American Southern Charm
Published: July 2010
By Christopher Petkanas
Three genteel hotels in Tennessee and the Carolinas, with acres of old-world space in which to get—politely—expansive. <span class="caps">CHRISTOPHER PETKANAS</span> minds his manners
If you're from New York or Houston, say, or Los Angeles or Chicago, a trip to the South can be almost as exotic as a trip to New Delhi. In restaurants, men actually stand up when ladies leave the table. The veranda isn't just a place to park yourself in a rocker, it's a way of life. It can be tough, being judged by the creaminess of your camellias, but that's the South: another country.
The hotelscape is just as alien, but in the best possible way. If you check into any of these long-established, long-loved hotels and don't check out conquered by the culture of cordiality, the problem—Southerners are too polite, so I'll have to suggest it—is probably with you.
Woodlands Resort & Inn, Summerville, South Carolina
If the walls at Woodlands weren't so discreet, they'd tell a tale of antebellum grandeur, party-giving as civic duty, and romantic skulduggery. The 1906 neo-Georgian manse with a whiff of Tara was commissioned by Pennsylvania Railroad baron Robert Parsons as a winter home. He traveled to Summerville, 20 miles west of Charleston, by rail, naturally, and in high style, with dedicated cars for his horses, servants, and family.
Summerville was on Parsons's radar because of a medical congress that had taken place in Paris 20 years earlier, when physicians decreed it one of the two best places on the planet for consumptives. This was attributed to Summerville's lounging on a ridge of longleaf yellow pines (all that therapeutic airborne turpentine) at a sea breeze–catching elevation of 70 feet. Not that you had to be tubercular to appreciate Summerville. By Parsons's day it had also become a destination for people whose only malady was the desire to be considered fashionable.
One hundred years on, Summerville remains a hot spot, thanks to Woodlands' second act as a 19-room hotel in a quasi-country, quasi-suburban setting of forests and formal gardens. A stay at Woodlands is Southern, or rather Very Southern, and it's all good. At check-in, Sue Sanders—the grandmotherly, tack-sharp concierge—offers guests peach-infused iced tea, orange slices and simple syrup on the side. Men don't see donning a jacket and tie for dinner as a hardship. Pocket doors close off the common parlor. Every time you turn around, someone is offering you a biscuit. Actually, it's an herb-and-cheddar biscuit. How many biscuits is too many? At one lunch I stopped counting at seven. The most popular day trip is to a 17th-century plantation with a legendary collection of azaleas and camellias.
Personnel are good at solving problems, though it may take more than one try (four, in my case, to figure out the voice-mail system, three to switch off the AC). Until chef Scott Crawford left in December, the restaurant made mincemeat of those at the other two hotels in this story (at press time he had not been replaced). And while guest rooms are hardly models of anticipatory decorating, they basically get the look right: sleigh beds, cherry-blossom wallpaper, pineapple lamps, and moiré slipper chairs. Mattresses are custom-made by a fourth-generation family concern in Charleston.
But at these prices, ahem, don't people deserve digs that are in better nick and reflect a little more thinking? When the muntin on a window breaks, sometimes it's stuck back on with tape. Heaven help the guest who steps under the shower only to discover, dripping, that the soap's been set out across the room. I think I know the problem: AOS (Absentee Owner Syndrome). Woodlands' proprietor lives in England. Staffers say they've never laid eyes on him. In other words, there's no one minding the store. The hotel is gearing up for an expansion that will make it almost unrecognizable. But there is more urgent business, like test-driving the rooms to make sure they work.
In 1939, Robert Parsons sold Woodlands to botanist Alan White, who bequeathed it not to family but to local society powerhouse Ruth Gadsden. Townies describe the two as "friends," then clam up, which makes you think: red flag. Only Sue Sanders cut through the Southern niceties to insinuate that Gadsden's relationship with White was maybe too close, given that she was married.
"Ruth Gadsden is buried between Alan White and her husband," Sanders told me in a doesn't-that-say-it-all
way. "I'm original to Woodlands, like that light fixture over there. They'll take me out feet
first. I know where the bodies are buried."
125 Parsons Rd., Summerville, S.C.; 800/774-9999 or 843/875-2600; www.woodlandsinn.com;
doubles from $295.
Fearrington House, Pittsboro, North Carolina
Some hotels should come with a warning label. Fearrington's would read: INCLUDES MASSIVE RETAIL AND RESIDENTIAL COMPONENTS. Shops in a purpose-built "village" sell everything from books to folk art to groceries. A 1,300-acre subdivision has 1,000 attached and freestanding houses, with many more to come. The development lacks poetry, but as a guest at Fearrington, you can keep the sprawl at bay—once you figure out where not to look.
The property's soul and anchor is the gastronomic restaurant, folded into a plain but elegant center-hall farmhouse, built in 1927 with the requisite columned porch in the shadow of a still-extant 18th-century silo. Don't expect goosebumps from chef Graham Fox, just runaway enthusiasm (apple brûlée soup with raspberry baked Brie!) and an Englishman's heartfelt curiosity about North Carolina foodstuffs (white shrimp, yellowfin tuna, country ham).
The next-best thing about Fearrington, located eight miles from Chapel Hill off busy U.S.
Highway 15-501, is its grounds. They feature a traditional English knot garden, an all-white
garden, a perennial garden, a wildflower garden, and a charming kitchen garden. Opened in
1986, the hotel is housed in an agglomeration of buildings by the architect who designed the
subdivision. The good news is that general manager Theresa Chiettini's purview now extends
to the interiors. A handful of guest rooms have already been redone in a happy and unpretentious
mix of checks and toiles. Once they all are, Fearrington's stock will be way up.
Village, Pittsboro, N.C.; 800/ 277-0130 or 919/542-2121; www.fearrington.com; doubles from
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; www.blackberryfarm.com;
doubles from $745.