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Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Polar Express / Bryson City, NC

"The thing about trains... it doesn't matter where they're going. What matters is deciding to get on."
- The Polar Express

On Saturday, December 15, I took my 7 year old to Bryson City, NC and surprised her with a new pair of pajamas and a golden ticket to ride The Polar Express on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Her verdict? "It's the best day of my life!"

We arrived in Bryson City a little early so we could eat dinner before boarding the train. We settled on one of the only open restaurants (on a Saturday evening for dinner!), The Station Restaurant. It is conveniently located across the street from the train station. That might be about all it has going for it though - the food was bland, the service was slow and less than stellar, and the restaurant itself was overfilled with tables and customers making it difficult to walk to your table, the restroom, or back to the front door. We actually noticed a few tables of customers get up and leave after not receiving any service for 15+ minutes. The food was edible, but bland and tasteless. They were out of nearly every type of beer on the menu, and our order of "boneless chicken wings" were actually three chicken tenders microwaved with some buffalo sauce. The smoked trout dip was bland and tasteless. They also did not have any dessert - not a single item! We ended up walking across the street to FryDays and Sundaes where we each enjoyed a delicious ice cream cone for dessert before boarding the train.

Outside the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad train station

Thirty minutes prior to the scheduled departure time for the train, we began walking down to the boarding area. This is the only area we think the GSMR was lacking - the organization and direction prior to boarding. They tried to keep the crowd contained to one side of a fence, but it didn't work, and there were too many customers and not enough GSMR staff directing traffic. Once we heard "All Aboard!" we boarded the train into our assigned car, and found seats. We were in coach class on the Bryson City car, so it was open seating. The two staff members assigned to our car were absolutely spectacular - Mr. Jangle and Dasher, as they called themselves. They were dressed as chefs, as in The Polar Express movie, and really went above and beyond to make the train ride not just enjoyable, but magical, for the kids. They danced up and down the aisles, stopped to take a few minutes to talk to every single child, and served cookies and hot cocoa. They read The Polar Express book to the kids, and walked the aisle to show the pictures in the book. The conductor of the train even came through the car and punched all of the kids' golden tickets.

Golden Ticket to ride the Polar Express 
Golden Ticket to ride the Polar Express

When we arrived at The North Pole, Mr. Jangle and Dasher identified all the houses decorated with lights - Santa and Mrs. Claus' house, the head elf's home, Rudolph's house, the toy factory, and on and on...even the one that wasn't lit up was identified as The Grinch's house. Santa boarded the train at The North Pole stop, and walked through every car with an elf to give each child a silver bell from his sleigh.

Santa giving a silver bell from his sleigh 
Santa giving a silver bell from his sleigh

Mr. Jangle and Dasher led our train car in a sing-a-long on the way back to the station, complete with a boys vs. girls contest for singing Deck the Halls the loudest, and an interactive motion for each of the 12 Days of Christmas. My 7 year old was exhausted, but thrilled to have been able to ride The Polar Express. She was all grins and smiles the entire trip, and the souvenir sleigh bell and golden ticket really made it all that much more special for her. This is definitely a trip we will be taking again!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

I took a trip down the Tuckasegee River on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in the first-class MacNeill car with a friend. The car had been restored to be period specific. In my opinion, I feel they did a good job with the restoration. As the train began, we started to hear a little bit of the history of the railway from a storyteller at the front of the car. It seemed like an interesting story, however, but we could not help but be continuously interrupted by the waitstaff and photographer. They were all just doing their jobs, but in my opinion, they could have timed things a little bit better. By the time the story was over, we had missed well over half of it due to various interruptions such as placing our drink orders and posing for a picture. The train itself had plentiful accommodations; in fact, the bathroom was even spacious and private. The seats in our train car were comfortable, and the tables were large enough to not be crowded during the meal. The staff seemed very friendly, knowledgable and down to earth. The conductor was able to provide information about the route as we traveled through the miles. It was a bumpy train ride but that was to be expected given the line's age. It added to the charm of the trip. Since we were in first class, we had our choice of entrees for lunch. Both of our meals were a delight for the senses. Becky had the Glazed Pork Loin with toasted pecans and honey glazed wild rice, served with green beans and a roll. I had Prime Rib Au Jus served with horseradish and au jus wild rice, green beans and a dinner roll.  After lunch, we wandered through the cars toward the front of the train where the open car gondola was. We entered the car just in time to  enter the hand carved tunnel and then view the wrecked engine and school bus from The Fugitive movie scenes. Shortly after, we were in the train yard and pulling into Historic Dillsboro for a 1.5 hour layover. This marks the halfway point of the trip.

