The Family

The Family
Airstream Weekend Warriors

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Blackberry Farm

Blackberry Farm
Walland, Tennessee

The Barn at Blackberry Farm
The Horse Barn
    There is resort in Eastern Tennessee unlike any place I have visited before. It is down a country road and nestled in a valley just outside the Townsend entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It all begins with that fence. It is a humble white farmhouse fence with crisscrossing X-shaped patterns. You will never forget that ubiquitous fence meandering over hills dazzling the lucky visitor with it's elegant simplicity.

     Blackberry Farm is no ordinary farm. It is a luxury resort and a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux affiliated properties. We first discovered that name in Provence on our honeymoon and it has never led us astray since. The resort is set on 9,200 acres of rolling hills. It is like staying at your incredibly wealthy friends sprawling gentleman farmer estate. There is a main farmhouse, a guest house and many other structures scattered around this estate. Nothing is as simple as it seems. It is very Walt Disney in its perfection. From the picnic shelters to the garden shed and fly fishing shack, every single detail is perfect. There are only 68 rooms in the entire resort ranging from hotel style rooms to cottages. The primary attraction here is the food. Blackberry Farm has long been on our wish list. After dining at French Laundry in California and more recently at the Inn at Little Washington, Blackberry Farm was the final stop on the holy trinity tour of luxurious dining for us. 

    Blackberry Farm was never a secret to us. It was always either too expensive or impractical to leave our kids. With the assistance of our family, Melizza and I escaped for a quick romantic adventure in Tennessee. Melizza loves country sophistication so I knew this would be special. We went in February when the rates came down to earth between a visit from Rick Bayless to sample their craft beer and Valentine's Day weekend. Some weekends, Emmylou Harris stops by for a concert. There is always magic in the air at Blackberry Farm.

The Spa

The Garden Shed

Inside the Barn for dinner

    In the final analysis, this place was worth the hype although the rack rates are crazy expensive. The staff treated us like royalty. They were mostly younger on our visit and to our surprise the place lacked pretension. The meals were exquisite and almost overwhelming. The evening meals were formal in the Barn which like everything else at Blackberry Farm was much more than meets the eye. The Barn boasts an open kitchen and a stunning chandelier with a large scale National Park hotel style fireplace burning as the centerpiece. The meals were always changing and this place is truly farm to table. The breakfasts and lunches were excellent and less formal. I took no pictures of the food for fear of being exposed as for the twit that I am. I never brought up the Airstream to anyone although I would really like to boondock here. Everything here is gourmet. They might serve something pedestrian for lunch like chili but it will be made of beef brisket and will probably be the best you have ever had. They have a card for recipe requests. I think they get more than an occasional request.

   With all of this eating, Melizza and I spent a good deal of our time hiking around this magnificent property. Most of the time, you feel like you have the whole place to yourself. If you had a rich uncle who bought 10,000 acres and made his own private version of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, that is how this place felt. It is owned by the Beall family who started the Ruby Tuesday chain. The food here is a bit better.

     Sam Beall, the proprietor grew up on Blackberry Farm and fell in love with the land. After college and culinary school, he apprenticed at the French Laundry in California. He also worked at the Ritz-Carlton, Cowgirl Creamery and California Wineries. He clearly picked up that California love of heirloom ingredients, artisanal products and wine. He brought this knowledge and passion and applied it to the bounty that is available in East Tennessee. Blackberry Farm boasts heirloom gardens, a dairy, creamery, salumeria, honey house and a preservation kitchen. They are attempting to create the conditions to harvest french Periford truffles that were first produced by Dr. Tom Michaels. He cracked the code and is harvesting them in Tennessee. They have Italian truffle dogs, heirloom gardeners, preservationists and many other experts on site. This is truly a farm to table and a foodie geeks paradise.

