Christmas at Biltmore Estate and Exploring Asheville, North Carolina

George Vanderbilt, whose family made its fortune in the railroad industry, chose Asheville, North Carolina for his “little mountain escape” summer home that lies along the French Broad River and called it Biltmore Estate. Built in the late 1800’s, it is the largest privately owned house in the United States, although in 1956 it ceased to be a family residence and continued to be operated as a historic house museum. The estate has 178,926 square feet (16,622.8 m2of floor space and 135,280 square feet (12,568 m2) of living area. The home was opened to the public in March 1930 at the request of the City of Asheville, and today brings in an estimated 1.4 million visitors per year.

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The library, one of my favorite rooms in the Biltmore Estate

You can tour the Biltmore Estate’s four floors and basement which includes 250 rooms (though not all are open to the public) including 35 bedrooms for family and guests, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, three kitchens and 19th-century novelties such as electric elevators, forced-air heating, centrally controlled clocks, fire alarms, and a call-bell system. There is even a swimming pool, gymnasium filled with what was then state-of-the-art fitness equipment, and a bowling alley in the basement.

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Winter Garden, another of my favorites

The grounds are definitely worth touring and include many different gardens, fountains and statues, a bowling green, an outdoor tea room, a terrace, conservatory, Bass Pond, restaurants, gift shops, and Antler Hill Village and Winery. There are many options for tours whether of the house or on the grounds from self-guided tours to rooftop tours to private tours and many others in-between. There are even winery tours and a motor coach tour where you learn about the history of the land, structures, and former residents while you tour areas not open to the general public.

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The Conservatory, which apparently is a fancy name for a greenhouse

I’ve been to the Biltmore Estate several times over the years, and have seen the house during all four seasons. I have to say Christmas at the Biltmore Estate is my favorite of any other time of year, although spring is a close second. I’m a big fan of Christmas decorations and the ones at the Biltmore Estate are every much as beautiful as you might imagine. Every room has at least one tree elaborately decorated and the lower parts of the house smell of gingerbread because of the enormous gingerbread house on display in one of the kitchens in the basement.

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Yes, it does get crowded at the estate during the weeks around Christmas and New Year’s, so be sure to get reservations for entry far in advance. The house doesn’t feel too crowded for the most part (there are a couple of places where people tend to bottleneck) thanks to the timed entries during the holidays. Don’t worry if the Candlelight Evening tickets are sold out and you’re left with tickets during the day because you’ll still enjoy the lights inside the house even if it’s daylight out. If you plan on eating at one of the restaurants on-site, you’ll want to get reservations in advance as well.

If you’d like to stay at one of the hotels on the grounds, you have three options:  The Village Hotel, The Inn, and The Cottage, with each place going up in amenities and price. There are also plenty of nearby hotels and houses through Airbnb. If you follow this link, you’ll get a discount through Airbnb:  Airbnb discount link.

Asheville Regional Airport has daily flights to Atlanta, Charlotte, Washington, D.C., and Chicago and seasonal service to many other cities including New York, Denver, and some cities in Florida. If you fly into Asheville, you can either rent a car or take an uber, although if you plan on going to the Blue Ridge Parkway or other areas to hike, you’ll want a rental car.

Asheville has plenty of other things to see and do besides the Biltmore Estate, especially if you like outdoor activities. As I mentioned above, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a short drive away, as is a plethora of hiking and camping options. There are so many options it would be crazy to list them all, but I’ll throw out a few I’ve personally been to, all of which are an hour or less from Asheville:  Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Pigsah National Forest, Black Mountain, Chimney Rock State Park, Dupont State Forest, and if you venture a bit further (about 2 hours from Asheville) there’s a cluster of great places to check out that includes Linville Falls, Blowing Rock, Grandfather Mountain, and Boone.

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Hiking with Libby and Chile near Asheville

If you’re a foodie, Asheville won’t disappoint you on that end either. Again, the options are endless for great places to eat, with places for every budget. For a splurge, try one of the restaurants at the Biltmore Estate like Deerpark Restaurant or Biltmore Estate Dining Room. Curate is a popular spot for tapas and Biscuit Head came highly recommended to us by someone who lives in Asheville but the line was crazy long out the door and we weren’t willing to brave the cold weather for it. We loved White Duck Taco Shop for their huge selection of tacos and Early Girl Eatery for great breakfast offerings.