Dillsboro is a charming little town full of shops and friendly people. We sampled some wine and cheese at Country Traditions - the owners were very accommodating and incredibly friendly. I would definitely go there again! From there, we walked to Monkey Toes and Cheddar Box, and perused some boutique shopping materials and did some holiday shopping. from there, we worked our way down to the Dillsboro Chocolate Factory. Walking in the door, we knew we had found a special place. They were playing hip music, the place had the aroma of heaven, and the staff was friendly and accommodating. They allowed me to sample a couple of interesting truffles (who knew that you could incorporate cayenne and jalapeno with dark chocolate and make it taste so good?!...just the right amount of heat). We ended up leaving with two boxes of decadent chocolates, truffles, and fudge, and samples of a delicious coffee drink. We did not get to cover as much ground in Dillsboro as we would have liked; the layover was an hour and a half, and it just didn't seem long enough. Plus, many of the shops were not open, perhaps because it was Sunday. We heard the five blasts from the train whistle signaling us to return to the train (apparently people get left behind if they don't hurry!).

Once we were seated and underway, we received a delightful slice of caramel cheesecake. The trip back was quite peaceful in the sense that we were able to hear the history of the trip without as many interruptions. There were a few times where there was total silence and we could just enjoy the scenery.

When it is all said and done, I would recommend this trip, especially in the spring, or as the leaves are changing in the fall. The river scenery along the Tuckasegee River was beautiful, and the old bridges were spectacular. However, the barren trees of mid-November exposed a lot of mobile homes, leaving unsightly marks on the beautiful landscape. One interesting thing to point out, is the use of abandoned crushed cars in the river banks to help with erosion; it might not be a sound ecological choice, but in the 40s they did the best they could with what they had. Also, the railroad does specialty trips throughout the year; during November and December they do Polar Express train rides for kids (and adults!) where the train takes the passengers to the North Pole, Santa boards the train, and the kids all hear the story of the Polar Express and sing carols.

The souvenir shop at the GSMR train station was plentiful but rather expensive. The coffee in the local coffee shop was tasty, but also expensive. We did not have time to visit the Smoky Mountain Trains Museum, although the price of admission was included with our tickets. The town of Bryson City itself seemed quite charming. Once again, upon our arrival, everything was still closed. When we returned from our train trip, it was a bustling little town. I wish we had more time to stay.

In summary, I feel that the trip was well worth our time. The train company could make some improvements, but it was still nice, entertaining, and pleasant company.  I definitely want to return with the kids to experience the Polar Express train ride - I'm thinking it is best to take the ride after dark to block out the mobile trailer parks and feel more realistic like the story. Dillsboro and Bryson City were both charming historic towns, and I would revisit either at any time. All in all, a day well spent!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Biltmore Estate

Have you ever been to Biltmore Estate? Until this past weekend, I had never been to visit the 250-room chateau in Asheville. Let me just say, it is breath taking and impressive. I purchased tickets through Costco for a reduced rate (approximately $42, I can't remember the exact cost), and upgraded to the Candlelight Christmas Tour for an additional $10 fee. My friend and I left Greensboro on Friday afternoon, and checked into a hotel about five miles away from the Biltmore estate. We allowed ourselves a bit over an hour to get from the hotel to the estate, drive through the winding drive, park our car, and catch a shuttle to the front entrance in time for our scheduled entrance for the Tour.

The Biltmore House was beautifully decorated for Christmas, and the Candlelight Christmas Tour was definitely worth the upgrade fee. The guide book provided information on each room and key pieces of artwork and history, while the staff stationed throughout the house were able to share additional insight. My favorite room was the Library - two stories of books! Much of the house has been preserved and renovated, and history on the family and renovations is also part of the tour.

After the tour, we took the shuttle back to our car, and drove over to Antler Hill Village and Winery. We sampled a few wines, and walked through the underground tunnel over to Cedric's Tavern for dinner and drinks. We decided on a beer flight of local brews, and two appetizers - the Whiskey & Pepper Cured Scottish Salmon with pickled vegetables, creamy boursin, and toast, and the Ham & Cheese, thinly shaved country ham and Gruy√©re cheese fondue served with grilled sourdough bread. It was all delicious!

