Saturday, July 26, 2014

Homeward Bound

All good things have to come to an end, and such was the case with this wonderful vacation.  We left Asheville on Saturday morning, May 24th, stopping for breakfast at a Cracker Barrel in Flat Rock, NC. We drove through Atlanta in the afternoon and couldn't believe the traffic!!  Then we decided that they were all headed to the Saturday afternoon Atlanta Braves game.  We lost the heavy traffic after we got past the exit to the stadium!!  Since we are avid Atlanta Braves baseball fans, it was tempting to pull in and buy tickets!! However, we kept driving, because we had reservations at a Fairfield Inn at Montgomery, Alabama that evening.  When we got to Montgomery our Google Maps GPS took us right through that city and then a little south.  We ended up in a little spot in the road called Hope Hull. That's where our hotel was located.  Fortunately, it was on the highway we had planned to take out of Montgomery the next morning!!  There were several brand name hotels hear ours, and we could tell that this area is growing.  We asked the hotel front desk clerk why the area was growing, but he didn't have a clue!

We were hungry, so we asked at the same young man about nearby restaurants.  He didn't know much about that either. This area is so newly developed that all they had there was a MacDonald's and a Mexican Food Restaurant.  El Amigo was, at least, a sit down restaurant!  So, that's where we went. The three of us have learned through the years that it's really not a good idea to eat Mexican food north of San Antonio.  After eating at El Amigo, we feel even stronger about this. The owners are from Mexico, and their food was HOT, and I'm not talking about the stove or the oven!  Dorothy ordered enchiladas, but they were so hot that she could not eat them.  They were so nice about it and offered to make her something else.  We told them that would be great and we would be pay for the enchiladas, too.  She ordered quesadillas and told them not to put anything HOT on them!! They were still a little spicy! 

Esther and I had nachos with the tortilla chips served on the side (low carb!).  All of the ingredients without the chips is really quite good. I normally pour hot sauce/salsa all over it, but I tasted it first and it was hotter than what we eat here in South Texas!  (You just can't beat Strickland's or El Jardin's salsa here in Falfurrias!)   When we got our check, the enchiladas were not on it.  Everyone there was very nice and friendly!

The next morning, we drove to Mobile and then turned west to head for Louisiana.  We had reservations that night at a Springhill Suites in Baton Rouge.  Once again, we asked about restaurants, but came up with nothing.  It was Sunday evening, and everything was closed except fast food places and IHOP!  So, we went to IHOP which was nearly next door to the hotel.  IHOP restaurants are good, but a disaster for people who are eating wheat free!!  Plain eggs and bacon were good, though.  They put pancake batter in their scrambled eggs and omelettes, so that was not a choice!  

The next day we drove back into Texas and made our way to Houston where we planned to spend two nights and visit our friends who live there.

We had wonderful weather throughout our trip, but just north of Houston we were hit with rain.  It had been so long since we had seen rain, that it was really unusual!  It rained on us all the way into Houston.  Thank goodness The Fairfield Inn Westchase where we had reservations had a covered portico, so we were able to unload the car and keep things dry.  Right after we unloaded, the rain really hit hard.  It was actually rather good to see all this rain--especially when we were in our room and didn't have to drive it.  

We called our friend, Carol Akkerman Crawford, and told her we had arrived.  She told us to be at her house for dinner at 7:00.  That gave us a chance to rest for a little while.  I had made reservations at this hotel, because it is very close to the Crawfords' home.  We didn't even have to get on any busy streets to get there.  It was still raining, but not too heavily; however, we needed umbrellas to get from the van to the house.  We enjoyed a wonderful evening visiting with the Crawfords and with her brother, Richard Akkerman who came over for dinner.  

The next morning, we got to sleep a little later, as we were not scheduled to return to the Crawfords' home until 11:30 a.m. for lunch.  Richard's wife, Lena, was there, and so were Carol and Richard's cousin, Jim Akkerman, and his wife, Pat.  We enjoyed a wonderful lunch and talked a lot! (We missed getting to see Jim's brother, Jon Akkerman, and his wife, Karen.)

