Thursday, October 21, 2010

Biltmore to Bridgeport

October 21, 2010
All guests at the Biltmore Inn get a dashboard pass that lets them freely roam the grounds of the Estate all hours of the day or night. We are pretty sure that no one in our group took as full advantage of this benefit as we did. We were up at 6 a.m. this morning to get pictures of the Biltmore at sunrise, and to set up a souvenir shot of ourselves in front of the mansion before it was overrun with tourists and staff members enforcing no parking rules in the plaza. We hadn’t realized that the grounds would be swarming with workers at that hour—busily blowing leaves, fertilizing the lawn, trimming branches, and making sure that all was in immaculate condition for their off-estate guests’ arrival when the gates opened at 9 a.m.

Following are a few of our favorite early morning photos. Dick took the foggy mountain shot from the rear terrace of the Biltmore.

We returned to the Inn for breakfast with friends, then headed north, while our friends headed south to Savannah. The mountainsides were awash in the brilliant colors of changing leaves brightly illuminated by an unclouded sun. We were intent on getting in some serious mileage, so we stuck to the highway, and didn’t lollygag taking pictures on the backroads, as is our usual habit. We did make a quick stop at the New River Gorge to stretch our legs—that’s where we took this picture.

We made it to Bridgeport, West Virginia, where our Super 8 accommodations were a precipitous come-down from the Biltmore (albeit at a decimal difference price point). After our early rising and a long day of driving, we were almost too tired to care.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beautiful Biltmore and Beyond

October 20, 2010
We are living in the lap of luxury in the Biltmore Inn. No Vanderbilt guest felt more pampered than we (okay, maybe the ones who brought their personal maids and valets to pack and unpack for them and press their clothes, which, come to think of it, was just about everybody in their social network). Still, after our absolutely perfect breakfast, when Dick had the best bacon of his life, and I had the best over easy eggs I can remember (sprinkled with capers), we dropped by the garden to take a couple pictures, and three hours later found ourselves still inside the Biltmore Estate Gates, held hostage by its beauty. The pictures tell the tale.

Then we headed to Ashville, and by the time we got there it was about time for lunch. The lady at the visitor center mentioned that our hero, President Barack Obama, ate at 12 Bones Smokehouse when he was here, and we actually recalled passing it on our circuitous (translation “lost”) way into town—the aroma was absolutely heavenly—so that was our first stop. Once again, our President led us well—to an awesome lunch eaten on a picnic table under a big metal awning in the parking lot. And, although we didn’t photograph them, after lunch we enjoyed the full length mirrors in our respective rest rooms that were artfully contrived to provide a very complimentary reflection, backing up the claim on the sign next to the mirror—“See, eating good barbecue makes you skinny.”

The 12 Bones Smokehouse is in the River Arts District, a run-down area of abandoned warehouses and manufacturing plants where starving artists are struggling to establish successful businesses from their low rent studios. This is Dick’s favorite artwork in the District.
We walked the Urban Trail through town, following a map that led us to bronze plaques and artful sculptures and memorials marking important people (such as Elizabeth Blackwell, first woman doctor in the United States, who started her medical training here), places (the childhood home of Thomas Wolfe, the city’s first skyscraper, and the site of its first public market), and events in the history of Ashville. Along the way we stopped in a few shops, including an antique store that had a covered dish that matched the Austrian china I have from my father’s parents. I have never seen it in another antique store and snatched it up as a wonderful find, as soon as Dick assured me he could find a spot for it in our tightly packed little Jaguar.

Beyond the many artisans, great shopping and beautiful architecture (including a Kresge’s five and dime that was adorned with a stunning hand-painted tile exterior befitting an institution of far higher price points, and an art deco city hall that knocked our socks off), we were flat out impressed with the number of restaurants in Ashville. Does anyone here cook? You cannot walk more than a block in any direction anywhere in this town without running into a restaurant or two or three.

