Even though it’s just lunchtime, the shadows grow long and dark as we weave through increasingly remote valleys in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. “Turn right,” Google Maps tells me, and I think surely it must be wrong: we’re facing a set of massive iron gates – no sign, just three simple triangles nestled together to look like mountain tops. I push an intercom button, telling the voice on the other end that I’m looking for Blackberry Mountain. “You’ve found us,” he says, and I can hear the sweet lilt of Southern hospitality in his voice even through the crackle of the wires. After checking my name on the registrar, he tells me to drive up the winding mountain road for another mile or so, and eventually I’ll reach the main lodge.
As the gate closes behind us and we ascend the mountain, the views stretch out for miles, with nothing but green rolling hills layered with pristine forests of beech, yellow birch, maple and pine. This is all part of the 5,200 acres of land that makes up Blackberry Mountain, the newly opened retreat with a focus on wellness through nature. With just 18 stone cottages and six wooden cabins, Blackberry Mountain is one of the most anticipated hotel openings in the US, despite – and because of – its remote location.
The sister property to the celebrated Blackberry Farm, ‘the Mountain’, as it’s called by its many passionate employees, has been conceived specifically to blend in with the environment and leave the smallest possible footprint on the land. Located 7 miles uphill from the Farm, it’s billed as ‘your own private national park’, and has dedicated more than half of its 5,200 acres to preservation. Its focus on wellness through nature has hit the right chord with today’s digitally obsessed, always-on consumer, and guests from the concrete jungles of New York and Atlanta are finding solace in the quiet at a starting price of around US$1,045 (€958, £841) a night based on double occupancy and including breakfast and dinner.
The original Blackberry Farm was first opened in 1976 by Sandy and Kreis Beall – founders of the successful American restaurant chain Ruby Tuesday – who grew the property from a six-bedroom inn to a 62-bedroom luxury resort. The Bealls’ son Sam took over in the early 2000s, and was responsible for elevating the resort in terms of cuisine, programming and clientele. But Sam – an avid outdoorsman and adventurer – died suddenly in a skiing accident in 2016, aged 39. He left behind not just a business, but a wife and five young children, and plans and dreams for Blackberry Mountain – the land had been purchased years before, in a bid to save it from the kind of overdevelopment that had ravaged nearby towns. 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.”
Wellness through nature
Blackberry Farm offers a wealth of activities, from archery to horseback riding to fly fishing, designed to allow guests to slow down and connect with the location; the on-site spa is just one of many options in a broad sense of wellness. But at Blackberry Mountain, that holistic idea of wellness has been expanded, and the sheer volume of land set aside for preservation means that outdoor activities take centre stage. At The Hub, guests can take part in arts and crafts activities like pottery, play basketball, or take on the rock-climbing wall, or sign up for a wide range activities including creekside meditation, sound healing, forest bathing, endurance climbs, trail running, paddle boarding, bouldering and mountain biking.
“The whole philosophy at the Mountain honours how connection to nature can be such a beautiful and important part of our wellness journey,” says Mary Celeste Beall. “We think wellness extends way beyond the walls of a studio and spa. 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.”
Holistic health spa
This philosophy extends to the resort’s on-site spa, Nest, whose menu of natural therapies includes holistic health offerings like acupuncture and nutritional consultations, often packaged together to address specific needs. A 50-minute Nervous System Reset, which costs US$190 (€174, £153), uses a combination of different modalities to help restore balance to the nervous system, which can include craniosacral therapy, tuning forks, essential oils, myofascial release, qi gong, tui na, topical herbal compresses, chakra balancing and acupuncture techniques.
Body therapies at Nest reflect the earthiness of the locale, from Kaolin Clay wraps to an Echinacea Herbal Buff or a Walnut Sandalwood Moisture Mask. Meanwhile, product houses include Kindred, Among the Flowers and Luzern.
The spa also features curated packages from 2.5 to 6 hours, which blend traditional spa treatments like aromatherapy massage with the resort’s outdoor offerings and activities. For example, the 4-hour Forage package, priced at US$625 (€573, £503), includes an 80-minute inspirational hike, 50-minute Herbal Remedy Session with the on-site holistic health specialist, and an 80-minute Herbal Poultice Massage. “At Nest, a guest can spend time with our holistic health specialist and dive into consultations that speak to the body’s nutrition or naturopathic wellness,” says Beall. “They might find release with acupuncture or enjoy an all-encompassing experience with meditation, creative exploration and a massage. The fully curated experience at Nest is so much more than just traditional spa treatments.”
