Goat Hill lookout at Blackberry Mountain resort in Walland, Tennessee. Contributed by Wesley K.H. Teo

Blackberry Mountain combines luxury and wellness

Today, I’m hiking to the top of Goat Hill, a lookout point at Blackberry Mountain, a new luxury wellness resort in Walland, Tennessee, that sits on 5,200 acres (more than half dedicated to conservation) at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s a sister property to Blackberry Farm seven miles away, the widely lauded Relais & Chateaux resort that put tiny Walland on the radar of travelers from around the globe.

I signed up for a guided activity called Hike to Breakfast, so here I am, doing just that, but first, there’s a detour to Goat Hill.

Unless you are, in fact, a mountain goat, this uphill climb is extremely challenging. Despite regular workouts at the gym, my quadriceps are protesting, and I’m wheezing like an octogenarian chain smoker.

Hall Mebane, my young, fit guide, sees I’ve fallen behind and patiently waits for this middle-aged lady to catch up.

Along the way, he points out rhododendron trees and spring flowers, including azaleas and delicate pink mountain laurel.

Blueberry bushes are starting to produce sweet fruit, a delicious treat for the area’s famous black bears, and I ask Mebane if he’s encountered any recently.

I’m secretly dying to spot one — from a safe distance, of course. That’s largely what motivated me to haul myself out of the plush, cloud-like bed in my posh mountain cocoon and embark on this journey.

Yes, he’s seen them, but they are shy creatures.

“They are all really timid,” he says. “As soon as they hear something they are unfamiliar with, they tend to run in the opposite direction.”

At the top of Goat Hill, the panoramic view of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is so dazzling, my physical discomfort evaporates like the early fog. The soft morning light illuminates dew-kissed Mount Le Conte, Clingman’s Dome and other verdant mountain peaks that have been here for tens of thousands of years.

I’m enjoying the same view as the Cherokee Indians who lived in the region for centuries, and I’m suddenly thankful these mountains are protected for future generations.

Reluctantly, I tear myself away and continue my trek through the temperate Appalachian rainforest. I can’t help but reflect on the family vacations I took to the Smoky Mountains as a child and all the kitsch, hillbilly-themed tourist attractions in traffic-choked Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.

Blackberry Mountain is the opposite of that, offering luxe solitude far from the tourist hordes for those who can afford to spend four figures a night for an overnight stay.

The Firetower restaurant, built around the historic Millstone Gap lookout tower, finally comes into view. Soon, I’m devouring avocado toast with a side of bacon and watching indigo buntings flit around the mountain top.

The resort is big on adventure, and hiking is just one of many activities on offer. Mountain biking, fly fishing, clay pigeon shooting, horseback riding and canoeing in the shallow waters of Little River are also popular.

Of course, not every guest comes for active pursuits. Some just want to turn off their cell phone and breathe mountain air or indulge in a spa treatment at the Nest.

Accommodations are provided in 18 modern stone cottages, each with its own patio, soaking tub and fireplace, or six smaller, rustic Watchman Cabins. But eventually everybody ends up at Three Sisters, the property’s flagship restaurant in the main lodge that’s named after the trio of peaks that form the eastern portion of the Chilhowee Mountain ridge.

Formerly a chef at Blackberry Farm, Josh Feathers is now executive chef at Three Sisters restaurant at Blackberry Mountain. Contributed by Wesley K.H. Teo
Photo: For the AJC

Josh Feathers spent years at Blackberry Farm turning out upscale Southern cuisine that put the resort on the map as a culinary destination, but when he was offered the position of executive chef at Blackberry Mountain, a chance to design a wellness menu infused with international flavors, he accepted the challenge.

“I went from fried chicken on the Farm to chicken curry over here,” he said. “There’s nothing that’s off limits. I went from a pond (the Farm) into a sea of possible flavors and combinations. It took time to think things through and remember everything that is out there in the culinary world.”

But remember he did, as evidenced by his Korean barbecue glazed duck leg with strawberries and five-spice soba noodles, a delightful combination of flavors and textures.

Feathers sources local ingredients when possible, incorporating foraged wild black raspberries, green briar tips, which he calls mountain asparagus, and mushrooms.

After dinner, rocking chairs beckon on the lodge patio where guests can take in the wonders of a star-filled sky and the sound of silence.

IF YOU GO

Blackberry Mountain. $1,545-$2,395 per night, including breakfast, dinner and some activities. A few multi-bedroom homes are also available for large parties. 1041 The Loop Road, Walland, Tennessee, 800-993-7824, www.blackberrymountain.com

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