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American Southern Charm

Buff Strickland A view of Old Walland Pond and its boathouse, at Blackberry Farm, outside Knoxville.

Photo: Buff Strickland

Blackberry Farm, Walland, Tennessee

Many of the most captivating chatterboxes on the subject of travel are the women behind one-off luxury hotels with national profiles. They've been everywhere, and nothing escapes their attention. Not the braid on the doorman's uniform at the five-star in Madrid, not the curve of the pool at the trendy place in Santa Monica, and not the cotton-to-linen ratio of the sheets at the London upstart. These ladies live to notice—and borrow.

Blithely breaking the mold is Kreis Beall, 53, the creator and co-owner of Blackberry Farm, snuggled on a quite stupefying 4,200 acres in Walland beside the Great Smoky Mountains, 25 minutes from Knoxville. A Tennessee gal to the core of her being, Beall knows what she knows. That is the South, where she lives in so many grand houses it is not always easy to be sure which one she is telling you about. Her idea of hell is attending a Relais & Châteaux conference in Marrakesh, which—Blackberry being a member of the association—she once did. Even the camel races didn't amuse her. All that dust. All she could think of was Walland.

Beall's focus, the gee-golly certainty that Blackberry is the center of the universe and that all you need is a night there to become a believer, pays off in one of the most satisfying and complete country-hotel experiences in the U.S. Opened in 1990, Blackberry is like a south of the Mason Dixon Line edition of a Currier & Ives greeting card. At Christmas, evergreen wreaths decorate the boathouse that projects into a pond stocked with catfish. White fences ribbon the soft hills. Regulation rockers are soldiered on the front lawn for the day's Big Moment: sundown and tumblers of Hirsch 20-year-old bourbon.

Beall was not to the plantation born ("My mother put the dinner casserole right on the table"), which only makes the high level of creature comfort she has brought to Blackberry that much more delicious, and compelling. A self-described former "feminist nightmare," she gave up plans for a law career to become a homemaker in an era that judged women by the puffiness of their Pont Neuf potatoes. Since then, Beall has become a breezy student of refinement, sounding off about Serapi rugs and old-wood reproductions of serpentine highboys with upholstered drawers (both of which she introduced to Blackberry). Her education was made possible by the little fact of her husband, Sandy, hitting the jackpot as founder of the restaurant chain Ruby Tuesday. It's a long way from RT's fried cheese with marinara sauce to Blackberry's snapper bouillabaisse with pickled-okra polenta. But it is just this distance that makes the Bealls such fascinating hospitality-world figures. They know high, but they also know low.

Blackberry makes it easy to choose among its 44 guest rooms, which are done in a plush Anglo-American idiom that relies on fringed swags and decorative pillows in fancy fabrics (lose the trompe l'oeil books and treacly flower paintings and the score climbs to 8/10). For views and to be in the thick of things, you stay in the Main House or the Guest House, both of Tennessee field­stone. For privacy and romance, you stay in a board-and-batten Holly Glade cottage. Set in the woods, cottages have two units, each with a porch and a beautifully composed, reassuringly high pile of firewood.

The restaurant is as puzzling as the service throughout the hotel is wonderful. Blackberry's cooking school and inventive food-and-wine events bring in marquee industry personalities. And its trademarked (not a joke) Foothills Cuisine—regional ingredients, Southern influence, high-wire technique—has a big following. But every dish I tasted made me long for its unreconstructed inspiration—a cornmeal-dusted catfish, say, instead of one with a showy horseradish-and-potato crust.

Perhaps one day the cooking will catch up with everything else at Blackberry, where the extreme professionalism of the personnel is free of the turgidness that often goes with it. Like Kreis Beall, whose middle name might as well be "I am what I am," the young staff exhibit a smiling hop-to-itiveness, and don't know what pomp is.
1471 W. Millers Cove Rd., Walland, Tenn.; 800/273-6004 or 865/984-8166;; doubles from $745.


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