Friday, November 1, 2013

Playing tourists in Asheville: Part II

October 23-26, 2013
Asheville, North Carolina
Lake Powhatan Campground

The plan for our second day in Asheville was to tour the 8000 acre Biltmore Estate.  We added the audio tour to our ticket price as they do not offer guided tours of the house—just some additional tours of behind the scene places. We like audio tours as you can go at your own pace and hear background details that help you appreciate what you are seeing. Fortunately, no photos are allowed in this 120 bedroom home, so I am not faced with the task of creating an on-line tour here. Here’s a little background on the estate.

The home itself took hundreds of workers six years to build and was officially completed on Dec. 25, 1895. It was the private home of George and Edith Vanderbilt.They only had one daughter who inherited the estate with her husband. They lived in it as their private home until 1930. Since 1930, the home has been open to the public as a national historic treasure and “one of the most prominent examples of the Gilded Age.”  Today the 178,000 sq. ft. home is run as a family business by George’s great grandson.  The architectural details of the home are astounding.

It sure felt like we were in France touring the great chateaus of the Loire Valley.  I especially love gargoyles, so here is a small sampling.

I was a little nervous about finding this home’s ostentatious display of wealth disturbing. It wasn’t. The architecture and art simply took my breath away. In spite of the home’s opulence, I found many of the rooms quite inviting--especially the winter garden room, the library, and the billiards room.  Highlights of the tour for us were seeing the Renoir and Sargent paintings, the 16th century Flemish tapestries, George’s 10,000 volume collection of books, the wide array of vintage silk velvet fabrics and wall coverings, intricately hand-carved furniture from Renaissance Europe, and the Halloween Room—a large room in the basement whose brick walls are painted with murals featuring witches, goblins, bats and black cats. No photos, have to use your imagination.

I also need to say something about the views from the Biltmore. We were told by our “audio guide” that George Vanderbilt owned all the property from his estate to the other side of Pisgah Mountain—about 125,000 acres.  The estate included farms, gardens, nurseries, a small town, a church, and a school—all with the idea of it being self-sustaining. In the early 1980s, the dairy farms were converted to vineyards and a winery was built on the premises (about four miles from the main house).  The French Broad River runs through the property and you can even take a guided canoe or kayak trip on the grounds of the estate. There area also hiking and biking trails on the grounds that you can explore as part of your admission price or by adding a second day for a nominal fee. I wish the daytime temps weren’t so cold or we would have liked to take advantage of this opportunity.

After three hours of touring the home, we felt pretty hungry. There are five restaurants on the grounds with lots of choices. We chose to eat in the Stables CafĂ©—they converted the horse stables into a charming restaurant. The food was delicious and reasonable. 

After a late lunch, we really wanted to walk the grounds, but the temps outside were in the 40s with a bone-chilling wind. Since it was too cold for a walk, a drive to the winery sounded like a good option. 

The winery used to be a dairy farm on the estate. It was converted to a vineyard in 1971 and today it has become the most visited winery in the United States. They grow 150 acres of vinifera grapes on the estates but 80% of the grapes for their annual production of over a million bottles of wine come from different regions in California. The Biltmore winery in Antler Village (about four miles from the house) offers free tastings of more than twenty wines, plus they offer a large selection of reserve wine tastings for a small fee. We indulged in a little of both. The wines were surprisingly good—more in the style of French wines as their original winemaker was from France. Capping off our day at the winery was a perfect way to end our visit to the Biltmore Estates.

It turned out that our entire five-day stay here in Asheville was during a cold spell. The days were mostly clear but cold (highs in the 40s and one overnight low in the 20s—yikes!). The cold weather dampened our enthusiasm for getting out on the trails in our park. It was also windy—too windy to enjoy biking too.  Plan B was an auto tour. Vic has wanted to see Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so off we went on a two hour drive to Gatlinburg.  The fall colors were pretty, but many of the leaves had already dropped at the higher elevations.

Along the way to Gatlinburg, we enjoyed a stop at an apple farm where I bought some great winesap, cortland, and jonagold apples. They advertised apple pie, which Vic was lusting after, but it turned out all they had were fried apple pie slices.  He bought one and it fell way short of his desire for a good piece of fresh apple pie a la mode.

Gatlinburg was a big disappointment. What a tourist trap and the traffic on a Friday afternoon was horrific.  We stopped at the Sugarland Visitor’s Center there and even that was a disappointment.  Not much to see and throngs of people. From Gatlinburg, we thought it would be pretty to take the road that goes southeast through the park down to the Cherokee Reservation. I would have liked to take the time to show Vic Cade’s Cove, but the time estimate for a 35-mile loop was three hours due to traffic. Not for us.  

The best part of our drive back through the park was a stop at the old Mingus grist mill. We enjoyed walking around the grounds imagining this place as a working mill. I bought some stone ground corn meal there and made pancakes with it in the morning. It was much better than the fortified and bleached corn meal you typically get in the store. (Stone ground needs refrigeration to stay fresh since it is not bleached.)

The views from some of the overlooks were pretty, but I think we have been spoiled forever with Glacier National Park. After living in the West for so many years, it takes a different kind of appreciation for the eastern “mountains.”  I miss the contrast of the deep river valleys and wide open spaces of the Rockies.  The Smokies and the Blue Ridge Mountains are pretty but I haven’t felt much of a wow effect.