My favorite restaurant of all has to be Sierra Nevada Taproom, which is near the Asheville Airport and yes this place deserves a paragraph entirely to itself. All I have to say is this place is like no other brewery I’ve ever been to (and I love breweries). The food at breweries is usually pretty good, but the food at Sierra Nevada is so crazy over-the-top good it makes me hungry just thinking about it. It gets super-crowded, so get here early for lunch (or dinner but they seem to be less crowded for lunch) and if you’re lucky you won’t have to wait for a table. They also have tours but we didn’t take a tour because of the timing of things, but I’d love to go back and take a tour. They also have a great outdoors area with games and fire pits, plus they have special events like dinners and concerts. Make this a must-do place if you’re ever in Asheville and like breweries and/or incredible food. Just know it isn’t cheap, but it’s so worth it.

Finally, here are a few other options for spending some time in Asheville. The River Arts District is great if you like art (Asheville is filled with fantastic artists), WNC Farmers Market is open daily year-round, Grove Arcade is a beautifully designed place to do some shopping and dining, and if you’re into antiques, check out the Antique Tobacco Barn.

I also have a post on Asheville when I went camping there one summer, which you can read here. This post is focused more on outdoor pursuits such as hiking, camping, and waterfalls in the area.

Final tips: Purchase your tickets for Biltmore Estate at least seven days in advance to save up to $10 on each daytime admission. If you’re going during the holiday season, purchase your ticket at least a couple of weeks in advance, and even longer out would be better if you have a specific day and time in mind. Christmas at Biltmore runs from early November through the first week of January, with the house being open 365 days a year. Reservations are required during high volume days, which you can find on their website.

Biltmore website

Have any of you been to the Biltmore Estate and/or Asheville? Is it on your list of places you’d like to go to?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

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A Total Solar Eclipse is Coming- Plan Your Road Trip Now!

Something is going to happen in parts of the United States on August 21, 2017 that hasn’t happened since 1918. A total eclipse is going to occur when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, resulting in a 170 mile arc of darkness from parts of Oregon to parts of South Carolina. For several minutes, the sky will be dark enough to see stars and the sun will be completely covered by the moon.

For something so rare, it’s a perfect occasion for a road-trip, like my family is planning. It seems many others are also planning on visiting these places at the center of totality, as places are filling up fast. You will be able to see a partial eclipse from many other points of the US, but if you want to be in the center of all of the excitement, here are some places where you can spend a long weekend and join in the fun.

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Here are the states and cities with the best viewing spots:  Oregon has several cities; Driggs, Mud Lake, Rexburg, and Stanley, Idaho; several cities in Wyoming; several cities in Nebraska; Highland, Troy, and Wathena, Kansas; several cities in Missouri; several places in Illinois; several cities in Kentucky; several cities that are close but not at the center in Tennessee; Dillard and Sky Valley in Georgia; Andrews in North Carolina; and many places in South Carolina. The full listing is on this extensive web page. Some cities are close to the edge of the path but you’ll see more if you drive 30-50 miles north or south. In this case, close won’t be good enough. You really have to be in the center of the path to see the total eclipse.

One of the best places to find exactly where the path will go is on Xavier Jubier’s 2017 Total Eclipse Interactive Google Map. This very detailed web page also has basic information describing the eclipse and why this one is so special. There are also viewing times listed, many maps, and information on how to prepare for the eclipse.

The highlight of the eclipse when the sun is completely blocked by the moon will be quick, so make sure you get to your spot early. For most cities, totality will only last around 2 or 3 minutes. The complete event going from one end of the United States to the other is only expected to last less than 15 minutes. It should be a once in a lifetime experience, however.

Don’t forget to get some eclipse glasses, but you don’t need to invest huge amounts of money for them. They shouldn’t cost more than a few dollars for a pair. Regular sunglasses or homemade eclipse glasses won’t protect your eyes, so definitely buy a pair made specifically for an eclipse.

The next eclipse of this magnitude in the United States isn’t predicted to occur until 2045, so don’t wait around for the next one to happen. Make your plans now while you still can!

 

 

Festival Tickets-Worth the Price?

I had debated whether or not to go to a festival relatively close to where I live for several years. Last year the festival celebrated its 37th year the weekend of July 4th.  It is a festival where the proceeds are used to protect the water, land, and wildlife of a river basin in North Carolina. So far so good, right?

Last year’s festival included over 65 performers on 4 stages, as well as food trucks, a craft show featuring 85 local artists, environmental educational booths, and paddling demos in the river. Even better, right? Then you see tickets are $18 ($23 at the gate) for a single day pass or $30 ($35 at the gate) for a two day pass.  Teen tickets are $11 in advance or at the gate. Children 12 and under are free.  For a family with one or older children, that could really add up. My question each year was is it really worth the price of admission?

