Originally published in Condé Nast Traveler, 2019
WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU CLIMBED A TREE? I mean climbed a tree—say, a 90-foot-tall, century-old Chilhowee oak, towering above a mountainside, with views of four states from its upper branches?
Me, I hadn’t attempted this in decades, and I now have no idea why not. As a kid I was an incorrigible tree-climber; my parents couldn’t keep me out of them. One minute I’d be excusing myself from the dinner table and the next I’d be aloft in a pine tree, howling at the moon, high above the rooftops in my happy place.
Blackberry Mountain, which opened in February 2019, is dedicated to reclaiming that happy place, while restoring joy to the pursuit of healthfulness. If the latter has come to sound like a bit of a drag—if the term “wellness resort” conjures faux-meals of flax and roughage and group hikes with all the joie de vivre of the Bataan Death March—then perhaps it’s time to pay a visit to rural Tennessee.
The new resort is seven miles up the road—emphasis on “up”—from Blackberry Farm, the celebrated Relais & Chateaux retreat in the very uncelebrated town of Walland, at the edge of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you’ve been to Blackberry Farm, you’ve seen this peak before: its 3,000-foot summit is visible from the Farm’s porch, often draped in the violet-blue mist that gives the Smokies their name.
“We’d been gazing at the mountain for ages,” says Mary Celeste Beall, Blackberry’s proprietor. Her late husband, Sam, and father-in-law, Sandy, bought this 5,200-acre parcel a decade ago, not quite knowing what to do with it, besides keeping it intact and pristine. Partnering with the North American Land Trust, they set aside half the acreage for conservation. The Bealls then went about “exploring every corner of the property, on foot and on bikes and four-wheelers, rattling down old logging roads and bushwacking through the forest, asking ‘What is the land telling us?’” as Mary Celeste recalls. Slowly, the dream of a second resort came into focus.
They started small, relatively speaking. While the new location is 1,000 acres larger than Blackberry Farm, there are only 36 guest rooms compared to the Farm’s 68—all of them freestanding, with bang-on views of the Smokies. (And yes, you really can see North Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky on a clear day.)
The vibe, too, is a departure. Blackberry Farm has long been one of the South’s iconic resorts, a genteel fantasy of horseback rides and clay shoots, grits-fueled lunches and mint juleps on the lawn. Blackberry Mountain takes that formula and flips it on its side, recasting its pastoral romance as an action movie.
It starts with the land itself: eight square miles of steep wilderness, from lush rhododenron forests at the base to a wind-scarred rocky ridgetop, with plenty of wildlife between. It’s not there merely to be gazed at. Blakcberry Farm guests may be content to while away their days over a jigsaw puzzle, but the Mountain aims to get you out there—scrambling up a cliff face, barreling down a bike trail, or, in my case, dangling in a harness from an oak tree. (The jigsaw puzzles come after dark, over snifters of Pappy Van Winkle at the bar.)
Most cottages are clustered “mid-mountain” near the main lodge, spa, and activities center; the best are actually the lower-elevation ones, which offer complete privacy (the upper cottages overlook the driveway and parking areas below). Layouts are identical, though four cottages have a second bedroom and an outdoor spa.
Up at the ridgetop—beside the Firetower restaurant, occupying a 1920s-era Forest Service lookout station—the six Watchman Cabins offer smaller, simpler, more rustic accommodations, or at least “rustic” as Blackberry defines it, with Egyptian cotton bedding, handwoven rugs, and Bose smart speakers. Fashioned out of reclaimed timber from a 19th-century barn, the cabins have no TV’s, just floor-to-ceiling windows facing north across the valley, a quarter-mile below. Though the hotel bills these as “hike in/hike out,” every Watchman Cabin—like all guest rooms—comes with a golf cart, which can make the climb from mid-mountain in a slow-but-steady 15 minutes (hiking takes 45). Or you could simply call to have a Lexus SUV whisk you up.
Another 10 multibedroom residences are scattered about the mountainside, with full-service kitchens and dining rooms (some have swimming pools or whirlpool tubs), ideal for families and groups. And if you’re reallyjonesing for adventure, you can bed down under the stars at one of Blackberry Mountain’s dedicated camping sites, with a guide to prepare your meals over a campfire.
My one-bedroom cottage, Bittersweet, sat beside a babbling brook that you’d pay money for a recording of at home; the flagstone terrace had an outdoor fireplace and uninterrupted views over the treetops to the Smokies beyond. Inside, a palette of creams and butterscotches and soft linens offset the steel casement windows, oak flooring, and stacked-stone chimney. That chimney rose 17 feet to a pitched ceiling of lime-washed wood and rough-cut beams, with a striking brass chandelier dangling from the upper rafters. A handsome, low-slung bentwood-and-leather armchair cozied up to the wood-burning hearth, which the staff will light each evening while you’re out. Half the cottage’s 1,475 square footage was given over to the dressing area and an enormous bathroom, highlighted by the sort of window-facing soaking tub you daydream about.
But this isn’t a place for lazing in the bath. To inspire and inform daily explorations, the resort issues a handy 32-page Field Guide, which includes descriptions of mountain flora, instructions for evading a bear, and a helpful trick for finding true north in daylight (use a stick as a rudimentary sundial!). A chapter on “How to Whittle” is followed by a rundown of yoga poses and a guide to the resort’s Lexus loaner program—a perfect summary of Blackberry’s folksy sophistication.
Other resorts have equally lengthy activities menus. Some have more spectacular settings. The difference here is the sheer depth and expertise of the people guiding your adventures. Like their counterparts at the Farm, the Mountain’s staffers are among the best in the business at whatever their business is, be it pilates or rock-climbing or fly fishing or fly-wheel spinning. You’ve heard that cliché about a hotel being only as good as its staff; at Blackberry that understanding is fundamental to how it all works and why. Everyone here is so devoted to their thing that they’d spend every hour doing it even if no guests showed up.
