Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Are We There Yet?! By C.P. Stringham

Our dinner out in January. L-R, Myself, Vicki, Sue, Kurt, and
In another life, before I added romance writer to my resume, I was a PTA mom. Through my years of volunteer time, I made several close friendships with faculty and staff alike. Vicki was our small elementary school’s secretary. Nine years ago, she and her family moved to South Carolina seeking warmer temperatures and shorter winters. When she left, she gave us an open invitation to visit her. For nine years, Sue, Kurt, Melinda, and I have promised her we’d visit. This past January, Vicki made the trip to Northeastern Pennsylvania to see her family and, while she was home, we got together for dinner to catch up and talk about the shenanigans we took part in at school many moons ago. And there were shenanigans. During dinner, Vicki asked us when we were coming to visit her in South Carolina. The four of us looked at each other and decided this was the year we would finally do it. As the months passed, plans culminated and a date was set. Kurt had to drop out because his gourmet whoopie pie business is a full time part-time business these days. Three weeks prior to our trip, Melinda learned she needed surgery. Her doctor didn’t want to wait and scheduled the procedure for two days before we were to leave for South Carolina. And then there were two. Sue and I decided we’d make the trip anyway.  Lots of Facebook messages and phone calls happened over the days leading up to our trip as we planned our travel route, decided on a tentative itinerary during our visit, and made other necessary preparations. Sue even got her Jeep serviced for the trip.
Sue at the wheel--this could get dangerous!
This past Thursday evening, the recently retired school cafeteria manager and the former PTA president set off on a 751-mile road trip to visit the former school secretary. We were excited and fresh. Ready for an adventure. Joking around while we discussed Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books and all seven seasons of the Gilmore Girls—two things Sue just discovered over the past few months now that she’s retired. That lasted until we hit mid-Virginia. And then the moments of silence stretched out. Don’t get me wrong, nothing negative happened. The weather was perfect, traffic was light, the Jeep cruised along nicely, and the company was great. All in all, a lovely trip. As we crossed into North Carolina, Sue finally said, “I think we should tell Vicki that Virginia is far enough away! Why couldn’t she and Tom fall in love with Virginia?!” We stopped three times; once for a late dinner and twice to refuel. Each time, giving us a chance to stretch our legs and consume some caffeine to help us stay awake. The longer we drove, the sillier we became. At one point, I said to Sue, “We’ve got to do this damn drive all over again on Sunday night. Let’s just fly back and let them send the Jeep back the next time they drive home to PA.” Sue didn’t respond right away. Even though I was joking, I think she was actually considering it. That’s how long the drive was. Google Maps said it would take eleven hours and forty-two minutes to reach our destination. We made it in fourteen hours and fifteen minutes with our pit stops and hitting the very beginning of morning rush hour traffic outside of Spartanburg. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Vicki had coffee and bagels ready for us when we arrived. We sat around, discussed our drive, and I even went to my room for a twenty-minute catnap. Afterward, we headed out to see the local sights. Vicki took us by the high school she works at, we grabbed lunch, drove around sections of Lake Keowee and Clemson, past the university, and then hit up Food Lion for dinner provisions. Sue and I didn’t want Vicki to fuss. We ended up selecting nibbles to have with wine and pizza. We sat around her kitchen island sipping wine and eating homemade jalapeño popper dip and pizza. A feast for weary travelers looking to unwind. I retired to my bedroom at 8:45 with plans of working on my manuscript, Overcoming Sarah, but didn’t even open my laptop case. Instead, I went to bed and slept until 6:30. I can’t recall the last time I slept so soundly. It only took being up for thirty-six hours to achieve it.
Vicki, Sue, and I got around early on Saturday morning for the only pre-planned adventure on our weekend itinerary. Like many people, I have a bucket list. Only mine is comprised, primarily, of travel destinations. Our two-hour drive from Seneca, South Carolina to Asheville, North Carolina enabled me to cross off one of my bucket list items; The Biltmore Estate. From the moment we turned onto Approach Road and drove under the large archway, we knew we were in for an unparalleled visual treat. The three-mile driveway serpentines around luscious forests of both deciduous and coniferous trees as well as flowering shrubs, carpets of flowering plants, open meadows, and lakes. It was named “Approach Road” because, during the planning process, the homeowner wanted the buildup of anticipation and excitement of his guests to increase as they chugged along towards the estate. This stunning masterpiece was achieved by noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead—designer of NYC’s Central Park. Olmstead was a true genius.
Visiting The Biltmore Estate is fairly easy to do. We chose to order our tickets seven days in advance in order to take advantage of the lower admission price. It saved us $15.00 and also allowed us to reserve a time for our tour of the mansion. We pulled into the parking lot outside of the reception center and picked up our tickets from a friendly teller who offered us some insight on the estate and wished us a pleasant visit. Once the tickets were in our possession, we got back into the car and headed up the road until we were directed to a parking area. From there, we were shuttled to the mansion. No matter what you have been told by others or even what your imagination has dreamed up about Biltmore, you cannot truly appreciate or wrap your mind around the sheer size, beauty, and planning of this dwelling until it is seen in person. From the moment the shuttle made the right turn into the courtyard, my jaw dropped. Our driver shared with us some quick facts about the estate. George Washington Vanderbilt brought his ailing mother to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville for a wellness retreat. He fell in love with the land and, at only 25 years old and a bachelor, hired architect Richard Morris Hunt to design the French Châteauesque-style mansion. Construction took six years. Although Biltmore is now part of an 8,000 acre estate, Vanderbilt originally purchased 125,000 acres to build his dream country retreat. The land had been previously used in slash and burn style farming. The mansion has 175,000 square feet—or, to put it into another perspective, four acres of living space. It has 250 rooms among which are 33 bedrooms, 43 (modern) bathrooms, and three kitchens. It has a two-lane bowling alley, an indoor tiled, heated swimming pool that held 70,000 gallons of water, and has a total of 65 fireplaces. Vanderbilt wanted his estate to be self-sustaining and created his own little miniature town within the original 125,000 acres. He employed and housed farmers who grew crops and also had a dairy. Even an estate school was constructed for his employees’ children because Vanderbilt was an advocate for education.
The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.