The Akkerman family and our family go way back.  Carol, Richard, Jim, and Jon's grandparents lived down our road near La Gloria School.  They were from The Netherlands, and so were our grandparents.  When I was little, our dad's parents and our mother's mom had passed away, so the Akkermans were like my grandparents. When our family of aunts, uncles, and cousins had parties or gatherings of any kind, Jannejte and Willem Akkerman were there.  They took their turn hosting the family Christmas Eve part just like everyone else.

When their grandchildren came to visit from Houston, we would visit and play together.  Now, all of us are retired, and we are able to get together more often.  They all come down to Falfurrias in October each year, and we have what we call a "family reunion."  Some of us meet them at King's Inn for seafood dinner on Friday evening.  They all come out to see us and "tour" our Christmas House on Saturday.  Then on Saturday evening, Dorothy, Esther, and I host a buffet dinner at Strickland's for them and our cousins. So, we enjoyed our May visit with them in Houston.

On Wednesday, May 28, around noon, we left Houston and drove to San Antonio where we checked into the Fairfield Inn at Market Square.  This is where we had started our vacation on April 30th, so we had come full circle!  We even went to Mi Tierra and had dinner--the same one we had 29 days earlier.

The next day, Thursday, May 29th, we headed home.  Now, we have our memories and our pictures to remind of us our wonderful 2014 vacation.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Asheville, North Carolina and Biltmore Estate

We arrived in Asheville after our drive through Great Smokey Mountain National Park,  Our Google Maps GPS lead us right to our hotel--Springhill Suites by Marriott. It was time for dinner, so I googled restaurants and found one just down the street from where we were staying.  The Cornerstone Restaurant is family owned--not a chain.  We enjoyed our dinner there.

Our sole purpose in visiting Asheville was to see Biltmore House, the home (mansion) that George Vanderbilt officially opened on Christmas Eve in 1895, after six years of construction. He married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser three years later and brought her to Biltmore House.  Their only child, Cornelia, was born there in 1900.

I would love to describe everything here, but that would be impossible.  I have put in a few of the pictures that I took, but you can click here to access the Biltmore website.  There are three pages which tell the Estate History, Biltmore House, and Gardens and Grounds.  Pictures are at the bottom of each page.

George Vanderbilt called his estate "Biltmore" by combining two words--Bildt, the Dutch town that was home to his ancestors, and "more," an old English word for open, rolling land.  He amassed 125,000 acres in North Carolina for his home. Today the estate is comprised of 8,000 acres.  100,000 acres of the original estate are now Pisgah Forest.

This is the entrance to Biltmore Estate.  You are still quite a distance from the visitor center where you buy admission.

This is part of "the Approach Road" that leads to the mansion.  It was planned, laid out, built, and landscaped in 1895 when the construction on the house was completed.  The entire road was laid out so that there was no advance glimpse of the house as people approached it.

Dorothy and Esther had visited there many years ago, but I had never been there.  I had seen pictures and read about it for years, so I really wanted to see it in person.  I was not disappointed!!  Through the years, more rooms have been restored and opened to the public, so it was a much better tour than when Dorothy and Esther were there back in the 60's or 70's. They can't remember exactly what year they were there, because from 1966 until the late 1970's they spent their summers in Atlanta, GA, and did a lot of traveling and sightseeing in The South.

George Vanderbilt passed away in 1914 from complications following an appendectomy. Edith and Cornelia continued to live there with Edith assuming management of the estate, which was very large.  Cornelia married The Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil, in 1924.  They lived and entertained in Biltmore House, but in response to requests to increase area tourism during the Great Depression and to bring in money to to preserve the estate and the mansion, they opened the house to the public in 1930.

Today, Biltmore remains a family business.  George and Edith Vanderbilt's grandson, William A.V. Cecil, owns Biltmore.  His son, William A.V. Cecil, Jr., is the CEO, and his daughter, Diana Cecil Pickering, is president of the Family Office.  They and 1800 employees continue to preserve this national treasure. They receive no funds from the federal or state government.  It is totally family owned.

They do not allow any photographs to be taken inside the mansion. When you buy your admission, you are given a guide pamphlet which is very informative. With it, you can actually tour the mansion and learn all about each room that is open to the public.  The mansion has four acres of floor space with 250 rooms.  Thirty-three of them are bedrooms and 43 are bathrooms which were original to the house in 1895.  There are 65 fireplaces and three kitchens.  George Vanderbilt even had an elevator put into the house and it is still in use today. They have someone on duty at all times to operate it, and we were able to ride it to the second floor.  Even though it goes to every floor in the house, they only allow people to ride it to the second floor.