The spa itself is decorated in soothing, natural tones and fabrics, with a reading room of comfortable armchairs that offers a serene view out across the Smokies. A long corridor with arched ceilings leads to the eight treatment rooms, each of which also features a calming minimalist decor. Beall has a natural flair for design – her own home was featured in Elle Decor magazine – and she worked closely with the Blackberry Farm Design team to create the interiors.
“I love that the Nest experience at Blackberry Mountain really is all about wellness and the wellbeing of both the body and the mind,” she says. “There is a call to pause and recharge when you visit that space.”
Beyond the spa, wellness journeys – also on the spa’s menu – include creative practices like mandala stone painting, clay work or guided journaling; and mind & body healing, including crystal reiki and suspended soundbathing & meditation. Seven different yoga classes are on offer, as well as a list of enrichment activities like lectures and herbal tea blending workshops. A selection of forest bathing experiences includes Journey to the Edge, which combines a guided trail hike with yoga in a natural setting. “There are yoga studios in every town, but we often don’t get the chance to explore a winding trail or dive into nature,” says Beall. “That quiet reflection is becoming increasingly more important so that we can disconnect from the busyness of our lives and refocus our energy.”
Currently, both the Farm and Mountain have ‘temporarily paused operations’ during the coronavirus pandemic. As it becomes available, produce grown onsite is being sent to Blackberry Farm Brewery’s curbside farm stand as part of their to-go only menu. The company says: “Taking care of our Blackberry family, guests and private owners is our number one priority, and we look forward to welcoming them all back soon.”
When they reopen, clientele may differ to those it attracted beforehand. For the Farm, this included leisure travellers who made up 80 per cent of business with the remaining 20 per cent consisting of corporate retreats, weddings, and large family gatherings, and the Mountain was expecting similar numbers. Gwenyth Paltrow held a retreat for her Goop staff soon after the Mountain opened, taking part in a ropes wall yoga class and sharing photos of herself on one of the resort’s surprise swings in the woods with her Instagram fans.
Additionally, more intimate retreats, called ‘house parties’ are slated to bring people together for weekends to explore a wide variety of topics with experts in different fields – an event last August included a professional cyclist, a chef, a wine maker and a musician. “Human connection is huge for our wellbeing,” explains Beall. And this is something people are going to crave even more of once the nationwide lockdown lifts. “Connection is really my greatest wish for our guests, whether they’re connecting with the people they’re travelling with, someone they meet in a yoga class or on the trail, discovering something new in an event, or finding a common love of an activity.”
That connection extends to the 850 staff, each of whom appears to be a specialist in – and lover of – their particular area of expertise. At Blackberry Farm, the resident master gardener, John Coykendall, is something of a legend. The staff at the Mountain is some of the most outstanding I’ve encountered – not formal, often young, but each incredibly passionate. A hike to breakfast was made into a learning experience with the help of our guide, Eddie, who filled our journey with history lessons and pointed out edible chicory leaves and sassafras roots to taste. These were brought to the kitchen at the Firetower restaurant, where mixologist Chelsea – the only person I’ve ever met who’s as passionate about obscure bitter liquors as my husband is – happily accepted them and told us of her plans to use them in her craft cocktails, before giving us an impromptu tasting of a new herbal brew she was working on.
“The magic of both properties starts with the team,” says Beall. “We focus on bringing a connected and meaningful experience to our guests in all that they do. The heart of hospitality, and specifically the Southern hospitality we champion, is connection. The smiles, the eye contact, remembering the guest’s names – each detail plays into deepening an authentic human connection. Our guests can feel that we care about them, and that creates a space where they feel welcome and comfortable, which is the best environment for wellbeing.”
The architecture of Blackberry Mountain is designed for optimal wellbeing of both people and planet, 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.”
Many of the cottages feature earth-sheltered designs and live green roofs. They offer sweeping views of the Great Smoky Mountains and feature stacked stone archways, iron windows, reclaimed oak floors, white rough-sawn 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.
“I really loved how much Keith used the elements of the mountain – with the stone and wood materials coming directly from the site of the buildings,” says Beall. “The structures are designed so that they blend into the natural slope of the land, honouring the natural shape. It’s really a special space that pays tribute to the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains.”
Getting all of those details right, of course, takes on especially significant meaning for Beall, who knows how much her late husband loved the land. “Sam spent so much time exploring the Mountain with his father, team members and friends – I know he would find so much joy in our guests doing the same,” she concludes. “Sam loved sharing meaningful experiences with people, and that’s what we bring to life each day.”
Jane Kitchen is a consulting editor at Spa Business magazine | [email protected]