We were even more disappointed with the Cherokee Reservation.  Aside from lots of souvenir shops, miniature golf, and amusement parks, a huge Harrah’s Casino appears to be the centerpiece of the town. I thought we might find some artisan places to stop but everything looked cheap, and with the exception of Harrah’s, run-down.  To be fair, we only drove through the area and there are probably some better places to visit than what we saw on the main highway.

Our plan was to take the Blue Ridge Parkway from Cherokee back to Asheville, but the parkway was closed due to the cold weather and ice in the tunnels. Our alternative route took us through Maggie Valley where there were many antique shops and furniture makers. This valley had more charm and would be an interesting place to stop if you were in the market for such goods.

After a long day’s drive, we settled in for a quiet evening and planned our final day in Asheville. I wanted to go to the Farmer’s Market downtown, but we were never able to find it. Someone sent us to the permanent “farmer’s market” which was more like the flea markets you find in Florida—big trucks had brought in fruit and vegetables on pallets. We did find a few local tomatoes and some Amish cheese from Ohio.  I should have researched the real farmer's market location better.

Our last day in Asheville was a little warmer, so we managed to get out for a good walk in the park with the pooches. The lake area was quite pretty with lots of trails and even a small waterfall. 

On our walk we met a couple who were very interested in our full-time lifestyle. We probably talked to them about an hour, answering all kinds of questions about this lifestyle.  At one point the husband, Jeff, asked, “What is the master plan when you are finished with full-timing?”  I am always interested in hearing Vic’s answer to this question as I often discover things I didn’t know. We do talk about it but the words “master plan” don’t describe our casual conversation.  Once we passed our first year with flying colors, I think we both thought two more years would about do it. Now that we are two months into our third year, we definitely see a year four in our future. 

Part of the fun of our adventure is to stay present to the moment and explore the more immediate choices that lie before us.  Right now, our best master plan is to LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL. . . .


  1. Sounds like you had a wonderful time in Asheville. Sorry you hit the cold front. It made the whole east very cold and windy.

    I didn't realize there wasn't any guided tour at the Biltmore. I imagine the tour wouldn't be much fun without adding the auto tour. Glad you mentioned that.

    I agree with your assessment of the eastern "mountains." After you spend time in the west, you don't get many wow factors here in the east.

    Another couple I follow tried to visit the Smokey Mountains and the traffic was bumper to bumper. Not a fun time.

    We are in our fourth year of fulltiming and we don't see an end in sight yet. But I guess we are feeling the same as you...Let the Good Times Roll!

  2. So sorry that you had yucky weather for your visit. November really is pushing it and the week-ends are absolutely terrible in the fall. You might have felt differently if you'd been on the parkway and the NP during the week in mid October. Or maybe not. I love the Blue Ridge but I think perhaps it may be you grew up and imprinted, west or east. I think the pacific coast for instance is beautiful but I love my warm swimable Atlantic better. In year 4 and living it. We'll be on the road as long as we can. Hope we cross paths this winter.

    1. Each place has its beauty and discovering what lights us up the most has been an important part of this journey. Funny thing is that I grew up in the Chicago suburbs
      without seeing the West until my late teens. I wonder about the imprint thing as the moment I saw Montana I felt home. Maybe I was a western cowgirl in another lifetime.

      Hope to see you this winter too.

  3. Sorry your weather wasn't so nice. It's warmed back up this week and is supposed to be sunny with no wind.

    We don't like the crowds and traffic of the Gatlinburg area either. We were there at least 10 years ago and it was a traffic jam back then. That's why we chose the Blairsville, Georgia area. Traffic is light, and the scenery is beautiful. I'm sorry you were disappointed with the mountains. I think these mountains are lovely, and we never tire of the views. I like all the greens and of course the fall colors.

    1. I wanted to check out your mountain retreat, but a pull to the coast won out. I think you have found a perfect area to escape the Florida heat in the summers.

  4. We did not tour the Biltmore. Sounds like a entire town is located on those grounds. Our friends did the garden tour and loved it. Your photo shows so much beauty.

    We found nothing appeal in the Gatlinburg area. The traffic is just outrageous. We just drove right on through.

    The sign at the apple orchard is wonderful. I enjoyed looking at the different names of apples and seeing what they look like.

    Keep on enjoying the good life.

  5. FREE tastings! Wow! Napa Valley has too much competition so the prices for tastings are outrageous!

    Ever since we entered California it has been hectic and crowded...I miss the wide open vistas and relative calmness of the smaller towns and more remote areas of the West.

    That's what it's all in the moment!

    1. I am not a big fan of California either except all five of our grandchildren are in the LA area!

  6. The estate was interesting, but we were there while they were decorating for Christmas and the place was a bit messy and the crowds were wild.

  7. I keep discovering places I love making it hard to consider leaving this lifestyle and even harder is deciding where I would want to settle down. So like you I am savoring the present moment ever thankful for the beautiful sights and wonderful folks we have met. Can't wait to see y'all again on down the road!

  8. We so agree with your "master plan"!
    The Biltmore is amazing...your pictures bring back lots of memories of our stay in Asheville. Joe and I both agree with your assessment of Gatlinburg. Actually Pigeon Forge is much better or at least it was in years past. We did find a very interesting museum in Maggie Valley...Wheel Through Time. FYI if you are ever back in that area.
    Your pictures are beautiful.


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