    Melizza and I spent this rare weekend away from the kids enjoying each other and great food. You can spend as much money as you want here. You can rent a mountain bike for a couple hundred dollars. They have an on site spa, an Orvis fly fishing school. They also offer skeet shooting and even provide guests with a complimentary fleet of Lexus vehicles to drive. Melizza and I opted for some quiet time together in front of the fire between hiking and eating. Our only escape was a quick drive on the nearby Foothills Parkway. If you ever find yourself in need of a romantic escape or a culinary destination you could do a lot worse than Blackberry Farm. This place is a gem and we will sure to be back although it will be on coupon day again.


Monday, January 5, 2015

On Country Music

   My Airstream has been on hiatus for a short while. Our last trip was in October. Melizza and I had planned a trip down to the Low Country for Thanksgiving and a post Christmas trip to the Orlando area and a quick return to Myakka River State Park near Sarasota. We cancelled both trips. With the purchase of a new home and a last minute trip to Los Angeles for a wedding right before Christmas, something had to give. It is always easier to book well in advance and cancel at the last minute if necessary. That is one advantage of RV travel.

     With the holiday season winding down, I am feeling that strange craving again. I want to hit the road. That probably won't happen for a little while but just the thought of it gets my blood flowing. I relish those quiet moments driving at night while everyone is asleep. I am up for anything. I am picturing a green interstate sign that up ahead that says I am approaching Tulsa. Why Tulsa you may ask? I just picked an arbitrary city. It could have been Schenectady or Billings. I check my side mirror and see those iconic lights on top of my Airstream. Now all I need is a little music.

     There is always an electricity in the air before leaving on an Airstream trip. I like the sound of the Sequoia engine coming to life. As soon as I turn that key, the music begins. For me, music sets the stage for any journey. Those repeating notes at the beginning Willie Nelson's version of Whiskey River instantly take me to the road. I associate that song with the beginning of a new adventure. My kids may have a different reaction. I love to torture them by singing along. Eventually, we all sing Country Roads, Take Me Home or John Fulbright's soulful original Satan and St. Paul. Everyone, that is, except Jack. He hates country music with a passion.

    I never liked country music growing up in the Midwest. Perhaps I had to prove I wasn't a hillbilly. Country music was for unsophisticated people. Midwesterners sometimes feel like they need to prove they are sophisticated and worldly to outsiders. With age and experience I see that such behavior is for an insecure person who feels like they have to fit in. I still loathe contemporary country. The Zac Brown Band maybe the exception and a bit of a guilty pleasure. But those classics like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and too many more to mention are made for the road. Perhaps country is an acquired taste like beer or brussel sprouts. I enjoy a broad range of music and wouldn't have been caught dead listening to country as a child. Now I know every lyric to Bloody Mary Morning, Me and Paul and a Boy Named Sue. I cannot listen to Lyle Lovett's version of I've Been To Memphis without singing along. So if you see the Troutstream passing by, you are as likely to hear "On The Road Again" as Jay-Z. Melizza still won't let me play the kind of rap music I listen to in front of the kids and for good reason.

     Here are a few of my favorite country road songs (they are not all pure country so don't give me any shit):

1. Miles and Miles of Texas as performed by Asleep At the Wheel
2. Thunder on the Mountain and Don't Think Twice It's All Right by Bob Dylan
3. Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine by the Carolina Chocolate Drops
4. Jolene and Coat of Many Colors by Dolly Parton
5. Cover Me Up by Jason Isbell
6. Tangled Up In Blue as performed by the Jerry Garcia Band
7. Take Me Home, Country Roads and Rocky Mountain High by John Denver
8. Ring of Fire, A Boy Named Sue, Folsom Prison Blue and most other songs by Johnny Cash
9. Honey, Honey by the Milk Carton Kids
10. Anything that Norah Jones can belt out
11. Crazy as sung by Patsy Cline
12. Luckenbach Texas by Waylon Jennings
13. Me and Paul, Bloody Mary Morning, Whiskey River, If You've Got the Money, I've Got The Time, Nothing I Can Do About It Now and many, many more by Willie Nelson
14. All Alright and Martin by the Zac Brown Band