The next morning, we returned to the Estate for our daytime tour, which was included in our ticket. We grabbed some coffee at the Bake Shop and waited for our entrance time to the House. The tour was much more crowded on Saturday during the day than it was the night before for the Candlelight Tour, and we actually decided to escape the crowd and skip the majority of the tour after realizing how difficult it was to navigate the House with such a large crowd of people. We thought that since we had an assigned time to enter the house, it would be comfortably crowded and the crowd would be similar to what we experienced on Friday evening; however, it was at least 3-4 times more people during our entrance time on Saturday morning, which meant there was no escape from the crowd inside the home.

After we decided to skip the remainder of the House tour, we walked the grounds a bit and explored the gardens. It is the end of fall, so everything was barren, but the view was amazing! Having such spectacular long range mountain views from the home and balconies is likely the reason Mr. Vanderbilt chose this location for his home.

We ate lunch at the Stable Cafe and dined in a renovated horse stall. We drove back to Antler Hill Village, toured the Winery and sampled some more of the Biltmore wines. We also explored The Village Green and Farm, and learned about life on the Estate at the turn of the century. The gift shops on the Estate had some wonderful samples and products, and we ended up starting our Christmas shopping while we were in Asheville. Don't miss the Porter Music Box in the Carriage House near the Stable - such an awesome piece! I even upgraded to an annual passholder (for only $29!) and now I am able to return anytime in the next year at no additional cost. Children under 16 are free, so my kids can go with me and enjoy the beauty of the Biltmore Estate. I can't wait to go back in the spring to see the gardens in bloom!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Blue Ridge Parkway & Pumpkin Patch

October is peak fall foliage in the North Carolina mountains, so I took full advantage of the lovely weather today and went sight seeing. I packed a picnic lunch, filled the gas tank, picked up a friend, and buckled my toddler and her friend into their carseats to head west to the Blue Ridge Parkway. We picked up the Parkway off 421 between Wilkesboro and Boone and headed north. The leaves are mostly green still in Greensboro, but the closer we got to the mountains, the more they changed to beautiful vibrant shades of red, orange, and yellow.

We had our two 2-year-olds with us, and the scenic overlooks and stopping areas along the Parkway allowed plenty of opportunities for them to burn their energy and for us to snap some photos. Our first stop was a photo opp at Elk Mountain Overlook where the kids even found a wooly worm to examine.

Next up was E.B. Jeffress Park where the kids played in the fallen leaves, and we thought about the short hike to the cascades (and ultimately decided against it since we had the kids with us).

From there, we did some "drive by shooting" and snapped pictures along the way. We had to stop near a farm so the kids could examine the cattle - and the cattle were equally intrigued by our kids.

We stopped again at the Blue Ridge Music Center near the NC/VA border. The kids enjoyed listening to some live mountain music, and we enjoyed wandering through the Roots of American Music exhibit.

Once we hit US-52 in Virginia, we decided it was time to head back to Greensboro. However, a small, handwritten sign as we were getting off the parkway caught our eye - "Pick your own pumpkin - follow signs!" The signs led us through Fancy Gap, VA and to Blue Ridge Pumpkins. We pulled up to the farm, and were immediately greeted by one of the family members who owns the farm, who said we were welcome to choose any pumpkins from their 5 acre farm. Pumpkins were $8/each or 3/$20 - no matter the size! We wandered through the patch, cut our three chosen pumpkins from the vines, and set them on the path for one of the farmers to pick up and drive back to our car. The kids were able to get their faces painted while we drank apple cider and hot chocolate, and the farmers even allowed the kids to sit on a pony. They also had a hay ride available, and a maze for the kids to explore. I can't even express how impressed we were by this pumpkin patch - the staff, the affordability, and the overall friendliness. It will definitely be part of our fall Parkway tradition! This last stop on our day trip was definitely our favorite.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

NC Mountains Camping Trip

I took an adult-only camping trip to the NC mountains this weekend. My friend and I headed out of Greensboro on Friday afternoon around 1pm, and picked up 40W towards Asheville. We took exit 44 to NC-151 South which was an amazing mountain road full of twists, turns, and steep hills. From there, we picked up the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway and continued south to NC-215 South which led us right to our campground.
Blue Ridge Parkway - Cherry Grove overlook

