A short tour including Charlotte, Biltmore House and Boone area

Published: August 27th 2007
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Blue Grass music at the Mast General StoreBlue Grass music at the Mast General StoreBlue Grass music at the Mast General Store

This is one of my original photos that I emailed to friends before my camera was stolen

North Carolina

I spent three days with Bert, an old travel friend, his wife and children in Charlotte, North Carolina. Bert gave me a bit of a tour around Charlotte and environs when I first landed. I was struck by the space and size of things - I know it is a cliché but it is true! The centre of Charlotte I had seen from the plane as we landed - a little island of towering steel, concrete, and glass in the midst of a sprawling sea of green trees - hiding the residential areas. It was gloriously hot and we drove around and through the city to Bert’s home. Bert and Fran showed me such superb southern hospitality for the whole of my stay in North Carolina. I met their au pair Felicia from France and she and I went out to an English pub called Big Ben (!) - I had a few gin and tonics (as you do!), and a lovely salad. It was a pretty typical English pub with some good English food, as well as local specialities too. Apart from the heat it was almost like being at home. They even had a London cab there too! Felicia then drove me into the centre of Charlotte and we wandered around and saw some statues on the ‘intersection’ (crossroads) where North Tyron Street crosses Trade Street. They represent Transportation, Future, Commerce and Industry. They were very good, and we tried to guess what they represented before we saw the title… I think we got some but not all - Felicia was better at guessing than I was! We went to a café and I had a cup of tea (I am English after all!) before heading home.

The next day Bert took Felicia and me to the US National White Water Rafting Centre - a superb man-made creation where they can control the flow of water. We saw a number of inflatables and canoes - some were probably professionals, and some appeared to be groups from school just having fun and screaming when the water was fast flowing! We walked around in the hot sunshine taking a look at the Catawba River which flows nearby, and the cycle track. It is a new facility and has great potential for people to enjoy the outdoors. We at lunch there - which was lovely … but they had a few problems remembering our order (teething problems) and so compensated us with huge slices of cheesecake!

In the afternoon Fran, Felicia and I had a ‘girlie’ outing. Fran drove us to Asheville and to the Biltmore House. It was a really wonderful place. It used to be the summer home of the Vanderbilt family from New York. Built in the 1890s it is still owned by the family and has 250 rooms (43 of which are bathrooms!). It took 6 years to complete and used hundreds of workers. The Vanderbilts used to invite lots of guests to stay with them over the summer and so had a total of 35 guest and family rooms. It is an amazing place - similar to a French chateau or an English stately home. It was really lovely. I remember particularly the winder garden which was a room off the entrance hall that had a glass roof with plants in it; the banqueting hall - with it’s high ceiling and tapestries and flags on the wall; some of the guests bedrooms so rich and opulent; the library (apparently Mr Vanderbilt read every book in the library - I think we worked out he must have read about 2 per week!); the games rooms to keep the guests occupied; the various sitting rooms on various floors; the gymnasium; the indoor pool; the kitchen and the storage rooms (including two rooms for vases and cut flowers!); and the bedrooms for the servants which were a good size with proper furniture too (Vanderbilt was an employer with progressive thinking). It was a beautiful place, the family do not live there anymore, and are slowly but surely restoring and opening rooms. Apparently they wanted to re-create the original wallpaper and found a fragment on the wall of one room so they went to a company in Paris to ask if they could replicate it. The company said they could because they were the original manufacturers and still had the original designs! It was stunningly beautiful and a great place to visit. I can recommend the audio tour - which was excellent. We also went to the winery and saw where they make and store the wines. Then, of course (!), we went to have a taste! We tasted five each - which was great fun - my favourite was the sauvignon blanc (no
A mountain of foodA mountain of foodA mountain of food

As you can see it spilled out onto the table and we even had to use another plate!!
surprise there!). Although they grow some of their own grapes, they import most of them. Fran bought some wine in the shop before we headed off into town to eat. We ate at (I think it was called) the Apollo - a great Greek restaurant which served huge portions like mountains on your plate… fab! We then headed out, not back to Charlotte but up to the area where Fran grew up - around Boone - in the mountains. We got there at just gone midnight - so it was straight to bed. In the morning we pottered around the house putting up curtains and moving furniture around a bit. After a while we all (Bert and the children had driven up the previous afternoon while we were on our girlie outing) went to visit the Mast General Store. This is the oldest general store (shop) in North Carolina - and maybe the whole of the US. It was excellent fun - there was a group of people playing mountain music, also known as blue grass music, on the verandah at the back of the store - it was what you would think of as typical southern American country-style music - fabulous. Felicia sat on the swing seat and I sat on the rocking chair listening to the music and the banter of the musicians for quite a while. Inside the shop everything was laid out in an old fashioned way, with counters where you could ask for goods to be brought to you. The store had EVERYTHING - food, hardware, clothes, post office - it was great fun - and you could look around the little nooks and crannies and feel like you were at the centre of the universe of a very rural area way back in US history. I like the sign for the pickled eggs and pigs feet - which I think said something like ‘no pigs were hurt in the making of this dish - to the best of our knowledge’ - ha ha ha! From there we had a look inside the old sweet shop - but didn’t buy any! We then joined Bert and the children who were playing in the park, and had a look at the men fishing in the river. We bought lunch at the Ham Shoppe - here you could select the type bread you wanted for your sandwich, the type of meat, the type of cheese, the type of salad, the type of dressing… and more, all from a long list of things it was quite stressful making that many decisions one after the other! Stressful but VERY tastey! We sat on the balcony overlooking the surrounding countryside - mountains and trees and in the distance Grandfather Mountain which is the highest peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains (of North Carolina - don’t be fooled by the song!). It was called Tanawha by the Cherokees, which means fabulous hawk or eagle. It was called Grandfather Mountain by the pioneers who could see the face of an old man in one of the cliffs. I could see the profile of an old man’s face, as if he was lying down. In the afternoon we visited Moses H. Cone Farmhouse and walked around the lake before heading into Boone to one of the shops so that Fran could return something. After eating our evening meal, we went up to the hills, and lit a fire in proper camp fire area to toast marshmallows. While Bert was lighting the fire, Fran, Felicia, the children and I clambered up a rocky outcrop and looked at the scenery - it was lovely - so much space and greenery stretching everywhere over the hills and down the valleys. When we came down the fire was lit and we could use sticks to toast marshmallows. Now I would just eat the toasted marshmallows - very nice - but I was about to experience a little bit of Americana - S’mores. S’mores are basically marshmallows, toasted, then put in between some wafer/cracker type biscuits with a square of Hershey’s chocolate. I didn’t have the completed article - it seemed SO very sweet - I worried about having a sugar overload! S’mores are known to every American (well certainly the ones I met) - but I had never heard of them! It was great fun being out in the woods, toasting marshmallows on sticks over an open fire - we all had our own techniques for toasting making sure not to burn the outside but to cook the inside so that it was almost liquid - fabulous fun!

The next day Bert drove Felicia and me back to Charlotte, Fran and the children were going to drive back later in the day. Bert dropped me off at Charlotte airport for the next leg of my trip - volunteering in Costa Rica.

A big BIG thank you to Felicia for sending me her photographs which are the ones you can see on this site. My camera was stolen in Costa Rica - so I lost all the photos I took.


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