     I could write an ode to many other music genres but my love of country music is a recent and surprising development. Don't worry. I will not let my blog devolve into drivel like this for every entry. We have ambitious Airstream travel plans for 2015. I will definitely be in Tennessee, North Carolina and Michigan. We will be heading out to New Mexico, Arizona and Utah in the Spring. We are also planning on Wyoming and Montana in the summer unless we scrap it for international travel. Either way, I should find plenty of other topics to write about. Happy New Year everyone. I hope to see you on the road.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Troutstream International Jamaican Edition

Negril, Jamaica

     And now for something completely different...

    The purpose of this blog is to record my adventures of travelling in the Airstream with my family. I often leave out travel unrelated to the Airstream. Like most Airstreamers, I love to travel and experience new places. Over the last few years, I have discovered the magnificence of my home country from a different perspective. Every once in a while I may decide to throw in a more  traditional vacation destination on this blog. This is one of those moments.
     The cost of airfare has gotten ridiculous in the past ten years. Gone are the days of a last minute weekend airfare to Madrid for a few hundred dollars. With a family of five, I am forced to shop hard to find a good deal. I have learned that it is better to find good airfare and then figure out why to go than choosing to destination and then price it. Jamaica is the perfect example of how this strategy worked for my family. Melizza and I wanted to go to Nevis until we saw the airfare. As soon as we gave up on a Caribbean family escape, we found a deal on flights to Montego Bay.

     Jamaica has never been on my wish list. Like Cancun and the Dominican Republic, I pictured paradise poisoned by mass tourism and cheesy all inclusive resorts. When we boarded the plane in Atlanta, I was more than a little concerned with the crowd. It looked like a plane full of Homer Simpsons that had just won a free trip to Sandals. The idea of being stuck in a resort full of loud, obnoxious tourists who drink twenty one Red Stripes, eat at a continental buffet and then proceed to pee in the pool is not my idea of a vacation. I do not want manufactured fun either. I want to explore and find what is unique about my destination.
      I had always thought of Jamaica as good for the cruise ship traveler. I also knew that it was good on the high end traveler. If you want to rent a home or stay in a stylish hotel like Strawberry Hill, Goldeneye or the Caves, parts of Jamaica provide privacy and exclusivity. I did not know what the offerings would be like in the middle. Our needs were simple. We sought a quiet enclave near a nice beach and access to good food.

     We found that balance in Negril. The Seven Mile Beach is white and the water is blue. There are no high rises. Most important, the food was fresh, unique and delicious. There are many beautiful beaches in the Caribbean but very few with such a unique culture. You do get accosted by locals on the beach selling goods but, for the most part, we wanted what they were selling. There was a lady selling mangoes and papaya. There were people selling spiny lobsters and jerk pork. In other words, we received beach side service without paying Four Seasons prices. There were hustlers trying to sell everything from glass bottom boat tours to pot but a polite no thank you usually sufficed.

     We stayed at the Idle Awhile Resort in Negril. I cannot say enough positive things about this hotel. The rooms were spacious and stylish. We had plenty of room for the five of us. The room included a working kitchen and a balcony overlooking the beach with a hammock. The property sits on a thin sliver of land on Seven Mile Beach. The landscaping is lush and jungle like. They have a restaurant with decent food and great drinks. I always opted for the Jamaican breakfast of Ackee and Saltfish and some local Blue Mountain Coffee. The service was excellent from top to bottom.

