Monday was Labor Day which might not be the best day to visit a tourist attraction like the
Biltmore Estate, but the estate as a whole is so vast it doesn't seem to matter how many
people there are. Built and lived in by various member of the Vanderbilt familt, it is just
generally enormous. The house contains dozens (literally) of bedrooms and over 40 bathrooms.
It remains America's largest home, so wear comfortable shoes. The house was designed by Richard
Morris Hunt and contains remarkable technology for the time (it opened in 1895). Among the interesting
innovations are the spiral staircase to the left of the main entrance. If you're wondering why the
spiral might be visible from the exterior, it's because that stonework supports the staircase inside.
From the interior there is no visible means of support. The house also contains an indoor pool,
a bowling alley, and the 'Halloween room' in the basement (the walls were painted by guests during
a Halloween party one year).
The estate comprised 125,000 acres originally and still includes a winery, farm, and
extensive gardens designed by Frederic Law Olmstead (known also for designing New
York's Central Park). Here Melanie lurks in the rose garden with a evil menacing look
that roughly translated means, 'you'd better feed me soon before I have to start
eating these flowers'. Unfortunately, we did not feed her soon because there don't
seem to be any restaurants between the Biltmore Estate and Chimney Rock.
We mentioned that Labor Day might not be the best time to visit the Biltmore. It is
without a doubt not the best time to visit Chimney Rock. In fact the entire Lake Lure
resort area was packed with people. The good news is that we found an apple orchard
on the way there and had a quart of freshly pressed cider to make up for it. This is
a view of Lake Lure from atop Chimney Rock.
Chimney rock is basically a series of odd rock formations that has been turned into
a tourist attraction. They've also built a boardwalk and stairs to make the mountain
more accessible. Accessible is used loosely here, there is still a serious amount
of climbing to be done to get to many of the overlooks. Unfortunately for us though
it was just too crowded to be very enjoyable so we didn't linger long.
So instead we returned to our hotel in Asheville. It was around this time we got a
nail in the tire of our rental car and had to start periodically refilling the tire
with air. Our rental car deserves mention of its own. National was running pretty
low on cars back in Raleigh, so we'd received the very rare 'complementary triple
upgrade'. Which means, they didn't have any compact cars, or any small cars, or
even middle-sized cars, so we got the Buick Behemoth with a turning radius about the
same as the Earth's orbit. Really this is not the car you want when driving about
on small mountain roads. It certainly wasn't the car we wanted, but what can you do.
An upgrade is not always a good thing. And we won't even mention the gas mileage of
the car. On the upside we had no problem fitting our luggage in the trunk. We might
in fact have been able to fit all our earthly belongings in the trunk and still had
room left over for Vermont.
An hour or so up the Blue Ridge Parkway from Asheville, one comes across Mount Mitchell
State Park. It is entirely possible one will also come across the suicidal attack
pheasant that we came across. You'd think driving the Buick Behemoth would entitle
you to at least frighten off small game birds, but we were charged by a pheasant
that clearly had some serious psychological issues. In the end both us and the bird
swerved violently about and avoided contact. We're fairly sure the Buick would have won.
The mountain itself is the highest point in the US east of the Mississippi (6684 ft).
You can drive most of the way up and then hike the rest. There are actually quite a
few trails in the area but we had more otters to go see that afternoon so we couldn't
stay too long.
See, we told you there were more otters. Next stop was Grandfather Mountain which we
recommend in place of Chimney Rock on anyone's itenary. On the lower slopes of the
mountain are several wildlife habitats for animals native to this region of the world.
Some of the areas feature timid animals like deer. These areas are actually overrun
with groundhogs as they leave food out for the deer, but deer aren't really very
threatening to the groundhogs so they come and eat it too. Most people ignore the deer
and take pictures of the groundhogs. Funny thing that. The river otters, naturally,
would not tolerate the intrusion of groundhogs and well, groundhogs probably wouldn't
really want to catch and eat fish anyway.
There were four otters (at least) frolicking in the pools and streams here. One of them
was attempting to be the sleeping otter while the other three were attempting to ensure
that there was no sleeping otter.
These two resting otters stubbornly refused to rest in more appropriate light for
photography. This is officially the last otter picture until at least the next trip.
Next we have black bears, and more interestingly, we have black bear cubs. There were
two cubs when we visited one of which was a cinnamon color which is apparently a rare
thing amongst black bears (hence the name). This one is managing to look surprisingly
like Trout (see the Trout page for reference), which is also a rare thing amongst black
Here the bear cub is not staring at his toes as it might appear, but actually at a small
inoffensive stick on the ground. We know this because moments after this picture was taken
he savagely attacked the stick for at least five or six seconds before his attention span
waned and he wandered off in search of something else to do. The stick escaped with
Higher up on Grandfather Mountain there are other attractions, including a very nice
hiking trail to the next summit over which actually requires as much scrambling and
climbing as it does hiking. Unfortunately we didn't have enough time to follow the entire
trail. There is also a shorter trail which crosses the mile-high swinging bridge. The
bridge is not actually a mile above the gorge, it's only a mile above sea-level but it's
still a long way down and the bridge does indeed swing.
After that we had to head back towards Raleigh. It was a fairly uneventful drive,
and we did manage to have time for one more dose of barbeque in Greensboro (not to
be confused with Greenville). We arrived at Raleigh airport a leisurely hour and
ten minutes in advance of our flight, so naturally we were bumped up to the flight
leaving in ten minutes so that we still had to rush. All this did for us was give
us a longer layover in Charlotte. Two events of interest happened in Charlotte
airport; the first is that our souvenir NC Zoo bag holding our souvenir NC Zoo stuff
along with some souvenir Biltmore Estate wines exploded into a hundred little NC Zoo
bag fragments. The second event of note is that a routine survey of Charlotte
Airport employees revealed that only one out of five actually knows where the post
office is, but the other four are willing to give you wrong answers.