Climbing higher and higher, the steering wheel turns lock to lock as you drive straight-arm racing style. It’s a flight of fancy to picture that you’re behind the wheel of the legendary Ferarri 250 GT SWB “Breadvan” – the high-roofline Ferrari racer from the early 1960s that acquired the nickname from its station-wagon silhouette that characterizes the SUV from another elite GT maker, Porsche.
The road, twisty as an unraveling lemon peel, proves prophetic in your dream when a cocktail arrives several minutes later. Blue Ridge Mountains vistas pour out in a swirl. What’s that noise? It’s the engine, a 400-horsepower V8 pitbull pulling you up the mountain in a wild Blue Ridge Iditarod.
In retrospect, Primland still seems like a dream, except our visit there was a heavenly slice of reality deluxe.
Porsche had in fact loaned us the Meteor Gray Metallic Cayenne S for our “Sporting Clays on the Bourbon Trail” road trip. And Connecticut Shotgun had provided their European-inspired, A-10 American sidelock. But dreams, as depicted in the movie “Inception,” fashion landscapes that reflect our deepest fascinations. And when you round that final bend on the road up to Primland there appears a lodge of such overwhelming amazement it crowns the mountain top with the magnificence of human achievement. It was “The Shock of the New” here atop the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
Expansive reflective glass on the façade framed by cedar planking supported a neo-Victorian pitched roof with dormer windows and three chimneys. The building, completed in 2009, rested on a stone foundation laid on a bluff. It takes a moment before you completely grasp the genius of the contrasting towering silo that’s the hue of moonlight – home to an active observatory – appended to a corner of the lodge. The silo’s vertical windows reflect like facets of a cut gem stone.
You find out later over beers on the front balcony with Steve Helms, vice president and general manager of Primland, that the blueprints paid homage to a farm structure on the original 12,000-acre tract. Primland, you discover, honors the land and the native peoples with the highest expressions of aesthetics – even to the teepees in the distance and the contemporary spa ensconced in the lower level. Beneath its skin the building is fully compliant with the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certification system right down to the radiant-heated floors, solar and thermal laundry facility and the high R-value insulated windows.
When we parked at the front entrance, Brooks Bradbury, General Manager of the Hospitality Division, walked through the front doors. With his neat silver hair and tailored sport jacket, he was the personification of the contemporary host.
A warm introduction and then he asked “Can I get you a cocktail?”
My traveling companion was still in the Cayennne S and I answered, “I believe she would like a bit of road-straightener. How about a Cosmo?”
As the bellman unpacked the Cayenne S, Mr. Bradbury appeared offering a frosty pink potion sporting a lemon spiral that infused its magic under a sky of Easter blue. We talked with Mr. Bradbury about the spectacular views when he points out there are no cars visible. The family of Dida Primat, the man who bought the property for a logging operation in 1977, collaborated with the architects to preserve the vistas by installing an underground garage.
The amazement of Primland continues when you enter the avant-garde lobby rich with the textures of reclaimed wood, indigenous stone walls and slate floors. To your immediate right is a chic lounge area with a sleek, stone fireplace, beyond that a two-story wine cellar behind glass, then the soaring great room, and ultimately your eyes are drawn through the massive windows to the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond.
Cocktail in hand, my traveling companion led the way up the wood stairs. Open the door to your room and suddenly you’re in the state room of a yacht – a warm grove of woods rendered with the principles of Japanese design.
A bathroom to the right continues with the natural properties of the lodge – the lighting indirect and sensual. A sliding screen over the tub is open to the bedroom that radiates a halo of wood veneers. The bed, covered with 400-thread-count sheets, is artistically lit from behind as though the illumination emanates from the wall. The window on the far end is home to a sitting area that can be isolated by a sliding partition. Each section of the room has a light panel with settings for reading, television…any incandescence you desire.
With plenty of time before dinner, we toured the lodge.
The spa at ground level could serve as a gallery of modern mosaic. The walls, swimming pool, showers and treatment rooms exhibited glass mosaic tiles of varied colors juxtaposed with wood, stone and concrete highlighted by forward-looking light fixtures. More mesmerizing than edgy, the mosaics expanded on the transcendental glow of the spa whose treatment rooms were anointed with names of the elements: fire, air, water and earth.
The names also honored the American Indian culture – their innate knowledge of nature and respect for Mother Earth. Likewise, the Spa’s holistic treatments balanced the energies of fire, air, water and earth by unifying the healing wisdom of the American Indian with European spa traditions.
From the ground level, ride the elevator to the top floor and the doors slide open to the vestibule of Primland’s observatory. Once there, you climb a spiral staircase to the Great Hall where the telescope resides. It is here that the observatory dome turns your life magical. Slide shows on monitors page through celestial images captured by the telescope.
Primland’s altitude provides extraordinary clarity of the night skies. Primland offers stargazing nights through its impressive Celestron CGE Pro 1400 capable of seeing beyond our solar system. You can book a Tour of the Universe after a day of shotgunning, golfing, deer and turkey hunting, ATV outings, tennis, horseback riding, fishing and other earthly pastimes at Primland.
