Blackberry Farm

“It’s like discovering a pearl in the wilderness,” says a Versace-clad woman to her dinner companions while I sip a glass of Cabernet and savor a bit of eavesdropping at Blackberry Farm. It is the perfect description.

Few would expect such refinement in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee. Don’t bother looking for a sign on the main road to guide you to a place where chic and sheep coincide–gawkers are discouraged. In fact, the average tourist has never heard of this rural retreat and that suits Blackberry Farm just fine. They don’t advertise. Instead, word-of-mouth, articles in high-end publications, top rankings on nearly every “best resort” list plus awards from the James Beard Foundation and Wine Spectator feed the momentum. Hollywood celebs, West Coast techies and those in the know (rumor has it Oprah and Martha Stewart have stayed here) frequent this bucolic resort/spa/gourmet getaway for exceptional and very private R&R.

Even the word “resort” feels wrong; “experience” is a better description. With only 62 rooms and cottages on 4,200 acres (plus an additional 5,000 acres of private wilderness for fox hunting, horseback riding, fly fishing or hiking) this Relais & Chateaux working farm and gastronomic mecca offers perks that are far from its golf and ski alternatives (they don’t have either.)

They do have a dairy, creamery, charcuterie and brewery plus a master cheesemaker, beekeeper, chocolatier and preservationist who oversees all jam making. Jams are sold on the farm as well as to fancy food emporiums throughout the U.S. (the blueberry is to die for).

All vegetables served are grown on the farm and only heirloom seeds are used. Milk from the sheep is used to make their yogurt and cheeses. A butcher and baker are on staff and odds are, a candlestick maker is there, too. The sommelier and his team oversee a 221 page wine list representing 160,000 bottles, including rare vintages such as a $14,000 bottle of Montrachet.

There’s more. The farm is cultivating truffles. To hunt for them, assuming they materialize (there are no guarantees for this ten-year project), they breed rare Lagotto Romagnolo dogs imported from Italy. Fall in love with a puppy? They are for sale–$6,000 each, trained with commands given exclusively in Italian, of course. Untrained, the price is halved.

Privately owned and managed by the Beall family since the early 70’s, Blackberry Farm employs a staff of 375 to care for its pampered guests. Room rates include three glorious meals each day and begin at $795; cottage suites from $1495.

The place has been on my bucket list since before bucket lists became trendy. When the farm’s new spa, Wellhouse, opened I talked my husband into a three night stay.

On arrival, our car is whisked away. We won’t need it again until we leave–each cottage comes with its own golf cart. If we want a lift anywhere, a fleet of new Lexus cars is available, with or without a driver.

From the outside, our dark brown wood-framed cottage tucked in the woods appears unremarkable. Inside, we find all the bells and whistles of a luxury hotel–soaring 17-foot ceiling in the living/bedroom, polished wood floors topped with eclectic furnishings, Frette linens and robes plus a pantry stocked with complimentary snacks. The bathroom is big enough for a family reunion.

Despite the temptation to hang out in the fancy digs, we head outdoors, winding our way through pastures dotted with horses and a dozen piglets following their mom. We discover a crystal clear trout stream, a tranquil lake and we linger at the boat house before putting a canoe to use. While there are plenty of activities—yoga, fly fishing, horseback riding, and archery for starters–there is something to be said for doing nothing. The only thing on my ‘to do’ list is visiting the spa.

Face down on the massage table, my dings and dents are tweaked with warm poultices filled with healing herbs and flowers that are pressed into my body. The warmth and fragrance reduce me to Jell-O. Am I detoxed as the treatment promises? Who cares. I head to the outdoor pool and fantasize about our next hedonistic adventure: dinner.

“Good evening” says the tall young man who swoops down upon us, ready to fulfill our every wish. I’m having trouble focusing on menu choices. Instead, I’m fixated on the room, a splendid turn-of-the-century barn with high ceilings and massive beams.

I place the snowy white antique linen napkin on my lap and scan the French china and sterling silver. Given the game plan, we anticipate a hoity-toity menu. While there is plenty of haute cuisine, the forward-thinking chef creatively combines fancier fare with southern Foothills food. And, he doesn’t take himself too seriously–Guinea Hen Croquettes with White Truffle Sauce are served on a bed of “straw” topping a piece of tree bark. My husband’s pate is served on slate at the same time my Swiss Chard Salad is presented on white gold-rimmed china.

Dinner may be the star each day but breakfast and lunch aren’t far behind. Both are served in a room you would expect to find in a private country estate. In our cozy banquette, surrounded by the owner’s impressive art collection and antique furnishings, we decide that the most beautiful art (and there’s plenty of it) is the daily vista of fog hanging over the Smokies as viewed from the sprawling stone terrace.

By day three, we’re accustomed to being spoiled. At checkout, a perky young man appears with two boxed lunches for our trip home. Even they aren’t ordinary–turkey sandwiches with scallion mayonnaise on rosemary flatbread, containers of radish and stewed-apple salad and the most extraordinary chocolate chip cookies on the planet.

As we drive down the country road, with windows wide open, a blast of fresh warm air whips my face. All I can utter is one word, ‘a-maz-ing.’ Maybe tomorrow I’ll think of something more poetic.

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