June 13, 2009

psst, pete. i'm posting!

Hey gang!

So Pete not-so-subtly reminded me a few days ago that I never got back on here and finished posting about vacation. It has been on my to-do list, I swear! You know how I am though, I can spend hours online reading everything YOU write, but I'm so horrible about writing myself. I used to love doing this, but I just haven't been able to get back into the swing of posting.

At any rate, I left off the last time getting ready to head to Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. I have to say, despite getting off to a really questionable start in the morning, this day made up for all the changes in plans and re-routing of the previous week. And then some.

It was a fairly cool morning, like upper 50's, so I opted for jeans and luckily was smart enough to throw a jacket in the car "just in case". Cody drove me to the estate, and I stopped to get tickets on the way in. I had to get my general admission ticket, of course, but I also bought tickets for the two tours that I didn't take advantage of two years ago and have regretted since. We'll get to that later.

Now, this is an estate in the old sense of the word. When George Vanderbilt bought this property, he didn't but a couple of acres to build a house. He bought MILES of property. Which means you don't just pull in off of the road and into a parking lot. You take a scenic drive through 3 miles of estate grounds which were planned by Frederick Law Olmsted. Name sound familiar? Yeah, that would be the guy who designed Central Park in New York among other notable parks and gardens.

So Cody drove me up to the house and pretty much dropped me off at the front door, like the genteel Victorian lady I am! Okay, not really, but it was still nice. The access road obscures any view of Biltmore House by design, and for good reason. Your initial spotting of the the roof line through the trees forces your mind to start going, "Are you serious?!"

Yes. He was serious.

The house is referred to as America's Castle for a reason. Immense doesn't really come close. There are, of course, many other public and private buildings that are much bigger.

I could go on babbling, but I'll just cheat a little here and do a little copy/paste job:

The History of America's Largest Home

Building Biltmore was, at the time, one of the largest undertakings in the history of American residential architecture and the results were astounding. Over a six-year period, an entire community of craftsmen worked to build the country's premier home. The estate boasted its own brick factory, woodworking shop, and a three-mile railway spur for transporting materials to the site.

A New World Château

The celebrated architect Richard Morris Hunt modeled the house on three châteaux built in 16th-century France. It would feature 4 acres of floor space, 250 rooms, 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces. The basement alone would house a swimming pool, gymnasium and changing rooms, bowling alley, servants' quarters, kitchens, and more.

An Environmental Wonder

The grounds of the 125,000-acre estate were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the creator of New York's Central Park and the father of American landscape architecture. He not only developed acres of gardens and parkland, but in his efforts to protect the environment and reclaim over-farmed land, Olmsted established America's first managed forest.

A True Family Home

George Vanderbilt officially opened the home to friends and family on Christmas Eve in 1895. He had created a country retreat where he could pursue his passion for art, literature, and horticulture. After marrying the American Edith Stuyvesant Dresser (1873–1958) in Paris during the summer of 1898, George and his new bride came to live at the estate. Their only child, Cornelia (1900–1976), was born and grew up at Biltmore.


Yeah. Two hundred fifty rooms. Not to shabby, huh?

So Cody dropped me off shortly after 10am, so I had just under half an hour to kill before my first tour. It just started to sprinkle as I was getting out of the truck, and it was so cold. I thanked God again for the foresight of bringing a hooded jacket on this trip and headed off to find the bathroom!

After a quick potty break and a smoke 'em if ya got 'em last chance for a while cigarette, I went to the meeting location for my 10:30 "Behind the Scenes" tour. While waiting for the tour to start, it started pouring to beat the band. Let's not forget the thunder and lightning now! Let me tell you, thunder and lightning causes little girls to shriek like banshees. Little girls shrieking like banshees under a stone porte-cochere is just about too much for my ears to take. Everytime the thunder "clapped" these girls would do it again, which they found highly amusing. Everyone with ears over 8 years old, however.... A lot of wincing going on.

The tour was rather interesting, and believe it or not, I met a couple who used to live in Euclid! When I told him I lived near the golf course, he of course knew where it was and informed he had been a part of the group that worked to have it built! Small world and all that...