But, we were back to the Biltmore for dinner, and a grand dinner it was. In the interest of getting to bed at a decent hour and not boring you with too much food talk, I will almost omit the commentary, other than telling you that our exteremely tender and tasty Angus Beef Filets were from the cattle we have watched grazing contentedly on the Estate fields near our Inn, and this sampler included a Triple Chocolate Torte, Grand Marnier Bavarian Lace Tuile Cup, and Goat Cheese & Berry Cheesecake.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

BMW to Biltmore

October 19, 2010
Here are some amazing statistics: BMW has invested $4.5 billion dollars into making cars in South Carolina. They just finished a $750 million dollar expansion to their assembly plant here this year, bringing their roofed plant area to 2.8 million square feet. All the cars they make here are pre-ordered, and 75% of them are shipped overseas.

I listened well to the BMW Factory Tour, as you can tell. Too bad they wouldn’t let us take photographs on the factory floor, because the process is fascinating. There are lots of robots twirling huge chunks of the cars around in the air to be spot welded (shooting streams of sparks that sometimes shower down breath-takingly close to us). They apply adhesive to parts, and hold their work up for cameras to check before they continue assembly. They transfix us.

There are also lots and lots of uniformed associates (as BMW employees are called) performing assembly tasks as the car bodies slowly progress by them on a moving line. There are 7,000 employees at this plant, working four ten-hour days each week. They change assembly stations every two hours, to avoid repetitive motion injuries and boredom, and to cross-train for flexible scheduling of the workforce. Each day, each of the two shifts has a goal of completing 310 cars, and the workers can see how they are progressing against that objective by looking at tickertape signs lit up throughout the plant. When we toured, the shift was running two cars behind objective.

We enjoyed a small museum featuring historic BMW cars and motor cycles in the Visitor Center. This is a photo of some one cylinder cars produced following World War II. They could get up to 63 miles per gallon (less when towing the claustrophobic travel trailer featured behind the first car).

After our tour, we headed to the Biltmore along a route featuring beautiful scenery and twisty mountain roads. We ate lunch on the patio of Larkin’s on the Lake, overlooking beautiful Lure Lake, created in 1926, and made famous when the movie Dirty Dancing was filmed there. We enjoyed the fall colors and the rural scenery, occasionally stopping to try to capture a moment with a photograph. One of our favorites was Bear Wallow Baptist Church.

We settled into our luxurious room at the Inn on Biltmore Estate, and joined our Automobile Society friends for cocktail hour and dinner in the loft of the Stable next to the Biltmore Estate. We should get to bed at a reasonable hour tonight—we have a very full day planned for tomorrow, exploring the many highlights of the Estate and Ashville. (You will probably note from the posting time that I failed to meet my "early to bed" objective, once again.)

Monday, October 18, 2010

We pay $5 for a $1,000 Experience

Union, South Carolina
October 18, 2010
We are off on another adventure, this time on a Landings Automobile Society trip to the Biltmore, with a stop along the way in Spartanburg, South Carolina, near a BMW Factory which we will tour tomorrow morning.

Spartanburg is about four hours from Savannah, so of course we found a little detour on our way here. We got off the highway just past Newberry, South Carolina and headed for miles and miles through Sumter National Forest (which we later learned was a man-made forest planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps), finally ending up at our destination—Rose Hill Plantation.

The plantation’s claim to fame is that it was the home of secessionist governor William Henry Gist, the last South Carolina governor to govern from his home. The home was built by William’s father in 1812, and was modified by William in the 1850s. The plantation property covered 8,896 acres, much of it now part of the National Forest. We enjoyed a picnic lunch on the lawn, then took a private tour of the home with a park ranger.

Other than a crew of South Carolina Correctional Center inmates and their corrections officers who piled out of their prison transport van to stretch their legs and use the facilities, we were the only visitors that day.

Dick pointed out that we owe the South Carolina tax payers a huge debt of gratitude for subsidizing our visit. Based on all the staff people we saw and the state of the house and grounds, which include formal gardens and quite a few out buildings, Dick estimated that the Plantation must have an annual budget of at least half a million dollars. Our ranger told us that they get about a thousand visitors per year. That works out to a cost of $500 per visitor. We paid five dollars total for our tour, leaving the generous tax payers of South Carolina paying $995 to subsidize our visit—thanks y’all.