Find Your Thrill
Stepping back in time at antebellum Berry Hill
By Debra Simon & Brack Johnson
We peer into the darkness, straining to see where the hoofbeats are coming from, as we rock in chairs on the wide, stone veranda. Louder and faster now: "Clippity-clop, clippity-clop."
Two white horses come into focus. We drain our after-dinner drinks and rise to our feet as the Percherons halt dramatically in front of the hotel. Behind them is a torch-lit carriage, handled by two exhilarated drivers.
This had been billed as a simple hayride, scheduled for the first night of our summer vacation. But, like everything we were to experience at Berry Hill Plantation Resort, it was so much more.
Flash back to a living room in wintry Connecticut. Debra, Sandy and Marilyn, three sisters from three states, along with their husbands, Brack, Kenny and Alan, debate where to gather for a five-night retreat.
Destinations from Iceland (cheap flights, cool temps) to Toronto (cool sites, great eats) are suggested, tussled over and quickly discarded.
The couple from Durham, comprised of Debra and Brack (us!), tosses out a sleeper suggestion: There's this new country inn where the architecture is classic but the amenities are cutting edge, the service is five star but down-home, and the food is adventurous but unfussy.
Plus, it's just an hour and a half from the Triangle.
Berry Hill, a former tobacco plantation in southern Virginia, has something for everyone, from the sister who wants to devour a novel to the husband whose love of constant movement rivals the Energizer Bunny’s.
The cherry on top: its staff will plan a sunup-to-sundown itinerary to tickle all six of our fancies. The biggest individual decision will be whether to have the Swedish or the sports massage at the resort spa.
Thus, we find ourselves in rural South Boston, Va., driving through the baronial gates of a National Register of Historic Places homestead, which was built in 1844, and down a pea-gravel road flanked by willow oaks.
Approaching a whitewashed, Greek Revival mansion, surrounded by 750 acres of fields and gardens, our imaginations hit high gear and the clock seems to turn back 150 years.
Is that Scarlett O'Hara in her green, velvet-curtain dress, waving to us from the veranda?
We enter the building through an antique glass door, and it’s as though we’ve stepped into another time.
Two mahogany staircases, with no visible means of support, sweep down to welcome us into the grand foyer.
Shown into the parlor for lunch, we ooh and aah over an 1844 rosewood piano and leather-bound books showing a centuries-old patina, all presided over by crystal light fixtures, including a hanging Argand fluid lamp, circa 1795, that used to burn whale oil.
In the midst of all the grandeur is a table graciously laid for lunch, complete with cut flowers and crisp linen.
Having requested spa cuisine for our visit, we are enchanted by a romaine and vegetable salad with grilled marinated chicken and shrimp medallions tossed in an imaginative lemon Caesar dressing. We fall into a swoon at the dessert of local berries and yellow watermelon sprinkled with lavender cream, mango puree and fresh cinnamon.
And so begins our love affair with Executive Chef Todd Wolfson, a culinary maestro whose resume includes a stint with Paul Prudhomme, and sous chef Travis Simmons, who base their fusion cuisine on Southern and Cajun influences. (See "Love at First Bite.")
The chefs recapture our hearts every morning when waitresses Gina Guthrie and Lauren Armstrong plunk a heavy, oversized skillet in the middle of our table for six.
There's a lovely garden frittata accompanied by perfectly cooked breakfast potatoes one morning; Cajun egg casserole with venison sausage another day. Sometimes, the skillet is split in two, with country scrambled eggs sitting side by side with grilled chicken hash.
Lunches are equally lavish yet light.
One afternoon, the family-style platter of poached salmon calls to us, but we proceed with caution, fearing the sauce is laden with fat and calories.
Chef Todd appears and gives the green light to dig in — that creamy stuff around the fish is a low-fat, lemon-relish and yogurt-artichoke sauce.
Our romance continues during nightly, multi-course feasts, which are cheerfully served by waitresses Michelle Duffer and Susie Banks. Often we are serenaded by musicians — blue grass one evening, classical another, jazz a third.
We experience the ultimate gastronomic delight at a cozy table in the kitchen during a private cooking demonstration.
As Chef Todd whisks and sautees, he regales us with anecdotes from his rich culinary life. Asked his favorite meal, he answers with a wink, "White Castle."
Chef Todd encourages us to gather round as he prepares Caesar salad with shrimp croutons, blackened striped bass with tomato-crawfish sauce and wild-rice pancake, as well as a divine apple tart with pecan-bourbon sauce.
We do manage to squeeze in a bit of time between meals for other events. Conference-planning manager John Martin, who asked in advance our individual activity preferences, organizes every day into a day to remember.
When Martin finds out we're air-conditioning people, a picnic by the pond turns into a wine tasting in the library, where Woody Walls, food and beverage director, urges us to stick our noses all the way into the glass and inhale to appreciate his cherished Virginia vintages.
Brack does his worst to the links at a nearby golf course; Alan jogs through the property's undisturbed natural beauty; Debra and Kenny play water volleyball in the indoor pool; Marilyn and Sandy luxuriate in pedicures and mud treatments at the Blackberry Spa; everyone takes a spin around the professional kart track and the automobile racecourse at Virginia International Raceway. (See "On the Right Track.")
Our unbridled access to the great outdoors includes the equestrian center, where Gary and Julie Holmes, Raleigh transplants, take the reins.
The gregarious couple easily shares tales of the trail. (First date: a five-hour ride; Gary knew it was true love when he let Julie on his horse Charger.)
