Friday, September 30, 2011

Color me excited!

For more than a year now I've been dissatisfied with the quality of my photos on this blog. They're high-res images that look beautiful until I upload them on Blogger, and then they look pale, flat, fuzzy, and lifeless.

After seeing the quality of my vacation photos diminish before my eyes (and yours), I finally did enough research to figure out how to solve the problem. Here's a "before" image:

And here's the same image "after" a small change has been made in the html code:

I hope you can see as much difference in the details as I can. To me there's enough of an improvement in the second image that this morning I've gone back and changed the code on every vacation picture I've posted so far.

My goal is for you to have a pleasant experience when you visit here, so I've been bummed for a while about showing you low-quality images. Thanks to Carlo Dimaandal's website, I'll feel much better about sharing photos with you from now on.

Asheville - Part 4 - More Biltmore

It was mid-afternoon when the shuttle bus returned us to the Biltmore house. Our plan was to tour the gardens, so we started by resting for a few minutes on this patio that's connected to the side of the house:

Several "trees" like this one stand supported on a side patio
 that overlooks nearby mountains. I'm not sure what kind
of vines these are (since coming home I've read another
tourist's report that they're wisteria). All I know is
I'd love to be there when they bloom.

Our shuttle driver advised us to begin our garden tour at the entrance near the house. That way our walk would be mostly downhill, and he would pick us up at the other end of it. That made good sense to us. Then we took a look down this long flight of stairs and had a brief discussion about how much of the gardens we really wanted to see. 

The entrance to the Biltmore Gardens was just down these stairs.

Having lugged my camera around for days, I was determined to take pictures in the famous Biltmore Gardens, so down we went. Here was our first peek:

This Italian garden sits very near the house,
a wonderful place for an after-dinner stroll.

The garden path was beautiful, flanked as it was by trees and flowering shrubs:

Far be it from us to dispute the shuttle driver's word, but it seemed to my sister and me  that the path was mostly uphill, at least at the beginning of it. Fortunately, there were benches tucked here and there in shady places:

I think we tried out every single bench we came across. It was really hot that afternoon, and the air seemed still in the midst of all that greenery. At every upward twist of the path, we discussed how much farther we should go, but we didn't want to miss anything.

I'm ashamed now (in my air-conditioned home) to say that we buckled early and chose not to see the rest of the gardens. At the time, though, I was nothing but grateful. (Remember, this was only one day after we hiked the nature trail at the Cherokee village.) Our allergies were flaring up. My head felt like it would split open any minute, and my sister's eyes were watering in heavy streams. It was sooooo hot, and we were sooooo full from lunch. 

We headed back to the big house (strangely uphill on the way back, too). I had to hang onto the stair railing and drag myself up that tall flight of stairs pictured above (second from the top), then I sat on another small set of steps and waited while my sister got the valet to bring her car around. Once in the car, with the A/C blowing in our faces, we took a drive around the rest of the property.

One of many, many formal gardens, most of which we didn't see.

A bank of pink roses near the Deerpark Restaurant.

The Lagoon

A field of sunflowers with mountains in the background. Spectacular!

A portion of Antler Hill Village with the Inn on Biltmore Estate 
towering over it in the background.

I highly recommend the do-it-yourself driving tour. Actually, I highly recommend touring the Biltmore Estate any way you can do it.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Asheville - Part 3 - the Biltmore Estate

Friends told my sister that the Biltmore Estate, the largest private home in America, was a "must-see" in Asheville, so we bought tickets online before we left home. Now that I've seen it, it's still hard to wrap my head around the vastness of it. I must admit that even as I gawped at the splendor of it, there was a part of me (either a socialist or a reverse snob, I think) that was a little bit put off by the idea that any single individual--in the 1800s or even today--was affluent enough to build such a grand structure and to purchase all the land around it for practically as far as the eye could see. That sort of extravagance seems wasteful and insensitive to me. That being said, I'd willingly visit there again and again if I could.

George Vanderbilt built this place as a summer house, a little hideaway where he and his wife could relax and entertain friends. His family still owns it, and we were told that the estate now employs approximately two thousand people to keep the whole operation running.

We weren't allowed to take photographs inside the house, and to get the entire front of the house in one shot I'd have had to walk way back beyond this front-yard fountain:

We visited the Biltmore the day after our hike in the Indian village, so I was only willing to walk far enough to walk far enough away to get half of the house at a time in the camera frame. Here are the two halves:

The architectural detail was amazing:

This stately lion guarded the front of the house.

I was glad I'd saved my energy for the inside of the house, where we toured on four different levels, each with a high ceiling, that required multiple flights of stairs to get from one to the other. Luxury and extravagance were the bywords of the day, from the flooring  to the wall coverings to the beautifully-appointed ceilings, the wonderfully ornate furniture, and the expensive art and decorative items.

My favorite part of the house, probably because of a deep and lasting love of Gothic novels, was the basement, with its neat but sparse servants' rooms and multiple kitchens and laundry areas. I remember standing near the window in one of those kitchens, looking out at the mountains, feeling a cool breeze, and thinking this house wouldn't have been a bad place to live no matter what one's status.

After the tour of the house, we briefly investigated the shops and restaurants adjacent to the house until it was time to catch a shuttle bus to our lunch destination. We'd made reservations to have lunch at the Deerpark Restaurant, located three miles from Biltmore's big house but still well within the boundaries of the 8000-acre property. And a fine lunch it was, too. The food was beautifully presented (I learned the importance of presentation by watching the Food Network) and tasted delicious. The restaurant was gorgeous and peaceful, inside and out.

Deerpark Restaurant

After lunch we sat on the shaded bench pictured above and waited for the shuttle that would take us back to the house. While we waited, I snapped these photos:

I recognize the pink roses, of course, but not the other flowers. Perhaps some of you gardeners out there might tell us what they are.