Guided tours are available at extra cost depending on your interest. we chose to tour the house at our own speed with just the booklet as our guide.  There are hosts and hostesses stationed throughout the house, and they will answer any questions you may have.

I wish I could have taken pictures, but we bought a 135 page book with the entire history of the estate and pictures of everything.  The house is full of treasures that George Vanderbilt collected on his world travels.  The furnishings are very old, and I could certainly understand why they didn't want people taking pictures.  It would also detract from the beauty of everything to have people taking pictures!

The stables and carriage house have been converted into shops and restaurants.  Would  you believe that they even have a Christmas store? It is very small (much smaller than ours!!!!), but they had a lot of merchandise in it.

 This is their display of Old World Christmas glass ornaments.

 This is a clever way to display ornaments on a tree and then have the ones that are for sale in bins under the tree.

The stables were through the arch.  Today, the shops are in the stables.

The Vanderbilt family's view from every room and the loggias (porches) on the back of the mansion.

A man is "mowing the lawn" in this picture.  At center slightly right you can see a tractor with a mower on the back.  You couldn't do this with a push mower.

This was one of the views on the estate as we left.
There were lots of geese and their babies by the lake.  

If you've never been to Asheville and Biltmore, it is definitely worth a visit.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Smokey Mountain National Park

After eating breakfast and enjoying all the Christmas decorations at The Inn at Christmas Place, we went back to our hotel, loaded all of our stuff in the van, and departed Pigeon Forge. We entered Great Smoky Mountains National Park and began the drive past Gatlinburg and up to Newfound Gap.  From there we drove to Cherokee, NC and then ended up in Asheville, NC.
It's only 35 miles from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, and the drive through the mountains is beautiful.  It took over an hour and a half, because we stopped at practically all the scenic pull offs to look at the scenery and take pictures.  At Newfound Gap, we crossed the stateline from Tennessee into North Carolina.  I walked around and took pictures.

Soon after leaving Gatlinburg, we pulled off into a scenic area and I took this picture above.  That is Gatlinburg down in the valley.

The picture below was taken at Newfound Gap.  The strip of white in the center is the two lane highway that we had just traveled on to get to this point.

After leaving Newfound Gap, we drove on to Asheville, NC.  More about our visit there tomorrow!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

We May Have Saved the Best to Last!

Wednesday, May 21, and it's finally time to depart from Pigeon Forge.  However, we may have saved the best to last.  The Inn at Christmas Place, a hotel owned by the same people who own The Incredible Christmas Place, had been sitting right across the street, Christmas Lane, from our hotel, beckoning to us all week!  

We had mentioned to one of the ladies who works at the Christmas store that we really wanted to see the inside of that hotel before we left.  She asked why we didn't go there for breakfast, and we replied that we didn't realize that they had a restaurant.  She said they don't, but they have a breakfast room where they serve a complimentary hot breakfast to their guests. However, anyone can go there and pay for breakfast.  She told us just to enter the lobby and go to the front desk, tell them we wanted to have breakfast, and they would charge our credit card.  

So, that's what we did on Wednesday morning, and we are so glad that we did.  The hotel is completely decorated for Christmas all year long!  After breakfast, we explored, and I got to peek into a room that was being cleaned.  The decorations were beautiful.

Our hotel is across the street to the right in the background.

 This picture of The Inn was taken from the parking lot of the Incredible Christmas  Place.

 This is the main entrance of The Inn.

Christmas sentinels guard the door. While they are almost life-size nutcrackers, the two doormen are real.  I just didn't get a picture of them.
 This is the sight that greets you when you walk into the main lobby.  The front desk is to the right.

 The main lobby Christmas tree.

 The front desk has a Nativity Scene on the ledge above it.

 After we paid for breakfast ($12.99 each), we were told to take the elevator down to the lower level and the breakfast room would be to the left.  This scene greeted us when we got off the elevator.

 Mrs. Claus was greeting guests who were coming downstairs for breakfast.  Unfortunately, we missed seeing Santa Claus, but he makes appearances, too, all year long.

