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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!

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