You hear their names pop up in conversation around the bar and the breakfast room, as guests discuss their favorite employees. “We’ve got pottery class with Polly Ann booked every day this week.” Or “Hope is taking us to the lake for paddleboard yoga.” Or “You HAVE to do acupuncture with Dr. Jill, she’s brilliant!” (This is true: Dr. Jill Beasley, the Mountain’s in-house naturopath, who offers everything from cranial-sacral therapy to tincture-making tutorials, is as intuitive as any practitioner I’ve met. And she works for a hotel!)
There are plenty of mind-expanding and ab-contracting endeavors to sample—trail biking, endurance climbing, chanterelle foraging, forest bathing—all of them well worth your time. Mostly, though, you need to know about Boyd.
Boyd Hopkins is Blackberry’s senior trail guide and resident naturalist. He sports a mountain man’s beard, Willie Nelson braids, and overalls that may date from the Civil War. He owns two llamas, which he’ll occasionally bring along on hikes. (Blackberry Farm used to keep llamas to guard the sheep, until the llamas began fighting each other and everything went to hell.)
He may not look it, but Boyd is actually 350 years old. His brain contains every known fact about the woods and the life that dwells there, which he imparts in a quaintly formal manner, waxing poetic about “the mighty sentinels of the forest” (oak trees), like he’s reading aloud from a 19th-century explorer’s journal. He speaks of the habits of “bear” and “bobcat” (never an “s” for the plural) as if describing his own family.
Boyd’s wife, Joy, runs the mountain biking program at Blackberry Farm. They met when Boyd rode up her driveway on a white stallion, with—I am not making this up—a spare horse trotting along behind him, unbridled. You’ll want Boyd to tell the whole story; if it were a movie you’d think it absurd.
Boyd claims to be painfully shy in the manmade world. “But since you’re guests here in my house”— i.e., the forest—“I’m more than happy to show you around.” He’ll lead you to hidden waterfalls and thickets of 15-foot-high rhododendrons “so dense you can walk across them.” He’ll take you up, up, up to Cat’s Paw Ridge, past wild persimmon trees and hillsides cloaked in high-bush blueberries. He’ll point out curiosities like the turkey-tail mushroom (“very promising in the treatment of prostate cancer”) or the bioluminescence known as “foxfire” that causes tree stumps to glow an eerie green after dark.
Every guest at Blackberry has a Boyd story. A hike with him has quickly become a required activity, especially for nature-shy urbanites. At dinner I overheard a young couple from Brooklyn recounting their day. “I was just thinking about what Boyd said about the bird,” she said, dreamily. “Amazing,” her husband murmured in agreement.
A visit to the Mountain is not only about physical challenges, but challenging your own skepticism. When the concierge proposed a “sound bathing” session in the yoga loft, I was less than convinced, and even more so when I met Chris Savell, the resort’s sound therapist, who—burly, bearded, clad in white pyjamas and a turban—could play the oddball yogi roommate in a Seth Rogen movie. But afterward I was entirely sold, both on Chris and the healing power of sound.
Chris grew up in Maryville, down the road from Blackberry Farm, then spent 10 years on what he calls his “journey,” which led him to his calling in sound therapy. By some harmonic convergence, Blackberry was also calling around for a sound healer. Soon Chris was back in Tennessee with his rain drums, tuning forks, and giant symphonic gong.
As we settled into a meditative pose on the floor, Chris explained that I would feel alternately relaxed, excited, and quite possibly annoyed. I was only annoyed when it ended, 50 minutes later and hours too soon. The rain drum made a hypnotic sound like sleet on a frosted window. The tuning forks thrummed and palpably rattled my teeth. I felt a flash of panic when the gong crescendo’ed to an alarming volume, so intense that I briefly wondered if a human skull could shatter like a wine glass. Once I gave in to the all-consuming vibration, I fell into a trippy, trancelike state, swirls of color forming behind my eyelids and warmth radiating through my body. It felt like the deepest reiki you can imagine.
All this mind-body transformation can make a soul hungry. Thankfully, meals at the Mountain are as much a focus as at Blackberry Farm, long renowned for its restaurants, brewery, and epic wine cellar. Though dishes here are designed to get you energized and ready for action, chefs Josh Feathers and Joel Werner find a nice balance between healthful and craveable, with bold-flavored, protein- and produce-forward dishes that add fresh, global twists to the Farm’s self-styled “foothills cuisine.”
Take, for instance, Feathers’ signature salad: shaved raw cauliflower, dressed with a coconut milk vinaigrette and grated black lime, and sprinkled with umami-rich nutritional yeast (“like dairy-free parmesan” says the chef). Bright, snappy, and tongue-tinglingly tart, it’s as satisfying as it is inconceivable at Blackberry Farm.
Feathers, a native Tennesseean, is having a blast experimenting with ingredients from beyond the South—urfa bieber, turmeric, avocado, coconut—for both their health benefits and flavor potential. He’s sourcing some terrific wild venison (“it’s packed with creotene, which helps keep muscles hydrated”), using ancient grains for his pappardelle, and pickling everything in sight (“not just delicious, but also a great probiotic”). There’s an exceptional braised rabbit, a superb game-and-fennel sausage, and, in season, at least seven varieties of wild mushrooms foraged on the mountain. And while you won’t find the Farm’s famous buttery biscuits—to say nothing of the gravy—there are still nods to Southern-style indulgence, including an absurdly rich cheeseburger (made with 60 percent ground ribeye) topped with green tomato relish and bacon jam.
Nothing a bit of cardio drumming won’t work off tomorrow. •