The Biltmore Estate is still family-owned and, although opened to the public as a historical site, is not government funded. It survives solely on the funding received through admissions, memberships, and the purchases of goods and services from restaurants, cafes, and gift shops to maintain and continue on with restoration and conservation. Fifth generation family members are being polished to eventually take over the reins of The Biltmore Company which is currently run by George’s grandson, William Cecil.  Sharing his grandfather’s vision, Biltmore takes care of its own while also being open for guests to enjoy. In a sense, the estate is still its own miniature town. There is a large hotel complex called Inn on Biltmore Estate that provides posh lodging and packages for estate tours, Biltmore Winery which produces award-winning wines, Biltmore Estates Equestrian Center that offers guided trail rides, carriage rides, boarding, and riding lessons, and many more activities. They also have Antler Hill Village which is a little promenade with boutiques, winery with tasting room, and restaurants. Between all the activities offered, you could enjoy a wonderful vacation and never leave the estate.
Indoor photography of any kind is prohibited. They won’t even allow sketching. Aside from the drawbacks that rule brings, I realistically understand why they can’t allow it. If you figure in the large number of daily visitors and the need to make reservations for the house tour, can you imagine how long it would take a shutterbug like me to walk through the house?! Instead of the average two hours, I’d be roaming around for days, finding unique decorating and architectural nuances to capture in photos. In all honesty, there is so much detail to take in, you could visit Biltmore a dozen times and still take in new details each visit. If you want photos of the interior, I highly recommend purchasing the book Biltmore: An American Masterpiece. It’s offered in both hardcover and paperback. The paperback is extremely affordable at $10.00 and the pictures are better than anything you could try and capture during your tour as a steady flow of fellow visitors pass by. Some areas are congested and lighting is poor. The book also offers a great narrative of history about the Vanderbilts and the Biltmore Estate.
The three of us entered the house for our 11:30 reservations and immediately fell in love with Biltmore. To live in such ostentatious style was entirely unimaginable to us. The basic self-guided tour takes you around the estate to 39 places of interest. You see common rooms, bedrooms, the basement recreation rooms, and the servants’ area. All aspects of estate living. The posh luxury of the family and guest rooms are magnificent with their individual decorating style of furniture, color schemes, and artwork by renowned international artists. I had some favorite rooms, but have to admit George’s library stole my heart. He has a collection of nearly 23,000 books and the two-story library houses 10,000 of them. The walls are mainly comprised of walnut bookcases. The ceiling holds a painting by Venetian artist Pellegrini and has 13 separate canvases pieced together to create the 64’X32’ masterpiece called “The Chariot of Aurora” which was originally displayed in the Pisani Palace in Venice. Rich red fabrics are used for upholstery and drapery, iron scrollwork for railings, and a huge black marble fireplace make the large room warm and cozy. The guide set up in the room told me George was a fan of Charles Dickens and that his collection boasts a first edition copy of A Christmas Carol.
Our favorite part of the tour was the section called “Servants’ Domain.” It was one thing to catch a glimpse of what it was like to be part of the Vanderbilt family, it was another to see where those that kept the house running, in the manner expected by the family, worked and lived. Each employee was given their own furnished private room. Female servants lived in the basement section of the house and male servants lived in quarters above the connected stables. The accommodations in the basement were far from dreary. Bedrooms were large and bright since the foundation of the house is situated enough that windows offered natural light. Biltmore was technologically advanced for its time. It had electric, indoor plumbing with hot water, central heating, and it even had mechanical refrigeration. Three kitchens served the house: the main kitchen, a pastry kitchen, and a rotisserie kitchen. It had a modern laundry room with heated drying racks and even a motorized tumble-washer. The servants’ dining room could accommodate up to 30 diners at its table and domestic staff was provided with three meals a day. A separate tour called “Butler’s Tour” is available for an additional fee. The tour takes approximately 60 minutes and includes unrestored rooms of the estate as well as rooms storing mechanical apparatus used to run the house. The guide tells visitors about life for domestic servants inside Biltmore. If I return to the estate, this is a tour I would very much like to take advantage of seeing.
As some of you know, I love using photography to capture architectural beauty. I was in my glory at Biltmore. While I couldn’t take shots inside the house, I took plenty of shots of the exterior. It is truly a one of a kind architectural gem. Each carved representation, such as knights, gargoyles, and saints, are used only once on each column capital, lintels, pilasters, etc., making the outside carvings unique pieces of stunning artwork. Too many to try and capture in photos—but I did my best to get my favorites.

