All things on earth point home in old October; sailors to sea, travellers to walls and fences, hunters to field and hollow,” wrote Thomas Wolfe in Of Time and the River. Around the time he finished that work, the author stayed at the historic Welbourne estate near Middleburg, Virginia, a place that itself seems an idyllic vision of a Southern October—horses grazing in pasture, fires crackling, and bourbon flowing. Welbourne operates today as an enchanting inn and a sanctuary for retired horses, just one of the getaways in the South that invite equine-loving guests to walk, ride, rest, and stay awhile.
A swank Bluegrass hideaway strikes an artful balance between tradition and modern hospitality
By Tom Wilmes
When her hosts wanted to give Queen Elizabeth II a close look at some of Kentucky’s finest Thoroughbreds during a 1986 visit, they brought Her Majesty to Hermitage Farm. The prior year, a half brother of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew foaled at Hermitage sold at auction for $13.1 million, a record that, adjusted for inflation, still stands. The farm’s owner at the time, Warner Jones Jr., then chairman of Churchill Downs, showed the queen his prized stallion Raja Baba and hosted a luncheon in the farm’s stately 1835 manor house. The farm itself was part of a land grant given to the family of General Hugh Mercer in 1780 for his service during the American Revolution.
Today a conservation easement protects Hermitage, and though it still operates primarily as a working horse farm, you don’t have to be a royal to enjoy its 683-acre spread of rolling bluegrass and equine history just outside Louisville. In 2010, Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, the founders of 21c Museum Hotels, a boutique chain of art-filled getaways, bought the estate. Hot Rod Charlie, who finished third in this year’s Derby and second in the Belmont, is among the latest progeny born and raised on the grounds. “He’s a perfect example of what the farm is,” Wilson says, “which is essentially a Thoroughbred nursery.” Wilson himself is a four-time national champion in the sport of combined driving, and Hermitage will again host the Kentucky Classic competition in 2022.
To help sustain operations and share the property’s heritage, Wilson and Brown have created an ecosystem of Kentucky experiences that balance the farm’s considerable history with contemporary flair. Visitors may take a guided tour to meet the horses and explore a renovated stud barn filled with trophies, memorabilia, and the owners’ carriage collection, which includes a nineteenth-century vis-à-vis carriage used in the filming of Gone with the Wind.
Overnight guests stay in either the five-bedroom main house or the one-bedroom pied-à-terre in the farm’s original smokehouse. While the main house retains the integrity of its colonial Virginia design, the Louisville firm Bittners transformed the interior into a lavish, light-filled modern residence. Contemporary artwork from the owners’ collection is a focal point, notably an abstract portrait in hand-woven silk by the artist Chuck Close.
At Barn8, Hermitage’s restaurant and bourbon bar, which opened last summer in a rustic renovated barn, chef Alison Settle and her team create seasonal dishes using produce grown on the property, such as heirloom sweet potatoes, turnips, and carrots. Guests may explore the greenhouse and gardens steps from the restaurant’s doors, peruse the farm-stand store, and sip through a bourbon tasting from among Barn8’s collection of private-barrel picks. It’s only a short drive to Louisville and several nearby distilleries, but many overnighters appreciate simply strolling the grounds in the evening, watching mares and their foals walking from the paddocks back to the stables, and reveling in the quiet following a day spent living like royalty.
Haywood County, North Carolina
A charming inn and a reimagined ranch share stables for adventurous trail rides
By Caroline Sanders
Sitting atop a horse at Hemphill Bald, elevation 5,556 feet, you see the old-growth forest within Great Smoky Mountains National Park stretching on for miles, rolling out eons of natural history. But just down from the summit, the Swag and Cataloochee Ranch, a cozy and luxurious timber highland lodge and a nearly century-old family dude ranch, reveal something new burgeoning amid the ancient landscape.