Our tour stayed mostly near the "Bachelors' Wing" hall and stairway. Being a smaller more private stairway designed to allow the single male guests to flit in and out at all hours of the night quietly and privately, it is fairly segregated from the main common areas of the house. It's close proximity to the working rooms and hallways of the house allowed us to see a lot of what went on behind the scenes of the estate (hence the name of the tour) and the life the employees led.

We also got to see some of the workings of the house itself, which was actually pretty fascinating to me. I walk by my furnace and hot water heater every day on the way in and out of the house, but never give them a second thought. Seeing what was involved in providing comfort for a house this size in 1895 was quite remarkable!

Mr. Vanderbilt made sure when he built this house that it had all the amenities available in any of New York's fine hotels of the period. Trust me, this place has amenities in spades!

Now during this tour, there were a couple of times that the guide would normally have taken us out onto a walkway or courtyard outside. Since it was raining, we had to settle for looking out the windows instead. No big deal really, as there are certainly plenty of windows in this house to look out of.

Problem was, I was supposed to go out on the roof during my next tour!

Once the tour was over, I headed out for the bathroom and another quick smoke break. My next tour was meeting up in the main foyer at noon, and I only had about 15 minutes.

Once I got to the foyer, one of the docents (they're all so nice!) saw me just sort of lollygagging and asked if I was there for the 12:00 "Rooftops & Walkways" tour. I informed her that I was, and to my dismay she informed me that they did not go out on the roof during electrical storms. I didn't take the opportunity to inform her that it was actually a thunderstorm that just happened to have a lot of voltage running through it...

At any rate, she told me I had a couple of options. I could take the tour, sans rooftop, I could re-schedule for later or, my least favorite option: Go on the "Behind the Scenes" tour since they were the same price. I groaned and informed her that I had already taken that tour. She suggested that I take a few minutes to mull it over before I met with my guide and made a decision.

After some bitter thought, I started to head to the information counter having made up my mind to just re-schedule and try my luck later. As I was approaching the counter, another docent saw me and met me halfway. She had correctly assumed that I was her 12:00 tour.

We pretty much covered the same ground as I had with the last lady. My guide, Marilyn, seemed to have a little sense of adventure though. She actually seemed willing to take me so long as I was willing to go. So I thought "Why not?"

One thought that kept crossing my mind through this whole thing though: "Jake. Seriously. You're afraid of heights. So you want to pay $15 for the 'priviledge' of walking on a wet roof? C'mon. You're kidding, right?"

Somehow, I was taken over by a braver soul than my own and actually uttered the words, "Well, I have a hood on my jacket, so it you're willing to take me, let's go!"

Marilyn, completely calm grabbed an umbrella and said, "Follow me."

Now, the whole time I'm talking to her, the realization is creeping up on me that there is no one else here. Don't get me wrong now; there are hundreds of people milling about. The conversation with Marilyn was completely one-on-one though. And I finally realized that my tour would be also.

So I was bummed that I wouldn't get to go out on the roof. I was actually a little relieved about it too if I'm being honest. But I was going to get a personal, private tour of areas of Biltmore House no one else gets to see!!!! The tour normally has a small group of 10-15 people, but the rain was preventing all the sane and rational people from signing up!

Lemme tell ya, on the inside, I was shrieking like those little girls in the thunderstorm!!!!!

(I personally think that was worth more than five exclamation points, so no complaining from the grammar nazi's!)

This tour was beyond words. Marilyn guided me down hallways that no one but staff (and the owners family, I'm sure) get to see. I got to peek into rooms that have yet to be restored and see the condition that the house was in when restoration started. I learned about the process and saw all the many pieces of furniture that were not in use. They use the rooms that aren't open to the public to store all the furniture that is either not needed at the time or has not been restored yet. And since they store like items together, there are literally rooms full of head and foot boards for beds. Rooms full of mirrors. Astounding. Simply astounding.