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Although I had seen the festival advertised many years ago, I had never gone because of the great debate about price of the admission tickets.  This debate came to an end last summer when my family and I finally went. We did not pay for our tickets, however. We were actually volunteers at a booth with a group that is part of an educational program about the river for children. Volunteers for the festival are graciously offered free admission for the entire day on the day they volunteer. Our shift was from noon to 2:30 so we went a bit early to walk around before our shift, and after our shift we walked around to the areas we hadn’t seen yet.

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As volunteers at the booth by the river, we got to scoop small fish, guppies, salamanders, and whatever else we could find in the river and put in tanks for others to see. There were displays about local animals in the area and skulls of indigenous animals were available for viewing and touching. It was really a lot of fun and the 2 and a half hours flew by.

One of the musical groups that we listened to there was Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands. We really enjoyed their performance and if by chance you see the band in your area, I encourage you to check them out, or check out some of their music online. There were many other performers and activities at the festival including dancers, woodworking demonstrations, beekeeping demos and information, puppet parade, kids’ activities, and even a huge sand sculpture by an artist who sculpted a skink last year.

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So to go back to my original question, is the price of admission worth it? In my case, considering you can spend an entire day (or two days) here and you get entertainment all day included and the proceeds are to help support the conservation of this beautiful area, I’d say absolutely. Obviously in general, festival ticket prices vary widely depending on the venue, length of festival, what’s included, etc. and everyone’s budget is different. But I’d encourage you to sign up as a volunteer for a festival you’ve been on the fence about going to and see for yourself.  You have nothing to lose if you don’t like it and you’ll be glad you didn’t shell out any money for admission if it’s not a good one. If you do enjoy it, however, you will have helped out the folks at the festival, gotten free or reduced admission, and experienced a festival on top of it all.

We enjoyed the experience so much, we’re going back again this year as volunteers and we’ll hang out and enjoy the rest of the festival afterwards. In our case, the price of admission is a couple of hours of our time helping to educate families about the environment including local animals and playing in the river. To me, that’s a win-win for everyone.

 

2016 in Review- A Year of Running and Traveling

2016 is just about over and I feel the need to summarize my year, especially since I’m a new blogger.  I’ll spare you the month-by-month blow, but just focus on the highlights.

My first race of the year was the MacKenzie River Half Marathon in Eugene, Oregon on Easter Sunday in March, see my post:  McKenzie River Half Marathon, Oregon- 36th state. As you can see, it was the 36th state I ran for my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states.  I’ll let you read the post if you haven’t already for the details.  After the race, my family and I drove to Bend and my post on our adventures there can be read here:  Central Oregon-Eugene and Bend.  We also saw tons of waterfalls at the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area; see my post here:  Enjoy waterfalls? Try Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area in Oregon.

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One of many waterfalls in Columbia River Gorge in Oregon

Just about the only significant thing I can say about May is that’s when I started my blog at WordPress.  Yay!  I officially became a blogger then.

Straight after the race in Oregon, I had to start training for my next race, The Boulder Rez Half Marathon in Boulder, Colorado in June; post here:  Boulder Rez Half Marathon, Colorado- 37th state.  This was my 37th state and one of the hardest half marathons I’ve ran because of the high elevation.  We also had a nice vacation after this race and you can read all about that in my post on Boulder here:  Colorado in June- Hiking in Boulder and my post on Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park here:  Colorado in June- Estes Park and RMNP.  I highly recommend spending some time in all three places (Boulder, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Estes Park) especially if you enjoy hiking and nature.

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Lake Estes in Estes Park, Colorado

Two days after we returned home from Colorado, we left for Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia for the weekend.  I hadn’t been there since I was a kid and as you can guess from my blog post title, I had a fantastic time.  My post can be found here:  5 reasons Busch Gardens Williamsburg has something for everyone.  We also went to Colonial Williamsburg for a bit and you can read about that here:  Colonial Williamsburg without a ticket.

Still in June, two weeks after going to Busch Gardens Williamsburg, we went camping in Asheville, North Carolina.  I love going to Asheville and hadn’t been camping there in several years so it was good to get back and do some hiking and enjoy the beautiful parks there.  See my post on that here:  Camping in Asheville, North Carolina.  No surprise that June was a total whirlwind.  Fortunately I didn’t have any races coming up soon so I took a break from training and just did some shorter runs when I could.