David and Annie Colquitt bought the Swag, a potato farm turned inn on 250 mountainous acres in Western North Carolina, in 2017, after honeymooning there years before. They renovated and refurbished the lodge and cabins, and last year they purchased the neighboring ranch, where seventeen affable horses and a barn cat named Felix now welcome guests to the stables for trail rides. Routes snake along the national park’s border, through shady paths and sunny cattle-trodden meadows that open into spectacular vistas, especially when autumn turns trees red and gold. The most popular ride consists of a two-hour journey that dips in and out of the park through sugar maples and sweet gum trees and fields of goldenrod and purple joe-pye weed before arriving at Gooseberry Knob on the grounds of the Swag, where chef Jake Schmidt serves a picnic of greens from Mighty Gnome Market Garden in Marshall, fried chicken from Winston-Salem’s Joyce Farms, and bison burgers from nearby Leicester.
While the trail rides put guests in touch with the primeval glory of the mountains, the Colquitts have spent the last few years bringing the Swag into the modern era, with updated guest rooms, expanded outdoor dining, cooking classes and naturalist talks, and a small, secluded spa. “We didn’t want to change the Swag’s character,” Annie says. “We just gave it a fresher feel.”
Over the next year or so, an all-star team including Knoxville interior designer Jennifer Talley and Atlanta architect Keith Summerour, who has worked on projects such as Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee, and Old Edwards Inn and Spa in Highlands, North Carolina, will turn their attention to Cataloochee, revamping the ranch’s twelve cabins and rustic lodge while retaining the property’s equestrian focus. “Even when the Swag is closed in the winter,” David says, “the stables will be open, with horseback riding every day unless there is snow on the ground.”
Retired horses roam the pastures surrounding this eighteenth-century bed-and-breakfast
By Kinsey Gidick
Like a pony Palm Springs, Welbourne Farm near Middleburg, Virginia, serves as an oasis for retired steeds. “Almost all of them come because they’re not able to be ridden anymore, usually from an injury or a degenerative condition in their legs or hooves, but they’re all certainly sound enough to traverse the farm at their own pace,” says Josh Morison of the nearly ninety jumper, dressage, and rodeo horses that have found a home on his seventh-generation family estate’s 520 acres.
Morison’s father, Nat, got into the business of caring for aging equines after years of farming. “Pop had always kept a few horses for friends,” Morison says, “but after twenty years of tough labor and tight margins, he decided to see if he could make a quieter, less intensive business of exclusively boarding retired horses.” Even further back, Morison’s great-great-great-grandfather Colonel Richard H. Dulany—whose portrait looks out from a wall in Welbourne’s gracefully aging library—founded the country’s oldest fox hunt (Piedmont, 1840) and colt-and-horse show (Upperville, 1853).
The herd now live out their days munching grass, soaking in the sunshine, and generally posing like a postcard for horse heaven. Guests are free to walk among them and give the steeds a gentle nose rub or pat, and no matter where you are on the property, chances are a horse won’t be far. “There’s usually one just across a fence to watch or call over for petting,” Morison says. He and his wife, Amanda, operate the farm and inn, alongside his sister, Rebecca Schaefer, who helps manage the Monticello–meets–Grey Gardens manse, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Over its epic history, the circa 1775 home has hosted literary greats Thomas Wolfe and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who discovered the property thanks to their editor Maxwell Perkins’s friendship with the owners. In fact, Fitzgerald wrote his short story “Her Last Case” while staying at Welbourne and used the home as the setting. Each room brims with antiques—1790s Old Paris Porcelain, nineteenth-century rosewood chairs—and artwork such as a trompe l’oeil still life of corn and a ripe peach that the French artist Fernand Renard created in the Virginia tastemaker Bunny Mellon’s greenhouse and gave to the family. Treasures appear in every nook, such as the clock that’s been a fixture in the front hall since the 1840s, with signatures of visitors scratched into the lenticle.
Around the grand dining table each morning, guests tuck into scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits, and fried apples. Daytime activities might include a leisurely hike to scenic Goose Creek, which borders the property and where horses often stop for a drink, or a short drive to Middleburg’s quaint downtown. In the evening, toast to horse health by the fire with a healthy pour of bourbon from the parlor bar, just as Wolfe perhaps did. When the author came to stay in the 1930s, he planned to revise his novel Of Time and the River. Instead, he neglected his work entirely, writing to his mother that he’d found one of the most beautiful houses he had ever seen.