Afterwards, we enjoyed dinner in Primland’s showcase restaurant, Elements. The showpiece of Elements is a horizontal gas fireplace.
A lobster bisque and the diver scallop with butter-pecan ice cream, fennel, white chocolate and coffee arrived as our appetizers. Ice cream as an ingredient has been appearing in hip kitchens. With Elements’ diver scallops, it’s best to think of the ice cream as lovely new-age tarter sauce that brought out every sweet and tasty morsel in the scallops. Don’t try it at home, but in the hands of Element’s chef Andrea Griffith the mingling unveiled a seductive revelation.
One of the entrées was a Sous Vide Lobster accompanied by mushroom capelletti. Sous Vide translates into “under vacuum.” In this French method, vacuum-packed cuisine is patiently boiled. Sounds weird but the lobster was extraordinary.
The other entrée was the Strube Ranch Wagu Beef Calotte. Unquestionably, it qualified as the best beef we ever tasted. Wagu cattle are bred for densely marbled flesh that is best dry aged. If you see Wagu on a menu, get it. Our dinner was complemented by a rich 2007 Cakebread Merlot from Napa Valley.
Satiated on Elements, we strolled under the stars along the torch-lit path to the Tobacco Barn – Primland’s sanctuary for cigar smokers. The region is abundant with small tobacco barns that are vestiges from an era when families cultivated the leaf as a cash crop. Primland had relocated a rough-hewn tobacco barn onto a plot overlooking the golf course and lodge. Inside, though, was another story entirely: big screen TV, cushy furniture and a stone fireplace. I lit up my own delightful Gurhka Evil, but if you arrived not packing, the Tobacco Barn stocked cigars from Punch, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta and Padron. Of course there’s a selection of single malts, cognacs and ports that lets you ponder what comes next.
The next morning, the mountains delivered our guide, Marcus Heath. Marcus was a Christian man of tender mercies. He was small of stature and soft spoken, but his fists looked powerful. This native son lived and breathed the beautiful land around us. Polite and deferential, these qualities enhanced rather than detracted from Marcus’ sharing of the deep knowledge of the woods and his love of Primland.
We drove to the sporting clays course clubhouse and then packed our off-road cart. Primland’s 14 stations exemplified the spirit of the mountains. At the first station, you stood behind a hay bale, with an old outbuilding off to the side, to shoot an incomer and a quartering mini on report. Later, we would shoot from a stack of logs, front wagon wheels tilted forward on the horse shafts, a V indent in a wood fence, a plywood duck blind near a pond, or a slab of slate laid into an overlook.
The clay birds flew high and fast between the trees or simply materialized from a grove of trees. It required only a spark of imagination to believe that the trap machines were phantoms of bird dogs eternally exuberant in their heavenly grace.
Shotguns resounded here like no place else. These woods held secrets, as Marcus would tell us. Abandoned stills, Confederate cemeteries, dilapidated quarters, tumbledown tobacco barns – relics of hardscrabble living, fierce independence and partisan heroics. The sporting clays gunfire echoed more of muskets and honor than the recreational kicks of well-heeled enthusiasts. The elation of smashing a clay target stayed fresh for a heartbeat as the presence of those who shot before you through the ages made themselves known in the resonance. Neither of us would have been particularly shocked if told that when you walked these woods on a moonlit night gunfire boomed and bird dogs barked from times of yore.
The narrow track that connected the stations of Primland appeared naturally worn by some migration of man or beast. We would drive a healthy distance between the stations. Riding the rearward-facing seat, holding the A-10 American, the woods receded mystery upon mystery as ephemeral beauty in the light of algae and gold. Even when you stepped into a sporting clays station and held at the ready, the subconscious shooter who eyeballed the target, shouldered the shotgun and pulled the trigger inexorably drifted toward the enchantment.
Station two presented a fast rabbit and left-to-right quartering bird. Station three gave us a teal and a battue that drew your attention to the tree tops. Station five challenged us with a fast dropper into a ravine that also allowed for a steep, descending incomer. Station seven threw two high incomers. Station nine presented an overhead and a long, fast mini. Station twelve two opposing crossers. Station fourteen delivered two long crossers shot from the duck blind.
Shooting the A-10 American, the gun assumed a new nobility that seemed elusive on the previous sporting clays courses that led to Primland. Yes, Blackberry Farm brought out the best in the A-10 American, but Primland revealed the shotgun’s kinship with the forest. It evoked the prevailing principle of the Russian mystic, G.I. Gurdjieff, who asserted that most people go through life essentially asleep; and that true consciousness must be attained through hard work. At Primland, the A-10 American felt like it had arrived at its own true consciousness; that there was no better place on the planet to shoot it.
Of all the courses we shot on our Bourbon Trail road trip, the one at Primland articulated the most authentic intentions of the sport. It wasn’t a feel-good layout for hotel guests or new shooters. It truly simulated wingshooting in the Blue Ridge Mountains as it has prevailed from the beginning.
Previously published instalments of “Sporting Clays on the Bourbon Trail”: