two sinks set in beige marble, a heated wooden floor, pale wood cupboards, a separate walk-in shower and a jetted soaking tub. Windows provided a view of the porch and the landscape beyond. It was hard to imagine what additions to the cottage could have made us more comfortable.
Back outside, we sat on the loungers for a while, gazing at the landscape and listening to the silence. Despite being extremely easy to get to, Blackberry Mountain feels surprisingly remote. Within 15 minutes of our arrival, our cottage already felt like a refuge from the cares of the world.
Blackberry Farm has long been renowned for the quality of its food — Sam Beall was a noted chef who had worked at the French Laundry in Yountville, California, for a while — so we were keen to see whether Blackberry Mountain would offer similarly elevated gastronomy. After a cocktail at the bar in the lively Whippoorwill Lounge, we were taken to a table beside an open window in Three Sisters, with a view across miles of untouched forest. Most of our fellow diners appeared to be in their 30s and 40s, a younger group than the one typically found at the Farm, while the staff all seemed to be young and conspicuously friendly. The setting was stylish, but the atmosphere was informal.
The executive chef at Three Sisters, Josh Feathers, is a native of East Tennessee, but he trained in Italy, before working for a time as sous chef for the commander in chief of U.S. forces in Southern Europe. Back home, he found his way to Blackberry Farm, where he spent 18 years in the kitchen. A glance at the menu revealed that the emphasis at Blackberry Mountain is on healthy food, with an international range of flavors and ingredients. (In contrast, Blackberry Farm is famous for rich Southern “Foothills Cuisine.”) I opted for a forager’s salad with a Champagne-ramp-hemlock dressing and toasted benne seeds, followed by a second course of Gulf shrimp, mussels, octopus and tomato stew with bomba rice, and a main of roasted lamb with olives, couscous and cauliflower. All were outstanding.
For breakfast, many guests at Blackberry Mountain head up to the 2,800-foot summit of Chilhowee Mountain, where the Firetower, the property’s second restaurant, is located. To get there, some energetic folk make a 1.4-mile uphill hike through chestnut oak trees, while others take their golf cart for a 15-minute spin, or summon a Lexus for a seven-minute transfer. Built in the 1940s, the actual fire lookout tower is an open-sided metal structure, with an enclosed viewing deck reached by half a dozen flights of stairs from which you can see into the neighboring state of Kentucky. At its base, the wooden buildings have been converted into an attractive bar and a casual restaurant.
As well as the expected breakfast dishes, the menu offers a number of more-imaginative selections. I opted for Eggs in Pomodoro, the over-easy eggs being served in a tomato sauce with pecorino cheese and warm flatbread, while my wife chose a bowl of soba noodles with poached eggs, a mushroom broth and pickled ginger. Sitting beside an open window, soothed by a warm breeze, we took advantage of the limitless supplies of coffee and fresh orange juice and gazed meditatively at the 30-mile view. It was a wrench to leave, but at least we were able to console ourselves that we would soon be back for lunch.
Despite having stayed in hundreds of the world’s leading resorts, I have never encountered a program of activities remotely as comprehensive or well-organized.
The quality of the food and the accommodations, as well as the beauty and tranquility of its setting, means that Blackberry Mountain will appeal to travelers of all stripes. But it is primarily a wellness retreat. (Fitness classes are included in the daily rate.) Aside from the spa beneath the main lodge, with its sauna, steam showers and year-round outdoor infinity pool, the resort has an additional complex nearby, the Hub, where a huge array of activities is offered. Programs range from gentle wellness routines to aggressive HIIT (high-intensity interval training) classes. In addition to fitness studios, there is the Spin Lab and a climbing wall, while yoga classes are held on the outdoor elevated Yoga Loft, surrounded by trees. Other activities are organized by a team of wellness concierges, who plan hiking and running on the property’s 25 miles of private trails, as well as rock climbing, mountain biking and wake surfing. There is also a store selling outdoor clothing and equipment and a grab-and-go food counter for sandwiches and portable snacks. And for those who have burned enough calories for one day, the Art Studio offers classes in painting, basket weaving and pottery making. Despite having stayed in hundreds of the world’s leading resorts, I have never encountered a program of activities remotely as comprehensive or well-organized.
Despite having been open for only a few months at the time of our stay, our experience at Blackberry Mountain was virtually flawless. Doubtless this is chiefly because the new operation is in many ways just an extension of the original property. Staff members and their expertise could simply be transferred. Blackberry Mountain is clearly aimed at a youngish, health-conscious demographic, and it illustrates perfectly the evolving nature of luxury travel. To what extent the two resorts will have an overlapping clientele is hard to say. But I imagine that a significant percentage of guests will opt to stay for a few days in each place. At any event, this was our plan. So, after checking out reluctantly, we settled into our waiting limousine for the 20-minute drive to Blackberry Farm.
Just about everything, but especially the silence, the glorious views, the exceptionally comfortable and stylish cottages, the delicious food and the unrivaled program of activities.
Nothing really. The reception staff seemed disorganized and slightly grumpy when we arrived, but everyone else was charming.