One of the cool parts was that we even went into and through rooms that were on the normal tour. Except we were standing on the other side of the velvet ropes! It was so cool to be following this guide around from room to room, and when we'd come to a roped off area, she would unclasp the rope from it's pole and allow me to pass through, re-attaching the barrier behind me.

At one point we went into a room that the main tour goes through as well. Except they were on the floor, and we were walking across a little balcony that went around the perimeter of the room!

People were gawking at us. Some of them staring in amazed wonder. More than once, people would stop what they were doing and "eavesdrop" on our conversation to hear about the "insider information" that was being provided to this V.I.P. guest. Okay, not really, but it was fun to pretend I was some special diplomat or something. Truth be told, anyone willing to fork over the 15 extra bucks would have gotten the same treatment.

Well. Maybe not the same. I got a private tour, after all. Tee hee!

To my absolute delight, about halfway through this tour, the rain stopped. The sun broke through the clouds. My heart was all atwitter with anticipation!

When we got to the point where we were ready to head out onto the roof, Marilyn seemed almost as excited as I was! This lady absolutely loves her job, and loves this house. That's why I can remember her name, actually. She did such a phenomenal job and made such an impression on me that actually requested to take her picture when we were all done, and I made sure to get her name tag in clear view to be sure that I never forget her.

Anyway, the reason she was so excited was due not only to the fact that the rain was clearing up so we could head out onto the roof, but because of the mist.

We see the mist and haze around here when the sun breaks through the clouds right after the rain. It's an entirely different story when it happens in the mountains though. It's absolutely stunning! I'm a lover of mountains, and a lover of this house. As it turns out, Marilyn is as well. So she was positively giddy that I would be able to see the house in the mist.

"You're going to be able to get some great pictures today!"


Oh yes. Another absolutely phenomenal surprise. See, you can take as many pictures of the house and grounds as your heart desires (and believe me, my heart took a lot of photos!), but you aren't allowed to take photos or video at all inside the house. I had my camera bag strapped on to take pictures of the house and gardens later, but it never occured to me that since I would be on the roof, I was most definitely outside the house and could snap away.

So like two giddy little schoolgirls, Marilyn and I climbed out onto the roof.

Oh. My. Lord. In. Heaven.

I can't even begin to describe the views I saw that day. Not only the absolutely majestic peaks rising behind the towers and dormers along the roofline of this spectacular castle. Seeing the house itself from above rivals almost anything I have seen before or since.

I got some great pictures, which Cody says are awesome. I'm not as excited. Try as I might, I was not able to capture what I saw in a way that does it justice. Remembering later that night that I had a frickn' video camera in my bag about brought me to tears. I wish more than anything I had remembered it at the time. Alas.

I was on an absolute high the rest of the day. The sun stayed out and warmed things up enough to take of my jacket. I toured the house proper after my super-special-awesome tour was over. The fact that I had been through before made it cool too. Since Cody wasn't with me I was able to stop and hover over the stuff I liked the most or had missed previously. They opened a new wing this year as well, after finally having restored it to it's former glory. Astoundingly beautiful, this "Louis XV Suite" was one of the guest suites in the home. The most beautiful of the rooms in this suite is the "Louis XV Room" itself. Named for the king who inspired the decor, it is absolutely stunning.

Moving on to the gardens and grounds, my trigger finger was firing constantly. I had made it at the tail-end of the peak bloom time in the Azalea Garden, and I was taking all sorts of pictures. Unfortunately, the pounding rains from the week prior had wreaked havoc on these delicate blossoms. While I was indeed able to get some rather nice pictures of the plants in general, with their striking size and color, any close ups were mostly curtailed by the damage caused by all the rain.

I spent a good deal of time in the formal gardens and conservatory, but didn't have much time to walk too far on the grounds. My focus was on the Spring and Azalea Gardens, and I just didn't have the time to walk the rest of the way to the bass pond like I did the last time.