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Asheville, North Carolina

In August, I went back to one of my favorite southern US cities, Charleston, South Carolina.  I love so many things about Charleston, from the people to the historical buildings to the beaches and the incredible food.  I highly recommend going there if you haven’t before.  See my posts about Charleston here:  Top 5 Things to Do in Charleston, SC with Kids without Spending a Ton of Money and Charming Charleston- How to visit without breaking the bank.

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Charleston, South Carolina

Also in August, I started training for my next half marathon, The Silver Strand Half Marathon in Coronado, California in November.  Fortunately, September and October were fairly uneventful except for my daughter’s birthday and some school-related events and swim meets for her.  I needed that time to focus on my training plan so it was good to not have a lot else going on.

I left for Coronado, California on Veteran’s Day in November and ran the Silver Strand Half Marathon two days later.  You can read my post on the race here:  Silver Strand Half Marathon, California-38th state.  I have posted some of my favorite things we did in California and have more coming.  We spent almost three weeks in the San Diego area and it was absolutely fabulous.  My first two posts are:  Is San Diego Paradise? Not Quite… and Planning a Trip to San Diego? How to Choose Where to Go.

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Finally, in December, I started training for my next race, Dogtown Half Marathon in Washington, Utah in February.  I came down with a cold while in San Diego (toward the end of our vacation) that unfortunately turned into a sinus infection and bronchitis after I got back home, so my training has gotten off to a rough start but I am putting in the miles. I dread running my long runs in January because I’m just not a cold weather runner, but I’ll have to deal with that when it comes.

Happy running and happy travels to you all!  Donna

 

 

 

 

Camping in Asheville, North Carolina

Asheville, North Carolina is perhaps best known for Biltmore Estate, the mansion built by George Vanderbilt between 1889 and 1895.  It is currently the largest privately owned house in the United States.  In 1956, portions of the house were opened to the public for tours and since then more rooms have been restored and opened for viewing.  I have toured the Biltmore several times, during different seasons of the year.  However, on my most recent visit to Asheville, the Biltmore Estate was nowhere on my agenda.  If anything, we would be doing the exact opposite of touring a huge mansion.  We would be camping in a tent and hiking for the weekend.

Where to camp?

Set in the western end of North Carolina very close to South Carolina, Asheville lies between Pigsah National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Dupont State Forest is a short drive away.  Hiking, biking, camping, and rock climbing are all extremely popular in this area.  We chose to camp at Lake Powhatan Recreation Area Campground based on a recommendation from someone who lives in Asheville.  Lake Powhatan is deep in the Appalachian Mountains with an elevation of 2,200 feet.  The campground has tent as well as RV sites, a bathhouse, and a lake that is suitable for swimming (in the roped-off section) or fishing.  That being said, my daughter and her friend swam in the lake for a while but pretty quickly were done, saying the water was “gross.”  I did not get in the water but it didn’t look very clean.  That didn’t stop several other people who were in the water while we were there.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a short drive from Lake Powhatan Campground, as is an arboretum, the Biltmore Estate, countless trails for hiking or biking, the French Broad River, and if you forget something there are several stores within a short drive.  We arrived late on a Friday and immediately set up our tent and got settled for the night.  The next day we drove to the Blue Ridge Parkway and found Mt. Pigsah Trail and a few other shorter trails nearby.

Hiking Trails

Mt. Pigsah Trail is at milepost 407.6 from the Blue Ridge Parkway and is in Pigsah National Forest.  At the parking lot for the trail, the elevation is just under 5,000 feet.  You’ll reach the summit at 5,721 feet after a 1.5 mile hike and be rewarded with panoramic views of the Great Smoky Mountains to the west and Asheville and Mount Mitchell to the north.  Other trails off the Blue Ridge Parkway include Skinny Dip Falls, Graveyard Fields, and Devil’s Courthouse. After hiking a few trails, we went back to our campsite and went to the lake for a while, then relaxed by a crackling fire until it was time to turn in for the night.

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Waterfalls

The next day, we decided to check out some of the waterfalls in the Brevard, NC area.  For our first stop, we drove to Looking Glass Falls on the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway in Pigsah National Forest.  There is easy access to this waterfall with only a short walk from the parking area, then stairs to get a closer look.  You can even get in the water and swim up to the waterfall to feel the power of the water pounding on your shoulders.  The water was quite cold in June but maybe it warms up later in the summer.  The waterfall is 60 feet tall and is beautiful.