The beach at Idle Awhile
Jerk Chicken just across the street from Idle Awhile

     I highly recommend exploring the island with a private driver. We went with Kenneth Watson who I had read about prior to arriving. Ken made sure that we had a great experience in Jamaica. He was friendly, knowledgeable and listened to what we wanted. More importantly, he delivered. We wanted to see Jamaica outside of the tourist belt with an emphasis on local food. Ken picked us up in Negril and took us on a journey through the mountains the the south shore. Jamaican cuisine is a mix of many cultures including African, Indian, Spanish and English. We visited local markets where we purchased spices, fruits and sugarcane sticks. We stopped for lunch and bought bammy bread and  escovitch snapper. The warm and doughy bammy bread is made from cassava. It was a perfect complement to the Jamaican escovitch. Escovitch snapper is a Spanish inspired dish of whole fried fish with a vinegary sauce spiced with scotch bonnet peppers, onions and tomatoes. We also sampled pepper shrimp. No tropical trip is complete with out drinking some coconut water. Ken brought us to two tourist attractions on the south shore. The first was a short cruise on the Black River. The tour is similar to an Everglades tour but with crocodiles instead of gators. You travel up the river through thick mangroves but unlike the Everglades you are surrounded by mountains. We also visited YS Falls which is a popular attraction for good reason. YS Falls is located on a large estate on the south shore. You can swim in the natural pools below several tiers of waterfalls. They also have man made pools that were very refreshing after spending a bit of time in the van. If you ever find yourself in Jamaica in need of a driver, check out Ken's Jamaican Dream Vacations. Here is a link:

Here are a few pictures of our day with Ken.

Cinammon and nutmeg at the market

Escovitch and bammy bread
Black River
The friendly local crocodile

YS Falls

The pools at YS Falls

     There were a number of surprising things about Jamaica. First, the people were so warm, friendly and welcoming. That is not always the case in areas overrun by American tourists. We had a good time watching the Jamaican men flirt. Local women are greeted with a comeons like "Hi sweetie, you have been waiting for me." The female response is usually indifference until the male persistence pays off with a smile. That is just part of the culture. This would not fly at home but the local ritual is fun to watch. Second, the Jamaicans do not cater to American dietary trends. If you drink, they offer Red Stripe beer or a rum based cocktail. I saw very little wine and no bourbon, mojitos or martinis. The same was true about the food. There were very few fast food outlets in Negril and no crepe or fish taco stands. They have such a bounty of local fresh fruits and vegetables. The ubiquitous dish in Jamaica is jerk. You can get jerk chicken, ribs and pork. We had more than our fair share of this national dish and I savored the heat of the scotch bonnet peppers on my lips. My mouth is watering as I write this. I tried many of the local dishes including curried goat. This is definitely a place to sample the local fare.

     In the final analysis, you can travel to many islands for great beaches and hotels but Jamaica offers a little more local flavor. Plus the reggae music is not bad either. The truth is that Jamaica has something for everyone and I should not judge others so harshly. For many travelers, they want to relax and escape the real world. For some, that means never leaving the resort gates. For us, Jamaica provided an inexpensive and exotic escape that was just a couple of hours by air from Atlanta. I have never been so glad to be wrong about a place.

Negril Sunset

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In The Clouds At Shenandoah

Columbus Day Weekend
Big Meadows Campground
Shenandoah National Park

     Melizza and I have been proud owners of the Troutstream for over five years. This past weekend we left the kids at home to enjoy our first romantic weekend in the Airstream. It is rare for us to travel without our children but I must admit it was paradise to relax in peace and quiet and focus on each other. There were no skirmishes to break up and the Airstream was always spotless. No one complained about our relentless pace. The weather at Shenandoah National Park forced Melizza and I to take it slow. The fall colors are a couple weeks from their peak and the park was shrouded in mist for much of the trip. The end result was a wonderful opportunity to relax and sleep in. There are no hookups at Big Meadows Campground so we were dry camping all weekend. We had no television or cell service. What a relief it was to be cut off from the world. When we wanted to do something, we could descend from the clouds and travel to Charlottesville, the Shenandoah Valley or the Virginia Piedmont region.