The resort hosts regular cultural events with performers the caliber of Emmylou Harris.
Spread across a 4,200-acre estate, Blackberry Farm comprises numerous buildings aside from the Main House, including a dairy barn, a farmhouse, the Barn (a formal gourmet restaurant) and separate spa and stables complexes. Here, the landscape is gentle and manicured, with lush rolling pastures, white wooden fences and an ornamental lake. The 68 accommodations are also spread among several buildings and range from suites to cottages to multibedroom homes.
We had reserved a Holly Glade Cottage Suite, which turned out to be set in woodland, a three-minute walk from the Main House. In contrast to our cottage at Blackberry Mountain, this featured an entirely traditional décor, with heavy chintz curtains, reproduction antique furniture and gilt-framed oil paintings. A large cream sofa flanked by a gas-log fireplace provided a peaceful place in which to read, as did the wicker armchairs on the porch. Only the large bath, with its cream marble surfaces, separate shower and jetted tub, was bright and modern.
The style of the Main House is similarly conventional, with leather chairs, paneled walls and stone floors. Aside from the bar-lounge, it contains the Dogwood, the more casual of the property’s two restaurants. When the weather is clement, tables are set outside beneath white umbrellas, where diners gaze past a line of white rocking chairs to the forested landscape and, in the distance, Chilhowee Mountain.
Having ordered lunch — marinated grilled quail served with creamed corn and roasted sweet onion, and buttermilk-brined fried chicken with grilled squash and a spicy tomato salad — we settled back to sip glasses of Sancerre and admire the view. Most of our fellow guests seemed to range in age from early 50s to late 70s, though there were two multigenerational groups with younger parents and their children. Here, on this occasion, the majority of voices were Southern — at the Mountain, New York and California accents seemed to predominate — and the slightly formal atmosphere was that of an upscale country club. The principal similarities to Blackberry Mountain were the excellence of the food and invariably polite and friendly staff.
After lunch, one of the bellmen gave us a 30-minute tour on a golf cart in order to reacquaint ourselves with the property. When I asked whether he could spare so much time away from his other duties, he replied that making people feel at home was the primary purpose of his job and that he was happy to drive us around for as long as we wished. Nearly all the staff at the two Blackberry resorts come from the surrounding area of Tennessee, and they seem to form a kind of huge extended family. Maybe this helps to explain why everyone is so consistently relaxed and obliging.
The principal similarities to Blackberry Mountain were the excellence of the food and invariably polite and friendly staff.
This intimate connection to the land and its people is also evident at the Barn, the property’s award-winning restaurant. Executive chef Cassidee Dabney worked her way up through the ranks to her current preeminence, and her “Foothills Cuisine” is rooted in Appalachian ingredients, as well as products from the surrounding farm. (In addition to growing vegetables, Blackberry Farm keeps livestock and makes cheese, while the chefs forage the nearby woodlands for mushrooms and berries.) The Barn itself is a century-year-old structure that was translocated from the Pennsylvania Dutch country. Today, it is a grand, cavernous space illuminated in the evening chiefly by candles and light from the open kitchen. The experience marries French three-star solemnity — Bernardaud china, sterling silverware, a monumental wine list — with indigenous charm. The servers are drilled but unpretentious, while the affable sommelier, Andy Chabot, is happy to steer you away from the $500 selections, in search of something appropriate but less financially onerous. For our mains we opted for wood-grilled beef rib-eye with smoked-beet purée and horseradish béarnaise, and hickory-smoked poussin with green tomatoes, hen of the woods mushrooms, corn, sassafras and peanuts. Both were memorably delicious.
Aside from the pool and the spa, guests at Blackberry Farm find time for activities such as fly-fishing, hiking, clay shooting and horseback riding. A splendid new equestrian facility, located a mile from the main estate, has cheerful and competent staff, who are clearly committed to the Natural Horsemanship techniques it espouses. (Essentially, these involve an effort to understand the psychology of the horse and an attempt to establish a relationship with the animal.) But, ultimately, this is a resort at which the pleasures of the table are the primary attraction.
After a Southern breakfast of Foothills sausage gravy with Cruze Farm buttermilk biscuits, and griddle cakes with brown sugar sour cream and spiced maple syrup, we headed to the Knoxville airport. Along the way, it crossed our minds more than once that two or three days running uphill at Blackberry Mountain might have been a useful antidote to this indulgence. In their respective ways, the two resorts are equally admirable and idyllic. But what I particularly admire is the way in which contrasting properties of a world-class standard are inextricably entangled with a specific location and its inhabitants. Their food and the service would be exceptional in France or northern Italy, but the experience at both Blackberry Farm and Blackberry Mountain is unique to eastern Tennessee.
Sitting on the terrace at the Dogwood restaurant, eating delectable food and gazing at the Smoky Mountains; the fine equestrian center.
The Holly Glade Cottage Suites are rather dark, and their woodland setting can be secluded or claustrophobic according to your point of view.
At the spa, the “Lavender and Vanilla Bourbon Body Drench” isn’t nearly as alarming and alcoholic as it sounds.