Just a short drive from Looking Glass Falls is Sliding Rock.  There is a nominal fee to enter this area, but it was the only fee other than at the campground that we had to pay the entire weekend.  Sliding Rock is actually a waterfall along a large rock that is relatively smooth so you can slide 60 feet down the rock into the 6 foot deep plunge pool at the bottom.  The water was quite bracing when we were there, so when you hit the water, you’re breathless for a second.  On a hot day I’m sure this would feel refreshing but it was cooler and overcast when we were there so we only went down a few times before we were ready to dry off and get into some dry clothes.  Lifeguards are on duty here during the summer months, if you’re concerned about safety and there did seem to be lifejackets available.

Next on our agenda was Moore Cove Falls.  The parking area for Moore Cove Falls is one mile from Looking Glass Falls so we back-tracked a bit and parked here.  The trail is a short 0.7 miles and is listed as moderate.  It was a nice way to end our hiking in Asheville.

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Refuel for the Drive Home

For lunch we stopped at The Hub and Pigsah Tavern, a bicycle shop and tavern in Pigsah Forest, NC.  The Tavern only serves beer but has a nice selection of beers on tap, bottles, and cans.  Asheville is also known for its abundance of breweries and has been called “The Napa Valley of Beer” by NPR.  While we were at the Tavern, two food trucks were also there, Aloha Hot Dog Co. and Blue Smoke BBQ.  I got the Pulled Pork Sandwich on a bun and my husband got the BBQ plate from Blue Smoke BBQ.  We both agreed that was the best BBQ we had eaten in a long time.  We were pleasantly full and ready for the drive back home after a fun weekend in Asheville.

 

 

Battleship Half Marathon and Gold Rush Half Marathon, North Carolina-My first half marathon (and third and fourth)

I’m not even sure why I decided to run a half marathon.  I had just ran my first 5k and that was the only race I had ever ran as an adult.  Most people don’t run their first 5k then start training for a half marathon but I felt compelled to do it.   I chose the Battleship North Carolina Half Marathon in Wilmington and I checked out a book with training plans from the library and combined that with some online training plans.  Since the race was at the beach, I thought it would be flat and relatively easy, at least as far as half marathons go.  Indeed it was mostly flat except for running up the bridges.  I hadn’t thought about the bridges.

The morning of the race, a storm came in and it rained and was very chilly the entire race.  It was even snowing in the area as we were driving back home that day, which was crazy because it almost never snows on the NC coast.  But back to the bridges. Running on the grated bridges was new to me and since it was raining, I was worried about slipping and falling but fortunately that didn’t happen and I finished cold but satisfied I had done my best.

Determined that I could do better based on the poor weather conditions and the fact that it was my first half marathon, I decided right then that I would run that race again the next year.  The following year, the weather was ideal and I cut almost 16 minutes off my previous finish time. However, my second Battleship North Carolina half marathon actually followed a couple of other races, namely a 15k and a half marathon in Hawaii Hawaii-2nd state.

A note on race “bling.”  Back when I ran the half marathons in North Carolina such a thing as race bling didn’t even exist.  Medals weren’t given out to every finisher and about the most you got for your entry fee was a cotton t-shirt.  For the Battleship Half Marathon, I got a long-sleeve cotton t-shirt and for the Gold Rush Half Marathon, I got a short-sleeve cotton t-shirt.

From my post-race notes for North Carolina:

“Ran Battleship Half-Marathon in Wilmington, NC twice. First time was first half-marathon ever. Course was nice; mostly flat except for a short hill downtown and inclines going up bridges. Was strange running on grated bridges, but was ok. Was cold and rainy, which actually turned into snow the first year. Was warm and sunny the other year. Finish time for first race was 2:20:04 and for second time running this race was 2:03:51.

Gold Rush Half-Marathon in Concord, NC was pure torture. Rolling hills turned into huge uphill only (no downhill) toward the finish. Was hot and humid as well.  Was surprised that I finished in the time that I did- expected to do much worse. My finish time was 2:05:37.”

The Gold Rush Half Marathon was one of the hardest races I’ve ran.  I ran it after running a 5k, three half marathons, and a 15k so by then I at least had a few races under my belt. Since it was a point-to-point course as opposed to an out and back course, we didn’t get to run down the hills that we ran up.  It was a combination of the dreaded three H’s for a race:  hilly, hot, and humid.  The race began and ended at Reed Gold Mine near Concord, NC.  It was one of the most low-key races I’ve been in and at least when I ran it, there was only a t-shirt given to runners (no medals) and minimal fruit and water at the finish.

Battleship Half Marathon

Gold Rush Half Marathon