After a galloping good time on the first night's hayride with Percherons Bob and Rosemary, Julie and Gary decide to hook up mules to a carriage outfitted with comfy car seats for another sunset tour.
Using superior nocturnal senses, the mules take us deep into the property. All the while, horses in the vast pastures trot alongside, fireflies light up the evening sky and the Holmes's teach us city slickers about the animals under their care. For example, they explain how mules, such as our guides Belle and Jim, are smart, not stubborn.
Earlier in the week, Brack and Alan, who hadn't hit puberty the last time they were near a horse, find themselves atop Duke and Mountain Man for 2-1/2 hours when they nod yes after Julie calls out, "Want to see the whole property?"
Like everything and everyone at Berry Hill, the Holmes’s radiate folksy ease.
Nothing here is hurried, and that's a good thing. We take time to fish, to play lawn games, to snooze on the hammock. We can do as much or as little of the itinerary as we want, but most events find us all in happy attendance.
A stroll of the plantation with Chip Pottage, local historian and antiques expert, reveals the homestead’s narrative.
His voice is pure Virginia, which means "I" sounds like "ah" and "here" drawls into "he-ah." (There's a local bash that's called "RivahFest!")
After several mentions of a "wah," we ask Pottage if he's referring to the original, hand-laid stone "wall" that surrounds 26 acres of Berry Hill.
"Not the 'wall,'" Pottage exclaims, "the 'Wah.' The Civil Wah!"
With two cemeteries on the land, there are bound to be spooky stories.
One waitress recalls a co-worker who saw two ghosts rise from their graves and dance together over their headstones when she walked to her car after a late shift.
On a balmy night, we listen to Barbara Bass, a retiree who is affiliated with the Halifax County Little Theater, read poems by Richard Cecil Rogers, an African-American caretaker of the farm in the 1950s and '60s.
Rogers wrote about both serious and amusing topics, as in “The Ghost of Berry Hill,” which Bass, outfitted in period dress, recites by candlelight.
Suddenly, an apparition comes out of the fog and runs across the broad lawn behind her!
Retiring at the end of long and wonderful days to guestrooms in a newer wing of the resort, we find our beds turned down and a sweet treat or a fragrant flower on our pillows.
It's easy to unwind and sleep in style on fancy sheets in a heavenly room, featuring carved canopy beds, large tile bathrooms with pedestal sinks, and balconies overlooking the grounds.
When we're shown to our rooms on the first day, Sandy is amazed to spot a piece of toilet paper floating in an otherwise flawless bathroom.
Trying to act as she imagines a Southern lady should, this New Yorker walks over to flush away the small oversight, only to find that it's a white gardenia.
Turns out, in the era before indoor plumbing, these sweet-smelling blooms were used to freshen chamber pots.
So, every morning, gardenias, which are grown on the property, as are all the resort’s flowers, grace our loos.
"We're going for the Southern hospitality thing,” the young bellman named Kyle explains without a touch of cynicism.
The owners have big plans for this 92-room resort. Already there's a 6,000-square-foot conference area with a 1,400-square-foot ballroom and eight state-of-the-art meeting rooms.
With the burial site of slaves and the remains of their quarters on the property, Berry Hill is working to include the plantation in the Black History Heritage Trail, says general manager Bill Carder.
And, having hosted 450 people this June during the annual "Juneteenth" celebration to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States, the resort hopes to become a player in the growing sector of African-American tourism.
Also on the drawing board are a separate conference center, additional guest rooms, more eateries (Dabney's Tavern opened right after we left) and an 18-hole golf course.
In the years to come, the owners expect to surround all these facilities with 700 to 800 houses.
For now, staying at Berry Hill Plantation Resort is like visiting the home of a billionaire friend who has left at your disposal a joyful staff, accomplished chefs, a stable of thoroughbreds, a spa full of aestheticians and anything else you’d need for the perfect vacation.
Civic boosters in Halifax County, Va., are crossing their fingers that the opening of Berry Hill Plantation Resort will ignite a boom for the economically sluggish but naturally beautiful region.
They proudly point to the following attractions:
• Virginia International Raceway, a motorsport resort, reopened in 2000 to offer amateur and professional sports-car and motorcycle events as well as hands-on driving experiences.
In a James Bond twist, its Safety and Security Institute provides training in anti-terrorist and protective driving skills, mostly to the government. These sessions include attack simulations and exercises in vehicle dynamics, skid control, accident avoidance, high-speed driving and evasive techniques.
• The town of South Boston is sprucing up Main Street and renovating the Prizery, an historic building once used to process tobacco, into a cultural venue that houses an impressive, 280-seat theater and more.
• The region is home to a number of lovely bed and breakfasts. And, three years ago, the same couple who runs the riding component at Berry Hill Plantation Resort threw open the doors of Shangrila Equestrian Retreat, a 500-acre dude ranch that provides guests with the complete cowboy experience.
• Staunton River State Park draws thousands of outdoor enthusiasts to its 1,500 acres of woodlands, meadows and shoreline on the Dan and Staunton rivers as well as on Buggs Island Lake, the largest lake in the state.
• Now in its 48th season, South Boston Speedway attracts those with a need for speed to NASCAR and special-event automobile races.
• Several cool restaurants, such as Bistro 1888, a showplace for new American cuisine that’s housed in the historic district’s oldest building, have brought a fresh bite to the region's traditional burgers-‘n’-barbecue scene.