Steering my hotel golf cart alongside a white picket fence, emerald green fields roll into magnificent mountains in the distance, each valley and basin shrouded in early morning mist. It’s easy to see how the Great Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee got their name.
This pastoral paradise is part of the lush 4,200 acres which make up Blackberry Farm, a luxury hotel nestled in the foothills of this epic range and one of America’s most celebrated places to relax, recharge and reset. Gazing around at the abundance of nature, breathing in way more oxygen than usual, feeling fresh and connected, it occurs that if there is a heaven it must look a lot like this - my version of heaven, anyway. I’m also thinking that if you can’t find some peace, joy and happiness in this rural idyll then you’d probably be hard pressed to find it anywhere.
There’s an undeniably spiritual feeling to this special place where gratitude is the only attitude, enhanced by the endless succession of gloriously simple yet stunningly executed natural treats and surprises around every corner. My current track leads to the appealingly named ‘Singing Brook Trout Pond’, a picture-perfect natural pool surrounded by vibrant trees and a deserted wooden lodge at one end with two huge rocking chairs on the veranda. The calm water encourages reflection, both literal and metaphorical, and I sit and rock in front of the mountains rising up beyond the varying green layers of water, fields and trees – all combining to create an almost effortless meditative state.
The estate gracefully blends authentic farmstead living with old-world southern charm and super modern amenities. There’s an on-site kitchen garden, beekeeper, creamery, bakery, charcuterie, kennel full of truffle hunting dogs, pens full of turkeys, chickens, ducks and quail as well as a high-tech gym, fabulous spa and next-level cooking in the Barn restaurant. Almost everything on the seasonal menu – from the home-cured trout to the sheep’s milk cheese to the starter of fried egg with crispy chicken skin – comes from the grounds.
Various country-pursuits such as fly fishing, hiking and horse riding are on offer as well as foraging and cooking demonstrations with the resident experts. Driving the cart back to our secluded cottage from dinner we are suddenly surrounded by a parade of fireflies, tiny pin-pricks of bright light dancing about like fairies in the long grass, making this magical place even more insanely appealing.
I feel properly tearful at checkout, briefly consider throwing myself to the ground and refusing to leave, but this is only the second stop on my very own American Dream, an epic road trip through the Deep South.
I fly into Nashville, now served by daily direct BA flights from London, and head straight for Noelle, a stylish, comfortable boutique hotel perfectly located downtown. Known as music city, this creative, energetic place is home to historical venues like the Ryman Auditorium and iconic RCA recording studios as well as The Country Music Hall of Fame and Johnny Cash Museum. Sensational sounds emanate from the parade of neon-lit bars in the Honky Tonk heaven that is Lower Broadway, where world-class live music starts at 11am and continues until the small hours.
Less known is the emerging culinary scene which runs the gamut from down-home to upscale with a smorgasbord of options. Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint downtown is a carnivore’s wet dream and absolute must-visit. They serve West Tennessee-style whole hog bbq and other superlative slow-cooked meats which are fresh every day – no freezers or microwaves here. I found the ‘redneck taco’ (melty beef brisket on corncake with slaw and sauce) especially pleasing, both in title and taste. The more refined Rolf & Daughters in the trendy Germantown neighbourhood has shareable small plates of simple ingredients such as agretti - a samphire-esque succulent served with golden raisin, chilli and anchovy.
More musical history is found in Muscle Shoals, on the banks of the Tennessee River in northern Alabama - about a five-hour drive from Blackberry Farm. This sleepy place is the somewhat unlikely ‘hit recording capital of the world’ thanks to the local FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound studios. Legendary bands and singers including Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Paul Simon and Cher flocked here to work. Stay at the Gunrunner Boutique Hotel in downtown Florence, where all suites are musically-themed with vast beds and then tour the studios, getting lost in endless nostalgic beats.
Ninety minutes south is Birmingham, Alabama, a city which played a crucial role in the Civil Rights movement. Any self-respecting foodie must make a pilgrimage to The Highlands Bar & Grill, ‘America’s Most Outstanding Restaurant’ according to 2018’s James Beard Awards – known as the Oscars of food. The Southern-accented French cooking is exquisite and the service, décor and sophisticated yet relaxed vibe all ramp up the deep level joy. Not only did the exceptional team clinch the big award but pastry chef Dolores Miles also won in her category – her next-level coconut cake will live on in your mind long after you hoover up the last bite.
Next up is a night at 919 Felder Avenue in Montgomery, two hours away. This is the preserved Jazz Age home of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald who wrote portions of Tender Is The Night and Save Me The Waltz here in the early 1930s. Downstairs is a museum dedicated to their lives and legacies and literature lovers will be thrilled to discover the two apartments upstairs are now available to rent on AirBnB. It’s a magical experience for fans like myself to mooch about reading their glorious letters before waking to the same view of the magnificent magnolia gracing their front lawn. What a place and what a beautiful thing local legends Julian and Lesley McPhillips, the people behind preserving it, have done for us all.
Drag yourself away from the Fitzgerald’s quiet, leafy, all-American neighbourhood to tour the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Martin Luther King preached. Down the street is where Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on the bus. There is also a deeply affecting National Memorial for Peace & Justice. This sacred space is the first of its kind dedicated to the African American victims of racial terror lynching.
Monroeville, quaint hometown of Harper Lee and Truman Capote where Atticus Finch’s actual courthouse from To Kill A Mocking Bird is now a museum to the childhood friends, is 90 minutes along country highways dense with forest, interspersed with more churches than you’ll see anywhere. All this literary nostalgia is compelling but it’s only an hour and a half south to Mobile, a bustling port city on Alabama’s gulf coast which is hugely proud of being the first home of carnival celebration Mardi Gras in the US.
Just outside the city is the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, the top birdwatching spot in North America and largest wetland in Alabama which encompasses 260,000 acres in a 40-by-10-mile area. Take a boat tour with the awesome dudes from WILD NATIVE and marvel at the spectacular vegetation and the great variety of wild things who live amongst it. Eagles, pelicans, ospreys, kites, owls and egrets are just a few of the birds whilst sharks, alligators and red-bellied turtles coexist with 126 species of fish in the water. If you’re anywhere near here trust me when I say it would be insanity not to take a few hours out to explore and learn.
Then it’s a night in a luxe cottage in the grounds of opulent Oak Alley in Vacherie, Louisiana’s plantation land stuffed with Gone with the Wind-style antebellum mansions on the banks of the mighty Mississippi. Eating in the jazzy dining room at Houmas House down the road makes me feel like old-world aristocracy. An exhilarating airboat ride deep into the bayou with Swamp Adventures is not for the faint-hearted as alligators splash about up close. There are also vast spider webs clinging to cypress trees draped in dangling Spanish moss and a huge variety of snakes.
Hotel Peter & Paul is a stunning conversion of a former church, rectory, school and convent in the uber-cool Marigny district of New Orleans and a special place to finish. Vibrant Frenchman Street where local hipsters head for live-music is a couple of blocks away and it’s easy to go out every night, listening to incredible bands at The Spotted Cat, Apple Barrel and DBA. Sugary beignets and chicory café au lait at Café Du Monde give a necessary boost in the mornings before taking walking tours of the French Quarter and Garden District for architecture, history and stories about the South’s most feted city.
There are better known places for USA road trips but experiencing the many delights of the Deep South like this is life-changing. The music, literary heritage, fabulous foodie hotspots, sublime scenery, chatty locals, all-encompassing culture and dreamy hotels combined to make my 1800-mile meander through Tennessee, Alabama and Louisiana the very best sort of dream.