Relais & Châteaux’s Southern Route du Bonheur offers an epicurean expedition touring the South’s poshest properties.
I come from a family of foodies. The women in our clan dedicate an entire weekend each year to simply swapping recipes and sharing secrets on how to best conquer the classics of Julia Child. Our family motto of “Eat a meal, plan a meal” has often led to painstakingly planned itineraries centered almost entirely on five-star food. I wholeheartedly believe there is no better way to get a real taste for a region than bite by bite. So when I stumbled across Relais & Châteaux’s Southern Route du Bonheur, I was more than ready to take my culinary curiosity on the road and explore the Southern destinations topping every gourmand’s bucket list.
Nestled amid the Great Smoky Mountains on a pastoral 9,200-acre farm in Walland, Tenn., Blackberry Farm’s gastronomic reputation (as a winner of three James Beard Awards) proceeds itself. The Beall family has poured their hearts and souls into developing a 62-room world-class resort. As I settle into my cottage, charmingly dubbed “The Wood Shed,” I see the loving hand of the family’s matriarch (and director of design), Kreis Beall, in the small details of the room—a soft throw in just the right spot for reading, a screened porch offering the perfect perch to enjoy morning coffee as the fog lifts over the Smokies. After a morning yoga session on the property’s treetop platform and a tour of the farm’s rolling and lush acres via horseback, my appetite is primed to experience the resort’s famed farm-to-table cuisine.
Every aspect of Blackberry is designed to slow down the pace of life and savor the moment. The luxuriously languid meals are no exception. As my group settles into the impressively chic converted barn (imported from Lancaster, Pa.), I surrender the reins to Executive Chef Cassidee Dabney and Sommelier Andy Chabot, who lead me through a magnificent multicourse tasting menu. The collaborative effort of the award-winning Blackberry team is apparent, and it is easy to see why Bon Appetit named the property the No. 1 hotel for food lovers. Everyone who is part of the impressive team—from the chef, master gardener, baker, cheesemaker, butcher, jam lady and chocolatier to the sommelier—showcases a true passion for his or her craft. I can taste the thoughtful preparation in each and every morsel, from a petite, fresh-picked pepper (charred and finished with XO vinegar) to each perfectly paired wine selected from the resort’s comprehensive 160,000-bottle cellar. Deeply rooted in its regionality, Blackberry is farm-to-table cuisine at its finest, focusing on the heritage of Southern foods and elevating every aspect of the culinary craft to a true art. Rooms from $895 a night, 1471 W. Millers Cove Road, Walland, Tenn., 865.984.8166
Westglow Resort & Spa
Sitting atop a prime precipice in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina with both sunrise and sunset views, Westglow Resort & Spa offers a serene retreat for wellness and an unexpected oasis of fine cuisine. Constructed in 1917, the nationally registered historic Greek Revival estate was originally the summer home of famed artist and writer Elliott Daingerfield.
Often rated among the world’s top destination spas, Westglow’s breathtaking facility offers sweeping views overlooking Mayview Gorge. An indoor pool, new clay tennis courts and walking trails allow guests to relax and refresh in between treatments featuring botanical-based skincare lines such as Dr. Hauschka. Although the serene setting might seem removed from the hustle and bustle of big-city life, the surprisingly sophisticated culinary team is sure to impress even the most highbrow gourmands. A recent recipient of a Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence, Rowland’s Restaurant wows dish after dish, but dessert is the true showstopper. Playing off the locally made soda, the Cheerwine Float (with Cheerwine reduction and cherry espuma) illustrates the culinary team’s playful reinterpretation of regional favorites. Like its surrounding crisp, mountain air, Westglow offers a refreshing respite for rejuvenation amid the area’s most spectacular setting. Rooms from $275 a night, 224 Westglow Circle, Blowing Rock, N.C., 828.295.4463
The Fearrington House Inn, Restaurant & Spa
Tucked in a quaint village near Chapel Hill, N.C., The Fearrington House Inn is the realized dream of proprietor, developer and longtime local R.B. Fitch. The Fearrington has become a 40-year adventure for Fitch, combining his Southern, small-town upbringing with the style and charm of the English villages he fell in love with during his travels. Each of the 32 suites has been individually designed and offers picturesque garden views. The local shops offer beers, cheeses and wines that guests can taste while exploring the town’s boutiques.
The familial, village feel of The Fearrington lends a warmth to the resort. Octogenarian Fitch is still very hands on and has a loving rapport with his award-winning team that includes The Fearrington House Restaurant’s Wine Director Maximilian Kast and Executive Chef Colin Bedford. The farm-to-fork food is ripe with regionality, and updated versions of iconic Southern chef Edna Lewis’ recipes (like the chocolate souffle) remain on the menu and are a true testament to the gospel of Southern cuisine. Rooms from $325 a night, 2000 Fearrington Village Center, Pittsboro, N.C., 919.542.2121
The Inn at Little Washington
Proprietor and chef Patrick O’Connell’s lifelong passion project, The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., is the perfect pièce de résistance to conclude our culinary tour. O’Connell’s background in theater is apparent from the moment I enter the storied destination that is a rite of passage for every epicurean. The 24 guest rooms, aptly named after America’s great culinary pioneers, and luxurious lounges have been transformed from a former gas station into O’Connell’s magnificent world of exotic and fantastical opulence, thanks to interior design by London set designer Joyce Evans. From the silk-fringed lampshades in the dining room and the monkey mural in the singerie-style lounge to my ornately decorated Jacques Pépin suite, the inn is unabashedly unique and a true national treasure, just like O’Connell himself.
If there was any doubt about O’Connell’s penchant for theatrics, our grand welcome to his inner sanctum of the kitchen soon solidifies his reputation as the prince of pomp. The doors swing open to reveal O’Connell, surrounded by the smoke of incense being spread by our waiter masquerading as an altar boy—and I instinctively bow and kiss the hand of the Holy Father of Farm-to-Fork himself. The religious reference is no joke. O’Connell operates his kitchen with monastic discipline. Gregorian chants play in the background, offering a serene rhythm for which these top talents of the nation synchronize their work. Known as the “Pope of American Cuisine,” self-taught O’Connell pioneered the refined riff on regional American cuisine and has earned countless accolades throughout his 35-year career for his innovative use of farm-fresh and local products. The 80-seat restaurant offers an ever-changing menu based on seasonality and the expertly trained cast of characters—ranging from the Cellar Mistress who reigns over a 13,000-bottle arsenal to the charmingly quirky cheese cart man—all resulting in an experience unlike any other. “I was supposed to have become an actor but soon found the living theater of the restaurant world more compelling than the stage,” O’Connell offers. It is high drama that is worth every penny of the price of admission. Rooms from $460 per night, 309 Middle St., Washington, Va., 540.675.3800
A Storied Past
The Southern Route du Bonheur springs from a rich heritage. As affluent Parisians made their way south from Paris’ Gare de Lyon to the Côte d’Azur aboard the famed Le Train Bleu, haute hotels like La Cardinale—the estate of Relais & Châteaux founders Marcel and Nelly Tilloy—flourished along the road that was built parallel to the route. The Tilloys coordinated with partnering properties to offer an enticing culinary itinerary, encouraging travelers to explore. Soon, this itinerary became known as La Route du Bonheur or “Road of Happiness.” As other outposts opened, the Tilloys recruited other fine hoteliers that shared a passion for fine cuisine, to form Relais & Châteaux. Today, the collective offers more than 520 properties worldwide in 64 countries with a collection of 60 Routes du Bonheur throughout the world, ranging from tours of Provence and Tuscany to Napa Valley.