Unexpected Pleasures

I know many of the hotels in my hometown of Washington, D.C. – not because I stay there; frankly I can’t tell you or any tourists that inquire of me which ones are the nicest to stay at.  As a local, I see mostly the public areas, generally restaurants, maybe the spa or cocktail lounge. To the degree there are “hidden gems” beyond that, you would be better off consulting Frommer’s or Fodor’s, or even TripAdvisor or Yelp.

Today, however, I’m at a place in Washington that I’ve seldom visited – the Jefferson Hotel on 16th Street – and early in the morning, after breakfast and before lunch.  Chris is running the Marine Corps Marathon on Sunday, and usually books a massage the day before that to relax and get in prep mode.  This year, we waited a bit late to book the massage at the usual place we both like, and so I had to do some research on alternative options.  The Jefferson came up for several reasons – it’s a beautiful hotel, it’s very quiet and rather small so you aren’t subject to hordes of runners crowding locker rooms and waiting areas, and the staff have a reputation for superb client service.

While I can’t speak to how the spa actually turned out – Chris is the one who gets the benefit of the Jefferson’s “couture massage” – I do know that the food at the hotel is excellent.  Plume – the signature restaurant – is wonderful, inspired by Jefferson and particularly his time in Paris as US Ambassador to France. Quill – the cocktail lounge – is charming as well.  And for more casual fare, today we are off to the Greenhouse – which is like a European solarium in a 19th century marble palace.  Food, what food?  Not even sure we will notice it amidst the beauty of the surroundings.

But today, the genuine find for me is the library – a room designed based on Jefferson’s own book room at Monticello.  It’s a cozy, wood-paneled room, with recessed shelves of books written by those who have been guests at the hotel.  Even more alluring is a nook with a table and deeply cushioned benches – modeled after Jefferson’s own bed nook in Monticello.  Except better – Jefferson’s Monticello nook has always struck me as intriguing but uncomfortable (even for the exceptionally tall, over 6 feet, Jefferson).  No air conditioning, basic bed, tight quarters and candlelight might make it quaint but it also won’t win you many stars in today’s Michelin guide.  On the other hand, the Jefferson Hotel’s version is next to a discrete coffee bar, plenty of space, and genteel staff who solicitously offer cocktails, sparkling water, or just a bit of history about Jefferson and the origins of the hotel. All without waiting in line without other tourists.

For more information, check out: http://www.jeffersondc.com/

Blackberry Farm

Ever since I heard about it several years ago, I’ve been longing to go to Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee. If you’re a foodie, a travel junkie, a spa lover, or just like beautiful places, then the Farm will satisfy you on all these fronts. It’s been the recipient of tons of awards, lauded by everyone from Bon Appetit to Conde Nast Traveler to the James Beard Foundation. Set on over 4,000 acres of beautiful mountains and fields in the foothills of Eastern Tennessee, the Farm is a pilgrimage for anyone who loves a luxury weekend.

So much has been written about the Farm and you can find out all about its offerings on its website – http://www.blackberryfarm.com   The question I want to address in this post is a simple one, however: Does it really live up to the hype and is it worth it?

The short answer is yes, the Farm does not disappoint. I’ve been to other Relaix & Chateau properties, including the Inn at Little Washington, but the Farm truly is one of the best. For one thing, the scenery is gorgeous. You could spend hours just sitting on a stone veranda watching the trees and the sky (or from the inside great room of our estate house, as we did on a rare day in July when the humidity was pretty daunting even in the mountains). And the food is fantastic. And unlike other places where you might think about what is close by that you can enjoy, the Farm really is a place unto itself – a contained oasis of paradise where you can just relax. It’s like a luxury camp in the Adirondacks for adults, but with Southern hospitality and charm. And while it costs a fair bit, by the time you have settled in with your meals and outdoor hikes, and cozy afternoons reading a book (or maybe napping) in one of the great rooms in your cottage or the main house, you realize you are actually getting not just a meal and board but really the whole weekend. It’s true especially in the sense that you don’t need cash once you are on property – everything is either covered or bills to your room (yeah, sort of like a cruise ship but way more elegant). If you stay long enough, you’ll probably start to wonder what cold, hard currency looks like. The bill for your room (and incidentals like wine, spa, etc.) will remind you at the end of the trip, but at least while you are there you can pretend to be blissfully unaware.

Are there any downsides? A few, even if you are a discerning guest. The first is that despite offering great products in the spa and farm shop, the toiletries in the rooms are somewhat disappointing. The signature scented shampoo and conditioner in our room was a wish-it-was-forgettable scent of lavender, bourbon and vanilla. At one point, I had to tell Chris that his hair smelled like a cupcake – and trust me, that is not a compliment. With all the great products out there, and much nicer soaps and offerings not only in the bathrooms in the public spaces, we were less than impressed on this point.

The other downside is that the service by wait staff can be spotty a lot of the time. The staff is abundant, earnest and friendly, and knowledgeable about the food and wine – in a completely unpretentious way, which I very much appreciate. But over a 3-day weekend, there was more than once that a cocktail order was forgotten or a course was delayed, or a staff member just seemed not to notice that we were there. In one instance, Chris simply walked up to the bar/kitchen himself when we were the only ones in the main house late in the afternoon, and asked for a menu and drinks. For this kind of place and this kind of experience that just shouldn’t be the case.

All that said, I truly loved the Farm and would go back in a heartbeat. In fact, leaving was truly sad. When I got home, I realized somehow we’d forgotten to return our room keys – the old heavy brass fob type that remind you that you are somewhere special. When I emailed the Farm to apologize and ask for an address to mail then back, the front desk staff kindly replied that this sort of thing happens on occasion and the Farm likes to think that is guests’ way of not wanting to leave and somehow taking a piece of the experience with them. If that’s the case, then I guess you can say I took the keys but left longing for a return to the Farm. Now just to decide on whether Fall or Spring in the mountains is better . . .


– Laura Flippin

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