Carry this concept to the extreme and you’ve got Blackberry Farm, in remote Walland, Tennessee. This 63-room hideaway is not merely a working farm, but practically self-sufficient. Its meals are augmented by a 180,000-bottle wine cellar, the comfort of cottages costing as much as $4,800 nightly, and a stream of top chefs and vintners imported for weekend blowouts. The resort, which began as a farmstead in 1939, was transformed in incremental fashion to its current state by Sam Beall with family money earned from Ruby Tuesday eateries, which is a nice irony. It also speaks to Americans’ increasing willingness to wander off the beaten path if the experience is rewarding enough. “Five years ago, I don’t think the market was ready for us at this scale, certainly not in this location,” Beall says. “Now it is.”
All of this came together for me not long ago at Louisville’s 21c Museum Hotel, a daring, evolving art collection with 90 postmodern guest rooms wrapped around it (first featured in Travel + Leisure in 2006). Heading to my room, I almost stumbled over a three-foot-high red plastic penguin, one of several dozen in the hotel. “They move around,” the bellhop told me. “You never know where they’ll turn up.” The penguins annoyed me at first, but as I spent time there I began to see them as witty, unexpected, memorable, and accessible.
21c is a creation of Steve Wilson, a businessman, public servant, and philanthropist whose ideas—skyscrapers; land conservancy; bison farms—have often seemed outlandish to conservative Louisville. But his wife is an heiress to the Brown-Forman liquor fortune (Jack Daniels; Southern Comfort; Finlandia Vodka), and the two of them can mostly do what they like. “Art drives commerce” is their delightfully off-center motto. Wilson had long considered the city’s dilapidated Whisky Row an underutilized resource. He proposed that a branch of the local art museum should be built amid the blight to help bring life to the city’s core. When the museum didn’t oblige, he did it himself, adding a hotel and restaurant to pay the bills. Between the hotel, the restaurant and bar, and the art, 200,000 people passed through 21c in 2008. On a single weekend last April, WalMart’s Alice Walton, ex-Senator John Warner, actor Adrien Brody, and chef Bobby Flay were there. “People say we’ve redefined the city,” Wilson says. “Whenever some local corporation is trying to recruit someone, they bring them here.”
More than that, Wilson and others like him have helped to redefine American sophistication, at least for me. When I was in Louisville, I ate a dinner at 21c that included bison carpaccio, braised goat, and other evidence of a quirky but highly evolved food culture. I drank good wine and bourbon. I spotted celebrities at the bar and chatted deep into the night. And when I stepped in the elevator and found a red penguin waiting, I couldn’t have been anywhere else.