This is part of the food buffet in the breakfast room.  The amount of food available was impressive. There was an omelette station in another part of the room.  The coffee, tea, milk, juice, and cereal bar was along another wall.  The choices were amazing.  I don't eat wheat or grains of any kind, so I didn't partake of the waffles, breads, biscuits, gravy, muffins, brownies, pies, cookies, etc.  However, I did enjoy the eggs and meats.  I even ate a bowl of grits!! I can't even remember all the different foods that were available, but I do know that Dorothy enjoyed a piece of pumpkin pie!!  That is her favorite pie, so it was a treat!  Every morning at The Inn is Christmas morning!

 A table for two in the breakfast room.

 This is the lower floor lobby where Mrs.
Claus had been sitting when we arrived.  When we left, breakfast was over, and she was gone!

 This is a very tall Christmas tree in the lower lobby.

The Glockenspiel, described here, is pictured below.

 The Glockenspiel is hand made.

 I walked down the hall on one floor and found Santa and his elves around the corner.

 On another floor, a family of Santa bears larger than life-size, greeted guests and curious visitors.

The following five pictures are the displays that greet people as they step off the elevators on each floor.  The designers at the store, The Incredible Christmas Place, are the ones who do all the decorating at the hotel.

On the  Polar Bear display, there is a cute do not touch sign.  It says, "Please do not pet me.  I just had my hair done for the holidays!"

Did we enjoy our last experience in Pigeon Forge?  You know we did.  I would love to go back and spend a few days in December at The Inn, because it was a place after our own hearts.  And the best part of all is that the people who own it and all who work there put the emphasis on the real meaning of Christmas.

Our motto is "I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year!"  They certainly do that too, and we enjoyed Christmas in May.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Our Last Full Day in Pigeon Forge

This day, Tuesday, May 20th, was our last full day in Pigeon Forge.  We had been away from home since April 30th.  Needless to say, we had done some shopping during that time, so we had bags and boxes of "stuff" that we had accumulated along the way!  Since we would be starting for home in a few days after our upcoming stay in Asheville, NC, we decided that we didn't want to move that stuff in and out of hotels every evening!  So, we loaded it all up and took it down to the UPS Store in Pigeon Forge. Wow!  It filled a huge box, which the man who worked at the store packed for us.  He wrapped everything in bubble wrap and packed it carefully in the box.  It was rather heavy, and it wasn't cheap to ship, but it was worth it in the long run!!  We had it all in bags and small boxes, and it would have been terrible to take it in and out of every hotel on the rest of the trip!  

Our first evening in Pigeon Forge, which was May 13, we had dinner at The Old Mill Restaurant.  It was delicious food, and the atmosphere was really great.  So, now on May 20, our last evening in PF, we decided to eat there again!  We enjoyed an early dinner, as we had tickets to a show that night. Once again we enjoyed the food and atmosphere and would recommend eating there to anyone who visits to Pigeon Forge.

During our stay in Pigeon Forge we kept seeing a sign advertising a show called Sable (pronounced Sah-blay).  We could see the theater up on a hill a little way off the Parkway.  The picture on the sign was a beautiful horse. Seeing this show was one of the reasons that we decided to stay an extra day in Pigeon Forge.  I called them and reserved tickets for Tuesday night at 8:00. After dinner we went back to our hotel for a few minutes, and then we went to the theater, which was only two blocks from our hotel.  (Pigeon Forge is a very small town, so nothing is too far away from anywhere!)

This is adapted from their website: "The show is called IMAGINATION ON SAND. It features an  international cast of artists, acrobats, dancers, comedians, horse trainers, trick riders and over twenty amazing horses.  “Imagination on Sand” sets the stage for each scene with amazing “sand art” performed live right before your eyes and projected on a huge high definition digital screen.  Then, the scene that has been drawn in the sand comes to life in the center ring!  Adventure, romance, humor and excitement are woven together into one unforgettable experience!" 

It is an amazing show and was actually my favorite of all the ones we saw.  This is the link to this show.  Click on the headings at the top of the page to read all about it and see pictures.

Here are a few of my pictures.  They request no flash during the performance as it might startle the horses and cause injuries to performers or horses.  So, my pictures are a little blurred sometimes, but I think you can get the idea!

 They try not to sell the front seats, because the horses get so close and the dirt flies. (Yes, I said DIRT! These horses are very well trained!! )