  The entire escape was planned around a dinner at the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia. The plan was to stay in Shenandoah National Park to hike and unwind before dressing up and enjoying a truly gourmet dinner at one of the best restaurants in Virginia. The weather prevented us from hiking in the park. Shenandoah National Park is located on top of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Most of the park sits on top of peaks that are a little over 3000 feet in elevation. The main artery through the park is a mountaintop road called Skyline Drive that winds 105 miles through the park north to south. We stayed in the centrally located Big Meadows Campground at around mile marker 50. There are only a few exits from the park. In order to exit the park we had to drive 19 miles north to Thornton Gap or 14 miles south to Swift Run Gap. The roads are windy and the speed limit is 35 miles per hour. To add to the challenge, the visibility during our weekend stay averaged around 15 feet in the fog.

    The drive to Virginia from Ohio brought us back through West Virginia where we had visited a couple weekends before. The Greenbriar River Valley was near the peak of fall colors and the scenery rivaled anything in Virginia. Now more than ever I realize that I need to explore West Virginia more. I have done a lot of research and plan on dedicating more time next year to the eastern portion of West Virginia. Since I am finally heading to the west coast with the Airstream next year, that may be limited to a couple of weekend trips. I highly recommend visiting in the fall.

    After we were situated at Shenandoah, we headed down to Charlottesville, Virginia. This city is the home of Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia and Dave Matthews. The former are probably more important than the latter. We decided to check out a winery while we were in town and picked Blenheim Vineyards primarily because Dave Matthews is the owner. We went in for a tasting and it was surprisingly decent wine. The setting was very idyllic close to Monticello. We did encounter some drunk sorority girls who suffered from excessive personalities but that does tend to happen when alcohol is involved. I found it more amusing than annoying but I can't say the servers felt the same way. We strolled around the downtown area and had a nice dinner at an Asian tapas concept restaurant called Bang.

     On Sunday morning, that persistent fog was still lingering so we headed east to the Virginia Piedmont area. Sperryville is a small town just east of the Thornton Gap exit. Melizza and I visited an orchard and picked up the most sweet and crisp apples I have tasted in years. That is what an apple should taste like compared to the bland products that pass for apples at the local supermarket back home. They tasted like autumn.

     We also hit the antiques stores and art galleries in town. This is a quaint and sophisticated region. There is a lot of D.C. money around here because of the proximity to our nation's capital. Melizza and I were able to find a great table for the kitchen in our new house. We had time for a quick hike to Dark Hollow Falls before cleaning up for our dinner at the Inn. One of the great luxuries dry camping with the Airstream without kids was the ability to take a relatively long hot shower.

    After cleaning up and dressing up a bit, we headed back east to the Inn at Little Washington in the tiny town of Washington, Virginia. This town was surveyed by none other than George Washington himself. This restaurant and inn have been around since 1978. It is a deservedly famous restaurant and inn frequented by foodies and sophisticated East Coast tourists. Melizza and I were just happy to be there and enjoy some great food together.

     The decor is very flamboyant and whimsical. If Liberace had a cousin who had slightly better taste, then that is what it looked like. All kidding aside, it was really beautiful inside and out. The town is also a charmer.

     We went for the food and it did not disappoint. I had the Enduring Classics Tasting Menu while Melizza ordered the Seasonal Menu. Some of the highlights were the so called "Tin of Sin" containing American Osteria Caviar over jelly and peekytoe crab, Rappahannock Oysters Four Ways and Truffle Dusted Popcorn. The attentive staff brought out course after course of delectable tastes. One highlight for Melizza was the Tea Master who made her tea from items in the garden. He was also the "Cheese Whiz" and brought out one of the best selections of cheese we have ever seen in the United States. He patiently explained all the different characteristics of teas and cheeses. My meal ended with a dessert called the "Seven Deadly Sins". We toured the kitchen and it was absolutely spotless and beautiful. The French Laundry in the Napa Valley has an edge on the food, but the Inn at Little Washington has the most beautiful kitchen. Chef Patrick O' Connell has served Queen Elizabeth, Several Presidents and cooked for Julia Child on her 90th birthday. That is good enough for me. Melizza and I loved every minute of our time at the inn.

     We enjoyed our time alone with each other and endeavor to go on these quick escapes together more often.