Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Washington Social Diary's countryside getaway

The Great Smoky Mountains looking smoky.
Blackberry Farm: Sleep Away Camp for Rich People
by Carol Joynt

Oh, to be a lottery winner, Goldman-Sachs executive or newly rich! I would peel off a wad of fresh green and jet back to the even greener hills of Tennessee and the pastoral fields at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains. I would be pampered, but with a veneer of roughing it: good food, fine wine, a great bed and acres of hiking, horseback rides, fly-fishing and canoe trips.

I would thank my lucky stars – even though I had to pay to gaze at them – that once upon a time some other rich people made this getaway possible by creating the incomparable Blackberry Farm – a 4,200 acre working farm that doubles as one of the world’s top luxury resorts. Zagat, for example, gives it 28’s all the way across the scorecard.
The road to Blackberry Farm.
Blackberry Farm in the morning.
For years I heard enchanting talk of Blackberry, but its location, 40 minutes southeast of Knoxville, didn’t seem on the way to anywhere. It appealed to me because it was in a class with a few other East Coast small resorts where I was fortunate to have been a guest. They are sleep away camps for rich people, where coddling is the premium and prices for a one night stay start at, or easily exceed, $1,000 - The Point in Upper Saranac Lake, NY, Twin Farms in Vermont and Little Palm Island in the Florida Keys. These are exceptional resorts – versed in wealth, indulgence or once-in-a-lifetime extravagance, even though each emphasizes understated elegance and simplicity. They have another benefit: extreme privacy. Little Palm, for example, is its own island, accessible only by boat.

The Point and Twin Farms are smartly “all inclusive.” The food, drinks and fun are included in the room price. The pretense is that you are a “house guest” rather than a “hotel guest.” It works. At The Point the fun can be fishing, a picnic lunch for two on an island in the lake or a campfire with marshmallows after dinner. Ask, and its done. At Twin Farms it can be canoeing, a winter snowshoe hike or a summer mountain hike with a guide. Ask, and its done.
Golf carts are Blackberry's principal means of transport for guests.
Feet will do, too. In this economy, perhaps one of the few sound nest eggs.
Nest Egg cottage.
Blackberry's Nest Egg cottage, with twin beds for a mother and son. King beds are the norm.
Blackberry has its own bluegrass CD, playing softly upon arrival in the room.
Where the TV hides.
With the TV exposed.
The mini bar: soft drinks and Dove bars are complimentary, beer, wine and champagne are not.
The bathroom with a view...
and a whirlpool bath that washes and dries.
The Blackberry Farm service directory, plus a fantasy guide of worldwide hotel options.
Looking into Nest Egg cottage from the porch.
The porch.
A good supply of wood outside the cottage door comes in helpful on chilly mountain nights.
The view from Nest Egg cottage on a misty spring evening.
Blackberry has a similar menu of pursuits and adventures, though only the food at breakfast, lunch and dinner, snacks, and a golf cart are included with the room. Wine and cocktails are extra. Activities generally have an hourly (or two hour) base rate. Fishing starts at $175, canoeing at $150, horseback riding at $125, stargazing at $165. I did not see the spa, but it has a menu of traditional services. For example, a massage, facial, pedicure and manicure package starts at $410 per person; a new mint and cane sugar scrub is $185.

Bird watching, however, is free.

Face it, the best way to arrive at Blackberry is with an open mind about the budget, but once that hurdle is crossed the experience is remarkable.
Where breakfast and lunch are served.
Tables set for breakfast.
Picnic tables for lunch on a less misty day.
Rockers on the back terrace. The Blackberry Farm box lunch of sandwiches, salads, chips, cookies. Good for a picnic or the trip home.
The lounge.
Accommodations are in the main house and cottages tucked into hillsides. There are 62 rooms in all. We stayed in a handsome cottage with the name Nest Egg, which prompted an ironic giggle since mine is long gone. It was cozy and charming, especially because the day of our stay was gray and misty. It didn’t matter. The fire was set; all we had to do was apply a match. There were sofas, comfy chairs, a large but hidden HD TV, books, music, and well made beds. The spacious bathroom offered a separate shower and a state of the art whirlpool bath. A first in my travels, the tub included blowers to dry the skin after the water was drained.

We took our golf cart out for a tour that provided endless beautiful views of “smoky” low-hanging clouds on the mountains, lush fields, flowers, the kitchen garden, a tranquil pond, and a dairy barn. Since the barn door was open we parked and went in and I’m glad we did. It was packed with animals: sheep, lambs, chickens, a rooster and two pens of cuddly, curly and bouncing sheep dog puppies. The next morning, when the sun was out, I retraced our path by foot.
An outbuilding at the kitchen garden.
The kitchen garden.
There will be fava beans. Along the golf cart path.
A path through the woods at Blackberry Farm.
Sheep Dog puppies at the Dairy Barn.
In the morning outside the dairy barn.
Farm animals at the Dairy Barn.
Dinner is served in a burgundy barn with picture windows, a looming hearth, gentle lighting, rough-hewn walls and luxurious upholstery. We asked for a banquette with a view of the room.