From the mansion, we walked the grounds and gardens—all a horticultural delight. The short stroll along the macadam pathway to the Conservatory winds through the wooded Shrub Garden, the Spring Garden, the Walled Garden, and the Rose Garden. Biltmore really shines in June. The Conservatory served as the estate’s official greenhouse and provided all of the flowers for gardening and indoor arrangements. Every specimen you can imagine is grown inside. Their collection of rare orchids was my favorite and I took as many photos of them as I could. I see a future photo collage coming together for my hallway in the near future. While I can never recreate the grandness of what we saw in the gardens, it did give me ideas for future landscaping projects for our backyard paradise.

While we could have spent hours investigating the gardens and nearby trails, time was running short so we took the shuttle back to Vicki’s car and headed for Antler Hill Village. The promenade welcomed us with live music as a band played while under the shade of the central gazebo. Each attractive building sharing a blend of French-style architecture were connected by winding paved walkways surrounded by beautiful landscaping. Our first visit was to the wine tasting room where we sipped on a few of the estate’s labels. Sue and Vicki prefer sweet wines while my palate prefers dry reds. I asked our tasting sommelier to pick my samples for me. I tried their Cabernet Sauvignon, Limited Release Merlot, and Syrah. The Syrah was my favorite. Due to how busy the tasting room was, it was hard to truly enjoy the experience since we had to wait long periods between each sample and there was no room for chit-chat about the wines with the sommelier. Living near the Finger Lakes' wine region has spoiled me. I’m used to focused attention during tastings where the person serving you discusses the vintage and also asks for feedback. In other words, I wasn’t feeling schmoozed. Since I take my wine consumption seriously, I like being schmoozed while learning about their products. Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t have a bad experience. It just didn’t live up to the rest of our service experience at Biltmore. I was left uncompelled to buy wine—which never happens. From there we walked from shop to shop. They varied from upscale home decorating boutiques to cozy country home decorating boutiques carrying merchandise like Tiffany lamps, jewelry, polo shirts, hats, place settings of Vanderbilt-inspired china, and oodles and oodles of stuff. My only needs were souvenirs to bring home for the kids. My youngest is always the hardest to buy for most of the time. I lucked out at the Mercantile when I found a book about poultry with gorgeous photographs inside. She LOVED it. My oldest is all too easy to find things for since we are so much alike. I considered a tea cup and saucer from the Biltmore Collection, but found a t-shirt that reads, “Biltmore Estate Equestrian Center.” Syd loves anything equestrian. Sue bought a metal funnel converted into a hanging planter and an old galvanized wash tub converted into a mirror. Both unique items she can use to decoration her cozy country home.
The Conservatory and grand gardens of Biltmore.

As we left the Biltmore Estate, each of us declared that our $44.00 admission was money well spent. We had hours and hours of entertainment and still only skimmed the surface of what Biltmore has to offer. And Biltmore isn’t just for women. It has plenty to offer for children and men alike. I encourage everyone to check out their website for a full list of sites and activities. I hope to return to Biltmore to investigate some more.
While our long-weekend totaled 96 hours and, of those 96 hours, 27.25 were spent commuting to and from South Carolina, it was entirely worth it. Sue and I were Thelma and Louise without any calamities or the tragic ending--even though Google Maps threw us for a loop with a glitch in the directions on our way there, we never got lost. While Sue was driving, there was only one close call and it involved an innocent traffic cone that fell victim. Trust me, one incident, in a 1,502-mile roundtrip, is an amazing improvement for Sue since Kurt, Melinda, and I could write volumes of anecdotal books about Sue’s driving escapades during our other road trips! We had a fantastic time visiting with Vicki and seeing her kids and meeting her grandkids. Their new home is beautiful and the setting is idyllic—even if the name on their neighbor’s mailbox is Haltiwanger. (Insert immature cackling) Doesn’t it sound like it should be the last name of the person who invented the chastity belt? 
My favorite shot.
 Do any of our blog readers have upcoming plans for a summer road trip? We’d love to hear about it in the comment section below! 

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