Tomorrow I'll show you more of the beauty that is Biltmore. In the meantime, here's a link to a YouTube video that contains a brief history of the place, as well as some great shots of the interior of the house: 

If you're the least bit interested, the video is well worth your four minutes.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Asheville - Part 2

Asheville struck me as the kind of town that inspires residents and visitors alike to take care of it, to maintain its tidiness for the enjoyment of the next person who drives through town. Even the seamier side of Asheville looks fresh enough that the Asheville Visitor Center is situated only a couple blocks away from the Salvation Army's housing facility. In fact, except for the expressions on their faces, it's hard to distinguish some of the down-and-outers from some of the many artists and craftspeople who make Asheville home.

The entire town looks as if it's been pressure-washed only yesterday. It's that clean. I can't imagine anyone having the audacity to drop a cigarette butt or a gum wrapper in such a pristine and picturesque area, so maybe the cleanliness is self-perpetuating. To me, the steady stream of traffic through town was the only thing that prevented any part of the area from being picture-postcard ready.

I loved that there were trees scattered among storefronts downtown:

And I loved the unique architecture and the pops of color outside shops and restaurants:

It appears that the people responsible for the planning and development of Asheville paid close attention to detail and to the harmonious composition of each neighborhood. Check out this fast-food restaurant (the most expensively constructed McDonald's in the U.S.)...

...which is located across the street from a cluster of Tudor-styled buildings like this one:

And look how this elaborately structured playground perfectly matches the little church next to it:

Asheville is well known as an artists' community, and those artists and craftsmen have left touches of their aesthetic all over the area. It may be found in a meticulously painted mural on the side of a local store:

Or on the colorful facade of an apartment building:

The artists began moving into Asheville when the town's industrial area was largely deserted, thus highly affordable. They set up studios, opened galleries, and developed an extensive community within a community that is alive and strong today.

And that, my friends, is the end of this post and the end of our Gray Line Trolley tour .

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Asheville - Part 1

I'm breaking the Asheville portion of our vacation into at least three (possibly four) posts to lessen the likelihood of boring overwhelming you with too many photos at one time. Asheville, North Carolina, is a beautiful city, well laid out, well maintained, and has  architecture to die for. It's a city built on hills and surrounded by mountain views.

On the first non-traveling day of our vacation, we woke up in our Asheville hotel room full of enthusiasm and excitement, eager to get out and see the sights. We weren't sure where to go first, so we asked the folks at the hotel's front desk for suggestions. They came up with several ideas, and their first one turned out to be a real winner: a Gray Line Trolley tour of Asheville.

Our tour was to start at the Asheville Visitor Center, and we knew exactly how to get there. We'd seen it several times the evening before, when we first arrived in town and got lost while trying to find our hotel.

The weather that day was gorgeous, noticeably cooler than the heat and humidity we'd left behind in our Deep South homes and a perfect day to sit back and let someone else do the driving. We let our driver/tour guide do the talking while we ogled--and took pictures--out the open windows.

Asheville is noted for its historic homes, beautiful structures like these:

We saw so many beautiful homes, and our tour guide told us the history of each one. I wish I could remember the stories so I could pass them on to you.

Fortunately, with the aid of Google, I've done a better job of identifying some of the buildings we saw on our tour:

This is the Grove Park Inn, built by E. W. Grove and opened in 1913.
 Since then, a number of U.S. presidents have stayed there.

Dome of the First Baptist Church

The Asheville Art Museum, formerly the Pack Memorial Library

Asheville City Hall

Basilica of St. Lawrence

At left is the 15-story Jackson Building, Asheville's first skyscraper.
Next to it is the Westall Building.

The Grove Arcade Building, built by the same person who built the
Grove Park Inn (shown above). Click this photo to enlarge it, then notice
the faces in the bottom right corner of the picture. These faces, with
noses like that of a pig, are all around the building and are said to
be the image of a man who owed a long-unpaid debt to Dr. Grove.

More tomorrow, folks.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A cool place to spend an afternoon

I've never looked forward to air conditioning more than when my sister and I climbed into her SUV after our trek through the Oconaluftee Indian Village's Nature Trail and Gardens. The car was like an oven inside, but with the A/C on high, it didn't take long to cool us off.

We drove down the main strip of Cherokee, NC, and picked out a nice restaurant where we could stop for lunch. Lunch was good. It rejuvenated us enough that we decided we might have just enough energy left to visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. I'm glad we did.

First of all, it was pleasantly cool in there, plus they said we could take pictures. We bought our tickets, then sat in a peaceful, dimly lighted area to wait for the next tour to begin. The wall in the waiting area was decorated with Indian stories like this one:

In a matter of minutes, the tour guide appeared and led us into a small theater, where we watched an animated version of the Cherokee legend about how the earth was formed. After that we were led through another door where we could continue on our own.

There were exhibits of utilitarian and trade items...


...and many other articles used regularly by the Cherokees. There were floor-to-ceiling murals on some of the walls:

Some of the exhibits were miniature:

Others were life-sized:

A hidden fan provided a gentle breeze that blew the feathers on the figures below, making us almost believe they might be real enough to step out of the exhibit at any minute:

The life-sized figures were extremely lifelike, as well, made with incredible attention to detail:

While the exhibits covered many facets of the Cherokees' lives in the early 1800s, a dominant theme of the museum was the Trail of Tears. The Cherokees (and other tribes) paid a terrible price when the U.S. government forced them to relocate from their homelands to the then newly designated Indian Territory that later became Oklahoma.

I can truthfully say that I've given that unfortunate piece of America's history more thought in the past few weeks than in all the 68-plus years I lived prior to visiting to this museum. It's an interesting, thought-provoking museum -- well worth a visit.