The service was attentive, the food fresh from the farm and delicious if not hearty, the wine list extensive. A smoked trout salad was a mélange of textures and colors, roasted chicken was moist and dense with flavor. The wine selections are a knockout, but I was particularly impressed with the lengthy half-bottle list, which makes it easier to pair.

The dinner was serene, in a setting suited to relaxation and intimate conversation; perhaps the kind of meaningful talk - with lover, friend or family – that’s been long overdue.
The Farmstead Barn where dinner is served.
A table at dinner with the open kitchen in the background.
The dining room is rough hewn and elegant.
Smoked trout salad.
A farm fresh gazpacho.
Beautiful wine service. The sommelier, Andy Chabot, is a 2010 James Beard Award nominee.
Blackberry Farm proprietor Sam Beall's cookbook.
Blackberry is a natural draw for honeymooners or an active couple seeking a diverse but romantic retreat. However, it’s also welcoming to families. Some of the cottages have multiple bedrooms. The family dog is invited, too, at a fee of $250 for the stay. It is open year round, with a range of special programs geared to the seasons, particularly the holidays.

Upcoming spring programs include a weekend “Yoga Getaway,” the “Art of Entertaining with William Yeoward,” and, on another weekend, “Women’s Fly Fishing.” There’s also a cooking school.
Quince blossoms.
At the tennis courts.
The pond and boat house.
The view from inside the boat house.
Blackberry is the creation of Samuel E. “Sandy” Beall III, one of the University of Tennessee students who founded Ruby Tuesday in the 1970s. He’s currently Chairman and CEO of the company, which grew to 650 restaurants worldwide. Sandy and his wife, Kreiss, started Blackberry in 1976. Today it is run by their son, Sam Beall, whose resume includes the California Culinary Academy, the French Laundry and Chateau Potelle winery. Sam is committed to farm-to-table, seasonal foods – in other words, blackberries in berry season. Random House published a Blackberry Farm homage to his culinary vision.

That said, I think this Blackberry would be tasty any old time there’s some loose change in the pocket. I mean, the bank. In fact, excuse me as I have to go buy a lottery ticket.
Morning light filters through the trees along one of Blackberry's many paths.
Nature.
Tennessee at its prettiest.
Ross Bridge Resort, a Golfer’s Getaway in Alabama

On our recent trip to New Orleans, my son and I decided to drive home to Washington. The goal was to see back roads of the Deep South in early spring. One of our stops was Blackberry Farm, but the night before we checked in at the Renaissance Ross Bridge Resort outside Birmingham. While I’d like to say I saw it first, Keanu Reeves, Bruce Willis, Simon Cowell, Ryan Seacrest, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson got there before me.

The last four stayed a few days while auditioning “American Idol” contestants in Birmingham. The only dish I was able to glean about that trip is Simon’s hotel code name, which is “Cap’n Crunch.” Curious.
The colorful entrance to the Ross Bridge Resort.
The bedroom of a junior suite.
The view from the suite's balcony.
I’m not a golfer but Ross Bridge is a golfer’s ideal, as it is part of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, and noted by Zagat as one of the nation’s top new courses. The views in one direction are a housing development, but in the other it’s all greens and fairways. The golf spirit prevails inside, too, with lots of golf memorabilia and touches of plaid. To enhance the Scottish vibe, a bagpiper walks the grounds at sunset.

There’s an indoor pool, an attractive outdoor pool with nearby Jacuzzi at the base of a waterfall and a rather extensive spa. For sore muscles both the men’s and women’s locker rooms have steam baths, whirlpool and relaxation areas. We would have dined at the nearby and acclaimed Highlands Restaurant, but it was closed the night of our stay. Instead, we enjoyed a prompt and well-served room service dinner, and while I didn’t need the calories the mac n’ cheese with pulled pork was one of those dishes that make southern cuisine irresistible.
The swimming pool deck at Ross Bridge.
The Robert Trent Jones golf course.
Bagpiper Jim McRae begins his sunset rounds at Ross Bridge.
Bagpiper Jim McRae walks the grounds for an hour at sunset.
The resort's pub after a day of golf.
The women's whirlpool in the Ross Bridge Spa.
Fruit and snacks in the Spa's lounge.
A view of the pool deck from the 6th floor suite.
A hallway to rooms at the Ross Bridge.
The lobby fireplace at Ross Bridge Resort.
The outdoor jacuzzi and waterfall.
The language of golf.
Springtime sunset over Birmingham, AL.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C.

Visit her at: caroljoynt.com. Follow Carol on Twitter.