Culinary Cruising: A Foodcentric Road Trip Through the South
Social Distancing comes easy enwrapped in an automobile. Make this honeymoon the sort with wheels, one you control the pedometer and the speed without anybody’s permission. Foodies will love to embark on a culinary road trip, where every meal is just a drive away. These coddling hotels promise to feed you well, plus give you many options that go beyond lifting the fork.
If a “road of happiness,” existed, wouldn’t you drive down it?
Of course you would. And, that’s what I do when I partake of an unforgettable road trip with friends. We meander through some of the United States’ most picturesque terrain in a rented BMW. We begin amid the mountain trails, colossal trees, and bucolic farmland of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Then, we snake through western North Carolina’s panorama of lavender peaks. We rove to finish in a wedge of vineyard-filled, Blue Ridge Mountain hills, that rise above an expanse of idyllic, pastureland, flooded with cows. Stopping at four iconic Relais & Chateaux properties along the way, we dine, imbibe and frolic as prescribed by the each specific destination. Bountifully amused, we nickname this ramble the Southern Route du Bonheur, after a more storied boulevard of contentment made famous in France.
The original Route du Bonheur emerged in the 1950’s. It was the road that followed the track of the legendary Blue Train, an elegant ride that chugged from Paris’ Gare de Leon to the glittering shores of the Cote D’Azur. It went straight through Provence—the heartland of French cuisine. Whether traveling by rail or in a sexy, leather-seated, 1950-era Maserati, travelers would tuck into a coterie of mesmerizing, independent inns, each unique and dedicated to the predilections of savvy gourmands. (I can just imagine Julia Child taking part in the promenade, her hand on the wheel of a convertible, her hair in a scarf and her stomach a rumble in anticipation for her next meal.) These hotels became the first Relais & Chateaux properties, now a group, composed of more than 500 members, located across the globe. Obsessed with splendrous cuisine, exemplary service and sense of place, those first inns, and all the properties today, embody what the French call Art de Vivre – or the art of truly living.
We live big during our ride, chewing and digesting every experience in our path. I feel a bit like Jack Kerouac in On the Road, as we jaunt across the southern part of our nation. “The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great, that I thought I was in a dream.” What follows are some of the details from our dream.
Like nature’s patchwork quilt unfurled for a picnic in the woods, Blackberry Farm personifies the American notion of Arcadian nostalgia. Feather beds, porch swings, a big red barn (which holds the resort’s epicurean restaurant), horses grazing and a pond with a boat house, its rooftop enshrouded in mist, conspire to create that soul yearning sense of yore we all seek. I discover a homage to nature as pure as a penny whistle’s high note at this farm-style getaway in remote, eastern Tennessee. This is a wonderland of organic gardens (which grow antiquated beans amongst other forgotten foodstuffs), fly fishing tutors as zen as monks, yoga instructors who lead you to tranquil platforms amid towering trees for your practice, and chefs extraordinaire who draw inspiration from the melange of historic cultures (including Cherokee, African and Scotch-Irish). A veritable hot bed of Southern Appalachian heritage, Blackberry Farm takes us back to simpler times. Providing cottage-style rooms, villas, such as the new Garden Villas big enough for families, and more traditional guest rooms, spread across the property, the inn makes soap, jam, butter and beer—among other products. With honey bees aplenty and its own Lagotto Ramagnolo truffle dogs, this ain’t your grand-daddy’s farm, but you’ll leave your city slicker at home while you dabble in repose.
Pittsboro, North Carolina
Imagine a place so fanciful that it would deliberately choose to match the goats to the cattle that graze upon its halcyon fields as if they were pillows accessorizing a sofa. That is Fearrington House Inn, built on an historic dairy, where black and white Tennessee Fainting Goats and similarly marked Belted Galloway Scottish cattle frolic side by side. With a collection of new-built structures designed to resemble a village, the affable hotel and its staff adopt you like long lost family. As in a real hamlet, the 32 capacious residences crop up all around the village’s “town square,” providing guests with the sense of actually embracing the lifestyle of an imaginary settlement. I find a bevy of things I love and covet: a beer garden, an old-fashioned bookstore (complete with that intoxicating paper smell), a captivating spa, a swank boutique, a coffee roaster and a couple of unforgettable restaurants. At the gastronomic Fearrington House Restaurant, helmed by handsome Chef Colin Bedford, and touted as one of the top ten restaurants in America, we feast on dandified Southern food, such as house cured bacon with pickled cherries and beets, butter poached lobster with sweet lemon and verjus and seared red drum with lima bean hummus. The grand finale, the signature chocolate souffle, ensures I walk right to the front desk to make my reservation to return soon.
They call Patrick O’Connell, the inn’s chef/owner “the Pope of American Cuisine”. And, if you believe food to be holy, as I do, take my word: you’ll want to bow at his kitchen pulpit. Arguably the best restaurant in the United States, this eatery reigns as a destination in itself. Able to conjure magic, O’Connell, designated a Grand Chef by Relais and Chateaux and a James Beard Award winner, took an historic building in a tiny, characterful town, located about an hour from DC, and transformed it into a phantasmagorical place of provocative enchantment. I swoon even before entering the inn, when I see the doorman, clad in seersucker, a bow tie and a straw, be-ribboned hat. It just gets better inside, where one room, decorated with simians, goes by the name of Monkey Lounge. Each of the witty 23 suites, named for famous chefs, entrances with astounding decorative artistry, not to mention the highest caliber of creature comforts. Activities abound in this slice of Blue Ridge Mountain landscape, but, I just want to consume every aspect of this inn and its soulful sense of play. Dinner spellbinds. Farm-to-fork before it was a a trend, O’Connell has close relationships with local farmers and food craftspeople that bring him a bounty of ingredients. He adds produce from his garden, then creates mind boggling, refined American cuisine and tasting menu options. Don’t miss the cheese master, Cameron Smith who spins some “udderly” amusing cheese puns as he serves you from his cow-shaped, mooing cart.