As the official first day of summer approaches this weekend, Americans are grappling with how this time of year—typically awash in camp schedules and vacation plans—will look in the coronavirus era. Even while lockdowns ease nationwide, early anecdotal evidence suggests that fear and anxiety about the virus’s continued spread remain high, presenting a collective conflict: most beaches are open, but umbrellas and towels can easily inch too close to one another for safe social distancing; planes are flying, but recycled air and close quarters make air travel risky; and as hotels scramble to develop new safety guidelines, concerns abound about everything from crowd control and in-room cleaning protocols to outdated HVAC systems. “Honestly, it's less stressful to just stay home,” a friend recently told me after cancelling an August trip to Italy.
Still, some intrepid travelers are looking locally for the opportunity to get out of their homes (and their heads), which is likely why the James Beard award-winning food-and-wine destination Blackberry Farm—and its new, wellness-oriented sister property, Blackberry Mountain—in Walland, Tennessee have been fully booked since reopening in mid-May. “We were pleased to see the hope and the trust in us,” says Blackberry proprietor Mary Celeste Beall, who has retooled protocols in accordance with guidance from the CDC and the state’s governor to help ensure guest safety (increased sanitation schedules; health monitoring of all employees; installation of hand sanitizer stations; providing masks upon request; et al). But the Relais & Chateaux properties, which border Great Smoky Mountains National Park, have something else going for them that requires little regulation: space (they account for 10,000 acres of unspoiled wilderness between them), and a familial atmosphere with an almost staggering attention to every impeccable detail.
I had a transformative stay at Blackberry Mountain last summer when, much like right now, I was in desperate need of a reprieve from a different kind of isolation. After three months of an unrelenting work schedule combined with solo-parenting while my husband travelled for work, I was in a not-so-great place. Even pre-COVID 19, traveling with my toddler abroad, or across the country for the kind of summer vacation my therapist prescribed—a magical place with childcare! Clean, local food! Excellent wine!—seemed daunting. The Googling effort itself was exhausting. But Blackberry Mountain presented a promising solution. The idea for the 5,000 acres that Beall and her late-husband, Sam, bought in collaboration with the North American Land Trust a few years prior to his tragic death in 2016, was to leave at least 2,800 acres untouched while opening up the rest of mountain for a retreat that would offer a range of site-specific activities for adventure-seekers—from hiking and mountain climbing to guided rafting and horseback riding trips in the nearby National Park.
“We encourage adventure and wellbeing during your stay, but we don't insist on it,” Kelley Harris, Blackberry’s director of Wellness and Events, told me when I arrived from the 1 hour 45 minute flight from New York (11 hours by car, for those up for a road trip) visibly shaken and covered in a combination of peanut butter, sweat, and tears, my mother in tow. (Looking for a way to properly celebrate her 70th birthday, and for an extra set of hands, I invited her along for the trip.) “You can also just sit on your porch and drink wine,” Harris continued—an appealing proposition that pairs well with views so beautiful, they’re almost disorienting. 24 standalone cottages constructed from locally mined sandstone feature thatched green roofs and vistas that, taken in from outdoor hot tubs, look out over the dense greenery of an unmistakably American deciduous forest. It’s easy to feel as though you are the only person on the property, an experience that is now amplified with staggered guest arrivals and contactless check-in and check-out procedures.Photo: Courtesy of Blackberry Mountain
Following Harris’s advice we tried to stay busy, but not too busy, popping in and out of The Nest, an outsized spa, and The Hub, a recreation facility that features yoga, some of the best pilates classes I’ve ever taken, as well as art studios (don’t sleep on the mindful ceramic class)— all of which could be arranged as private sessions a year ago, a consideration that feels even more essential now. The spa has made some adjustments to account for contagion protocols, including limiting certain treatments (no facials or waxing for the moment) and temperature checking aestheticians who are wearing masks throughout services. But one of its highlights—holistic health coaching with naturopathic doctor Jill Beasley, MD— is still very much on offer, and extremely timely as 19% of Americans say the global pandemic has had a negative effect on their mental health. I usually relish in a massage when on vacation, but Beasley’s Nervous System Reset—a stress- and anxiety-reducing 50 minutes of craniosacral therapy, tuning forks, essential oils, myofascial release, as well as topical herbal compresses—was as transformative, if not more, than any full-body treatment I’ve ever had. Similarly mood-altering was the solo hike up Chilhowee Mountain I took with the impressively-calved Boyd Hopkins, a local guide who led me to Leo The Enlightened, a wooden gnome sculpture commissioned from Danish artist Thomas Dambo. As we sat at the foot of the towering figurine, sipping from our personal Yeti bottles (provided as an in-room amenity so guests can stay hydrated, and can sustainably and hygienically use their own bottle throughout their entire stay), Hopkins walked me through an aerial history of the area.Photo: Courtesy of Blackberry Mountain
“The Mountain comes at you the second you step out of your room,” Harris says of the property’s unique appeal. More importantly, however, is that it stays with you, long after you’ve gone—something that will be an increasingly important part of traveling for the next many months as moving freely throughout the world becomes a luxury afforded in small, highly-controlled doses, if at all. As lasting impressions go, I came away with more than a few: the fresh, often-foraged ingredients featured at Three Sisters restaurant, now spacing out reservations to keep guests a safe distance from one another; the hand-thrown ceramic matcha cups I made, my first time using the potter’s wheel; the time I got to spend celebrating my mom. And here’s one more: following my hike with Hopkins, I was lucky enough to catch an intimate performance of Emmylou Harris & Friends, one of the big ticket summer events at Blackberry Farm’s Bramble Hall, which are now on hold as Beall and her team continue to assess their wider reopening protocols. When Harris joined Gillian Welch in a live rendition of “This Land is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie’s protest song that became an American standard, I teared up, overwhelmed with mixed emotions about this beautiful, complicated country.