Cody was planning to spend the day tooling around town and had to be back on the grounds by the time the gates closed for the day. When I called him a little before 4pm to let him know I was almost ready, he was already in a parking lot on the grounds waiting for my call. He would have let me keep going until the shut down for the day, but I was trying not to take advantage of his kindness. With just enough time left, I quickly ascended the hill facing the house for some more pictures of the house and foregrounds before Cody came to pick me up.

I'm sure Cody would laugh if you asked him whether I had a good time or not that day. The poor guy. From the moment my hand hit the door handle of the truck until well into dinner over an hour later, my mouth did not stop moving! Like an excited little kid, I talked non-stop and only breathed when necessary for staying conscious.

The day was capped off by a fantastic dinner at a German restaraunt, which made us both quite happy (and full)!

The following morning, we headed off to pick up the last (and highest) leg of the Blue Ridge Parkway. We went through a little faster than either of us really wanted to, as there was (surpise, surprise) rain forecasted for that afternoon. Since we would be twice as high as we were when we drove through Shenandoah, we knew we didn't want to get stuck in the mountains when the thunderstorms arrived.

We did manage to take a quick hike to another waterfall though. Not as high as the one we saw earlier in the week, but it was a bit wider with a lot more volume. The sun being out was a nice touch, as was the puppy that was playing in the water with his humans. I think Cody was more enamored with the puppy than the waterfall to be honest. He mentioned the possibility of dog-napping more than once.

Having made it to the entrance of Smoky Mountain National Park without incident, we popped into a gift shop/information center to fulfill our mission of purchasing the souvenirs we never got two years ago.

Unfortunately, as we headed out across the park, it started to rain. Nay. POUR. A good, heavy, soaking mountain rain. I had to drive up and over the mountain in it. Mountain roads don't really bother me, but when it's raining that hard, it's another story entirely. Add to that the SUV that was crawling up my ass the entire time (despite my going 5-10 mph over the speed limit), and it was a little aggravating!

It finally stopped raining by the time we got through the park into Gatlinburg, and we stopped to be tourists for a bit. We had such a blast the last time we were there that we just "had" to stop again since we had time. Forgetting that there's not much to do except shop unless you've got time and money, we basically paid $8 to park there long enough to walk the strip and have a late lunch. Ah well. What are you going to do?

We actually popped into a fairly large Christmas store (who's surprised here?) in Pigeon Forge, which I was totally unimpressed with. There wasn't a whole lot there that fit my taste, and the stuff that was to my liking was over-priced and then some. That's saying a lot coming from me. As much as I love all things Christmas, I'm quite accustomed to over-paying for glitzy and gaudy. So when I think you're charging to much, that's something.

The rest of the day was a fairly uneventful, but beautiful drive through the mountains of Tennessee and Virginia to our hotel in I-forget-the-name-of-the-town.

I have to stop here and say this: We drove a LOT on this vacation. Ohio to Pennsylvania to Virginia, passing through Maryland and West Virginia along the way. On through North Carolina to South Carolina and eventually to Georgia. Back through the Carolinas, through Tennessee and on to Virginia. Up through West Virginia and straight up through Ohio.

Tennessee wins the contest for worst drivers. Ever. Hands down.

Had to get that off my chest.

The drive from Virginia back home was fairly nice, although I was quite aggravated with the weather. After spending a week in 75 to 85+ degree weather, spending my days and nights where palm trees grow naturally in the ground and not just in pots in greenhouses, coming home to 62 degrees and having to put pants on just to unload the truck was not my idea of a good time!

Okay, that was long to say the least. Hopefully that will placate you for a little while.

What's that? Pictures?


Yeah, yeah... Sometime this week, I promise. But it's 10:30 on a Saturday morning, the sun is shining and I'm still in my pajamas. Y'all are gonna have to wait.

1 comment:

Pete said...

That was so good I needed a cigarette!

What an awesome vacation!! I'm so jealous, I wish I could have taken the tours of the Biltmore with you!! I'll probably end up down there by myself someday too, I've always wanted to see it, but haven't had the chance yet.

Thank you for letting me live vicariously through you and your vacation, I'm well satisfied for awhile. :)

I'm glad you were able to get away and take a nice a trip and it's always good to hear from you!!