At the Ridge Campground is owned by a great, friendly family who has 35 acres of land along the North Fork River, complete with a trout farm and riverside tent sites as well as RV hookups. They also have horses, goats, dogs, and other animals on their property - including a very friendly lab, Buck. We are tent campers, and set up our site Friday night right on the river. The locations are semi-secluded and our closest neighbors were several sites away. Our only complaint was the bathhouse/outhouse was pretty run down and had questionable plumbing. On the plus side, the firewood we bought from the campground owners was a large quantity at a very reasonable price and the other campers were friendly.
At the Ridge Campground - Riverside tent camping, Balsam Grove, NC

Saturday  morning, instead of cooking breakfast over the campfire, we headed into Brevard, NC to eat at The Sunrise Cafe - great coffee, and super delicious breakfast burritos! From there, we headed back south to seek out some waterfalls. Our first stop was Nantahala National Forest to view the Whitewater Falls, which are the highest waterfalls east of the Rockies. It was beautiful! The path from the parking lot down to an upper viewing area was easy, then to view from the lower viewing area we had to descend several stairs. The lower viewing area has great photo ops! We started down a trail, but realized the paths didn't really go anywhere (and we weren't prepared to hike 47 miles!) so we headed back up to the parking lot.

Nantahala National Forest - Whitewater Falls

From Nantahala National Forest, we headed back to Gorges State Park and enjoyed their brand new visitor center (seriously, brand new...the grand opening is NEXT weekend!) and exhibits. They have a few trails that lead to waterfalls, but it was too late in the day for us to start out on a hike at that point, so we enjoyed the views from the car.

Gorges State Park

We headed from Gorges State Park to Cashiers, NC to find a restaurant for a late lunch. We discovered Wild Thyme Cafe and enjoyed a delicious lunch of quesadillas, despite the slow service.

After returning to the campground for the night, we socialized with some other campers, relaxed by the fire with the resident dog, Buck (aka Bert), and enjoyed a dinner cooked over the campfire. We decided to head out of town a different route than we came in on, and traveled back through Brevard on NC-64. We eventually stopped for breakfast at Mills River Restaurant, which is southwest of the Asheville airport. This was a little homestyle restaurant, fully decked out for Halloween, with good home cooking.

Overall we had a wonderful weekend in the mountains, saw some fall foliage, and found a great new campground close to the BRP.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Labor Day Beach Camping Trip

I had plans to go to the mountains over Labor Day to camp with a few other families, but the hurricane rain came through the mountains that weekend, so we changed our plans to visit the beach instead! We lost a few families in the process since the beach is a bit further away than the mountains, but still had fun. Three families - three adults, six kids. Perhaps we are a little crazy?

We found a campground near Sunset Beach and Ocean Isle Beach called Brunswick Beaches Camping Resort. It turned out to be very nice - our sites were right near a river, close enough to the bathhouse and pool, and had a bit of shade from a few large trees. Speaking of the bathhouse - it was probably the nicest bathhouse I've ever seen at a campground - very nice and well kept showers and restroom facilities. We could fish on the river right near the campsite, and we were only a short drive to the nearest grocery store. Plus the beaches were less than 10 miles away!

Brunswick Beaches Camping Resort, Shallotte, NC

We set up camp Friday night and cooked dinner over the campfire with all the kids. Saturday morning we headed down to Ocean Isle Beach to visit The Museum of Coastal Carolina (you know, indoor, air conditioned fun for a few hours). All of our kids enjoyed it - and we had six with us between the ages of 2 and 7.

Museum of Coastal Carolina, Ocean Isle Beach, NC

From there, we headed down the coast to Myrtle Beach to kill a few hours. It was over 90 degrees this weekend and the heat and humidity was almost too much to handle outdoors for extended amounts of time. We drove around Myrtle, and ended up at Broadway at the Beach. We made instant plans to return the next day to visit the Ripley's Aquarium when we had more time! We ate lunch (and sat inside in the air conditioning) at Shucker's Raw Bar where the kids could walk around the upstairs, play games, and cool down. We even tried an Oyster shooter (a raw oyster, cocktail sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and tabasco sauce in a shot glass topped with beer)...and survived.

Ripley's Aquarium, Myrtle Beach, SC

We learned that when the canopy has the option to be staked down to the ground to prevent it from blowing over...it is probably (okay, definitely) a good idea to actually stake it down. A short afternoon thunderstorm blew through our campground on Sunday afternoon, and our canopy fell on top of our tent...which resulted in the tent collapsing and everything inside getting soaked with rain water. Whoops. Lesson learned.

