One of the most highly anticipated resort openings in the US this year is located not in New York, Miami or Los Angeles, but in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains of Eastern Tennessee. A Relais & Châteaux resort – one of only four in the world to receive the designation before opening – Blackberry Mountain is a sister property to Blackberry Farm, a celebrated example of new Southern hospitality and elevated farm-to-table cuisine.
Wellness through nature
Nestled amid 5,200 acres of pristine mountain wilderness, Blackberry Mountain has been conceived specifically to blend in with the environment and leave the smallest possible footprint on the land. Billed as ‘your own private national park’, the resort has dedicated more than half of the land to preservation, and the focus is on wellness through nature – a pitch that’s hitting the right chord with today’s digitally obsessed, always-on consumer.
“We think wellness extends way beyond the walls of a studio and spa,” says Blackberry Mountain proprietor Mary Celeste Beall. “That’s why we incorporated so many special elements outside as well as in our facilities. You can find surprises all along our trail system, like a swing or a yoga platform, and we want you to take your practices to new places and be inspired to invigorate your daily work – find something completely new to explore. There are yoga studios in every town, but we often don’t get the chance to explore a winding trail or dive into nature. So that quiet reflection is becoming increasingly more important so that we can disconnect from the busyness of our lives and refocus our energy.”
Blackberry Farm was first opened in 1976 by Sandy and Kreis Beall – founders of the successful casual dining restaurant chain Ruby Tuesday – who grew the property from a six-bedroom inn to a 62-bedroom luxury resort. The Beall’s son Sam took over in the early 2000s, and was responsible for much of the resort’s elevation in terms of cuisine, programming and clientele. But Sam – an avid outdoorsman and adventurer – died in a freak skiing accident in 2016, aged 39. He left behind not just a business, but a wife and five young children, and plans for Blackberry Mountain. Mary Celeste – Sam’s widow – stepped in to run the business, and bringing Blackberry Mountain to fruition has been a mission of love for her.
“We still miss Sam every day,” she says. “Thankfully, there was this incredible team already in place at Blackberry who I had known and worked with in different ways over 15 years. That gave me the confidence to take on this new challenge. Sam was such a champion for the team, and my goal is simply to carry that same torch. Each day, 850 Blackberry team members work to make the experience special for our guests. From a beautiful room to guiding them through a wine list or a meditation, each interaction is thoughtful and purposeful.”
The architecture of Blackberry Mountain is itself thoughtful and purposeful, with buildings created to fit seamlessly into the natural landscape. Beall worked with Atlanta-based architect Keith Summerour, who took inspiration from the US Civilian Conservation Corp, which built many of America’s state and national parks during the Great Depression. “Buildings were built mostly by hand labour, and needed to be fit into the existing topography and tenor of the land where these structures were conceived,” says Summerour. “We therefore designed our efforts towards low-profile, view-oriented structures. This approach leaves a small footprint on the land.”
At the top of the mountain, Summerour has transformed an old firetower into a restaurant by the same name, incorporating the structure – which guests can ascend to get even further views – into the design. A daily guided walk up the mountain to breakfast is offered, or guests can opt to be driven in one of the resort’s Lexuses, or take the golf cart they’re issued upon check-in. The flagship restaurant, Three Sisters, is located closer to the accommodations in the property’s Lodge, and boasts a screened porch with sweeping views of the Smoky Mountains, especially spectacular at sunset.
An infinity edge pool also looks out across the mountains, and at The Hub, guests can take part in arts and crafts activities like pottery, play basketball, or take on the rock-climbing wall. The Hub is also where guests can sign up for the many outdoor offerings and activities, including creekside meditation, sound healing, forest bathing, endurance climbs, trail running, paddle boarding, bouldering and mountain biking.
Many of the 18 stone cottages feature earth-sheltered designs and green roofs, and building porches and roof overhangs on the southern slopes of the mountain were also integral to the design effort. The cottages offer sweeping views of the Great Smoky Mountains and feature stacked stone archways, iron windows, reclaimed oak floors, white walls, and lime-washed oak ceilings, as well as private outdoor patios, wood-burning fireplaces and soaking tubs. Six secluded Watchman Cottages are built in traditional log cabin style but with floor-to-ceiling windows, for a luxury rustic retreat.
“What a challenge it was to build something on the side of the mountain and to make it feel inviting yet inspiring,” says Beall. “I loved how much Keith [Summerour] used the elements of the mountain in building – with the stone and wood materials coming directly from the site. The structures are designed so that they blend into the natural slope of the land. We incorporated elements like green roofs on the cottages to continue blending natural elements into the design. It’s really a special space that pays tribute to the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains.”
Beall has a natural flair for design – her own home was featured in Elle Decor – and she worked with the Blackberry Farm design team to create the interiors for Blackberry Mountain, which feature natural tones and materials.
“I’m so proud of the design at Blackberry Mountain and the team behind it,” says Beall. “The Blackberry Farm design team, led by Jason Bell and Samantha Feuer, really delivered on so much of the vision in the interiors – which was to connect to the physical space, be inspiring, create a fresh, modern look that could be timeless, and to be thoughtful to the guest experience. Really every detail – the art, textures, visual and physical details – was a home run.”