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Food Feature: Pick of the crop

Big-spender daydreaming at Blackberry Farm

I was tripping as I lay, eyes closed, stretched out in the sun on a lounge chair. The sound of birds, instead of Atlanta traffic, edged my illusion that the clear blue swimming pool at my feet and the fabulous estate around me were ... mine. From that perch in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, I surveyed my private paradise. Besides the spectacular view, there was a finely appointed great house and an array of cottages, beautiful horses in a white-fenced field, two ponds, a bubbling brook and a myriad of smiling, eager servants. Running paths, a fitness room, a gaming and drinking bar, along with a full-service spa completed the fantasy.In real life, I'm committed to the city, and spend my holidays at the beach, but this summer, I succumbed to the spell of the mountains in Tennessee, of all places. Blackberry Farm led me there, and one abundantly satisfying overnight stay made me want this to become a never-ending story.

The thousand-acre farm bordering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park dates from 1939. Present owners Kreis and Sandy Beall bought the place in the 1970s and began to develop the inn concept. By 1990, it was open year round, and in the past seven years, Blackberry has been raking in the luxury lodging awards.

This member of the international Relais & Chateaux group guarantees super high-level amenities and service. Though it seems like a well-kept secret, Blackberry is full practically every night of the year. Our privacy was so well-observed that I found it impossible to believe that almost 90 guests were there during my visit.

Wild blackberries do fringe the property, making their way into the inn's logo, decor and cuisine. The blackberry trifle at dinner was divine (in fact, the inn's bounteous breakfast and dinner were exceptional), but my most sensual encounter with the fruit involved its scent. The spa in an old farmhouse down the hill was the scene of the seduction.

My "Blackberry Mist" began with a footbath steeped in cinnamon and cloves. I let tension go as my body gave in to special strokes: Drops of warm oil fell onto my skin ... a sprinkling of pixie dust (sea salt) ... massage ... a bath of hot steam laced with the aura of blackberries ... a shower rinse ... and one last hydrating full body stroke tinged in peppermint that lingered at the tips of my toes.

After that ethereal titillation, I more or less floated back to my cottage and drank gallons of water, as instructed. But I couldn't resist late-afternoon cocktails in the Hickory Club Room, a lounge inside Chestnut Cottage. In the English style lounge, cashmere and chintz furniture sit waiting in conversational clusters. The music of Billie Holiday and Patsy Cline, low-lit red lamps, piles of books, chess boards, billiards and a grand piano convinced us to hang out for a couple of hours.

Fitness is always a possibility, if not the focus of any visit to the inn. Downstairs in Chestnut Cottage, the latest Life Cycles, StairMasters and free weights are crammed into a tiny mirrored room.

Blackberry has a "toy closet" in one of the big houses filled with fly fishing equipment, backpacks, blankets, tennis rackets and balls. A row of mountain bikes queue up in a shelter behind Oak Cottage and small skiffs float next to the boathouse on the pond below. Then, there's horseback riding and that dreamy swimming pool. It's your basic grown-up playground.Guests are required to stay for at least two nights. But many, especially during holiday weeks, stay even longer. The package, at $395-$1,995 per night, includes lodging and three extravagant meals for two. Extras — alcohol, guided hikes, fishing and horseback riding lessons — add up fast, and tips are added to your final bill. Blackberry is a fly fishing magnet (with Orvis approval) and hiking opportunities are outstanding (the property's hiking trails branch off into the national park). The cooking school set up in the owners' home welcomes waves of wannabe chefs for tasty two-day sessions with guest masters.

All the dining rooms and more than a few guest rooms overlook the mountains. South-facing verandas are lined with Blackberry's signature white rocking chairs. Rocking chairs, yes. Rockers, no. Visitors are mostly quiet Southern gentry. No big name guest on record, unless you count Diane Sawyer and Andy Griffith.

The inn is a quiet destination. In fact, there's no signage on the main road, and once you've arrived, your car disappears; you go on foot or get around in electric golf carts. Music is mostly classical or maybe jazz. Buildings blend in with trees and sounds are muted, leaving room for nature to occupy the senses. At Blackberry, you might just sit and contemplate the shifting tableau of the Smokies, or wander inside the painting, and find yourself wanting to stay forever.



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