Thanks to smart phones and credit cards, we found a hotel nearby that had a vacancy for Sunday night, and we all ended up packing up our (wet) camp and moving to The Comfort Inn for the night. Maybe I should have been more disappointed that our three night camping adventure was cut short to two nights...but the hotel, with beds to sleep in, air conditioning, a bathroom in the room, and a hot breakfast in the morning, felt incredibly luxurious. Especially after two hot and sweaty nights in a tent with kids.

Before we left town, we made certain to visit the beach. The locals all seemed to think Ocean Isle Beach was better to visit than Sunset Beach, so we parked near the putt-putt course (for free!) and walked across the street to the public beach entrance. The kids loved it! My little one was too young to remember the last time they were at the ocean, so it was extra fun watching her learn how to balance and try to stay on her feet in the waves and surf.

Ocean Isle Beach, NC

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Progress Update!

Just a little update! We are working hard to add to our Best of Greensboro directory. We've got a really great start to it already - have you checked it out lately? The calendar is slower going, but we do have links to other public calendars on our calendar page too, so be sure to stop take a look. As always, please feel free to submit local businesses for the directory at any time, and stay tuned for more updates! If you haven't already, please like our page on Facebook to stay up to date on the GSOFamilies progress! http://www.facebook.com/GSOFamilies

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

New Entries!

We've updated our Best of Greensboro with the latest nominations and recommendations! There is still time to submit your favorite local businesses to be included in our directory. Plus, recommending businesses gives you a chance to win a gift card to Great Harvest Bread Company in Friendly Center! See the details here: http://gsofamilies.com/2012/07/12/nominate-and-win/ and know that there are very very few people entered to win at this point - so you have great odds of winning just for submitting your nominations!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Nominate and Win!

GSOFamilies is so pleased to announce that Great Harvest Bread Company in Friendly Center has graciously offered to donate a gift certificate to one lucky local resident! In order to be entered to win, all you need to do is submit recommendations for our Best of Greensboro directory on GSOFamilies. For every FIVE (5) recommendations you submit during July 2012, you'll be entered to win the gift card to Great Harvest Bread Company. So, if you submit 10 nominations, you'll have two chances to win, or submit 20 recommendations and have four chances to win! Winner will be randomly chosen on or after August 1, 2012. Please see the Best of Greensboro page on GSOFamilies, or read below to learn how to submit your nominations.

And please, go LIKE both Great Harvest Bread Company on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/gr8harvestGSO) and GSOFamilies on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/GSOFamilies) - and feel free to share with your friends!
Best of Greensboro

We accept submissions or nominations from local Greensboro families to be included in Best of Greensboro, our business and resources directory. Browse through our categories to find local businesses that other Greensboro families think you should support, or submit your favorite local businesses to be included!

Email gsofamilies@gmail.com with your submission or nomination. Please include:

  • Your first name and last initial

  • The name of the business

  • The Best of Greensboro category

  • A short explanation of why you’re nominating that business

  • The website, Facebook page, and address of the business (if available)

Please note, this is intended to be recommendations by local families, for local families. This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of businesses. If you are a local business owner, we encourage you to ask your customers and/or clients to nominate you!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

You could win!

In an effort to build up our Best of Greensboro directory listing, we're going to offer you a chance to win a gift card to a local

Monday, July 9, 2012

Updates 7/9

Today we updated the Best of Greensboro directory with recommendations for preschools, photographers, kid's activities, libraries, parks, and more. Check it out, share the link with your friends, and submit your own nominations of local businesses to include. This directory will be a great way for local families to seek out local businesses that other Greensboro families have had good experiences with!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Best of Greensboro nominations

Nominations for our Best of Greensboro listing of family friendly, family recommended businesses are starting to come in! Check out the businesses other local families like to support, and suggest your own favorites to be included! Just visit our home page www.GSOFamilies.com and click on Best of Greensboro!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy 4th from GSOFamilies!

Happy 4th of July! We hope you're enjoying the day with your family. Stay tuned in the next several days as we ask for assistance building up our "Best of Greensboro" directory of recommendations by local families, for local families. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


The GSOFamilies calendar is up and running! Visit our site and click the link at the top menu bar. If you have events to submit, follow the instructions on the webpage and we'll add them!

Monday, May 14, 2012

GSOFamilies is Coming Soon!

As a one-stop website for families in the Greensboro, NC area, GSOFamilies.com will provide information for family-friendly activities, reviews and recommendations of local businesses, free forums for questions and interaction with other local families, classifieds, and more! We're scheduled to launch Summer 2012, so "like" our Facebook page for updates! http://www.facebook.com/GSOFamilies

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