What's great about Blackberry Farm, a small hotel in rural Tennessee, is what you can't do there. Sure, the 4,200-acre retreat has activities: yoga and spa treatments, cooking classes and hiking, fly-fishing and miniature donkey petting. And you'd probably want to plan your day around the dining-room meals, which are equal parts comfort food and artisanal artistry, with meats from Buckhead Beef, cheeses from California and wines from everywhere grapes grow.
But at Blackberry, you can't hear traffic or feel the thrum of the power grid under your feet. You can't worry about comfort in one of the gorgeous rooms or cabins, no two alike yet all stocked with snacks you want to eat, art you want to own, and beds you want to sleep in. You can't worry about anything, really, because the 300-person staff is ready to fill a request almost before you've formed it. An entire afternoon can slip by while you sit on the veranda soaking in the panorama of the Smoky Mountain foothillsand you can't get enough of a view like this.
Pictured above, a custom-made cypress picnic table is topped by mint-julep cups (from Bennett Galleries) filled with flowers from the garden.
Much of Blackberry Farm's success (a 2004 Zagat Survey rated it the best small hotel in America) goes to founder Kreis Beall, a 53-year-old photographer, grandmother, cook, decorator, visionary, and, when needed, food shopper and grass mower.
When Kreis was just 23 years old and recently married, she learned she was pregnant. To fill time, she took a cooking class and loved it immediately. For the rest of her pregnancy, she read cookbooks voraciously and tried out beef Wellington, Pont Neuf potatoes and Baked Alaska on friends. "It was 1976, after all," Kreis says of the flamboyant meals that took hours to prepare. Her entrepreneurial husband, Sandy, who started the Maryville, Tennessee-based Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain while still in college, saw how much pleasure his wife took in entertaining. He suggested she open an inn. Kreis agreed. "The beauty of youth," she says, "is that you'll say yes to anything."
When she opened the original six-room guesthouse (in a converted vacation home), the first of Kreis's two sons, Sam, was 4 months old. At the single-seating, fixed-menu dinners, guests ate off of Kreis's wedding china, slept in rooms she decorated (with her mother's help), and ate food she bought and cooked. "At the time, there was no such thing as delivery. I'd drive 30 miles to Knoxville for romaine."
Fast-forward 32 years. Today's Blackberry Farm houses up to 120 people in 65 rooms, some in the main house and others in clusters of cottages that spread through the property. A proper on-site restaurant prepares what staff chef John Fleer calls Foothills Cuisine, a combination of high and low that shows up in dishes such as pork cheeks with collard-green kimchi or in locally foraged ramps and morels. Baby Sam, now 31, is Blackberry's proprietor. "He's my clone," Kreis says. Sam's passions have added an exhaustive wine list and three and a half acres of organic vegetable gardens. At times, its harvest provides 100 percent of the produce used in the kitchen.
The farm's Singing Brook Garden produces myriad vegetables, including 50 kinds of tomatoes. Master gardener John Coykendall spends a good part of the winter in his garden shed, where he shells pea pods and harvests them for the spring planting.
Kreis now serves as the "official dreamer," as she puts it, expanding and refining all that Blackberry offers. So, the luxurious experience of a stay here has as much to do with the featherbed-topped mattresses or the Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame 1996 chilling in the minibar as it does with Kreis's home-based entertaining philosophy. "When I started Blackberry, I entertained guests the only way I knew howthe way I did at home," she says. "Home is a place that should have everything you need: good food in a beautiful setting, family, and friends."
Kreis claims to have no extraordinary hospitality intelligence, only an endless reserve of perseverance. But beyond elbow grease, she lives by a handful of axioms that any host could adopt:
1. Cop an attitude of willingness. "Our family motto is 'The answer is yes. Now what is the question?'" Kreis says. Whether it's hunting down a specific pair of hiking boots, having a favorite Norah Jones CD waiting in the room, or putting the exact number of requested chocolate chip cookies on the bedside snack plate, Blackberry Farm's staff makes guests feel ultrapampered.
Pictured above, in Lucy Braun, the guest cottage named for a pioneering plant ecologist, the dressing room is a mix of organic textures, colors, and patterns.
2. Remove the burden of decision-making. To create a more relaxing environment, meals and tips are included in the room rate and golf carts are available so that guests can take off for an activity or adventure without having to plan ahead. Every conceivable pastimefrom hot-air ballooning to test-driving the farm's Lexus fleetis available at a moment's notice.
Pictured above, a welcome tray for guests might include herb plants, bulbs and pouches of heirloom seeds, or pecan-caramel clusters fresh from the kitchen.
3. "Don't try to be anything you're not," says Kreis, who brushed off early suggestions that she outfit her dining-room staff in tuxedoes. "But be the very best you can, exactly where you are." She puts her favorite books on the shelves of the rooms, hunts down local artists and artisans for artwork and tableware, and picks wall coverings, furniture and fabrics one by one. "As you grow," she says, "the 'very best' changesbut at any point along the way it's my best and it's always a labor of love."
Pictured above, photographs of Blackberry Farm taken by Kreis sit on the desktop of the Hickory Chair secretary in one of the rooms. Its crisply contrasting palette of ivory, cream, and brown includes the rich tones of the antique heart-pine flooring. The vases are from Oly.
Bring the hospitality of Blackberry Farm into your own home with these recipes!
For more information on Blackberry Farm, visit Blackberryfarm.com.