The Biltmore Estate

We had a chance to travel to this vaunted estate and it was well worth the time. It is located in Asheville, N.C. and is the largest privately owned house in the U.S at north of 178,000 square feet!

It is called a Gilded Age mansion and is still owned by George Vanderbilt’s descendants. It is a remarkable spectacle and worth a visit.

George Washington Vanderbilt began making regular trips to the Asheville area in the 1880’s, where he is said to have loved the scenery and climate. He built himself a summer house there which he called his little mountain escape. Over time he would up buying hundreds of surrounding parcels of land, including about 50 farms and a half dozen cemeteries. I was told by a spokesperson there that the archives show that the area was poor and much of the land was in bad shape, so most landowners were glad to sell at the time.

In order to build the house, rather than try to ship in all the materials, a woodworking factory and a brick kiln were constructed right on the property. Also a railroad access spur was constructed to more easily get materials to the site. There were about 1000 laborers working on the main house and George made many trips overseas to bring back artifacts he wanted placed in the house.

There is a lot of history here that I will skip over to bring us to the current. The estate occupies about 8000 acres which is bisected by the French Broad River. It is overseen by the Biltmore company, a trust set up by the family. There is a winery, a 200+ room luxury hotel, and villages of gift shops and restaurants all on the property.

While the buildings are jaw-dropping, one of the more remarkable aspects of the estate is the grounds. I can’t begin to describe how beautiful they are. The picture above is a case in point. This site has a lot of information about them.

I visited Biltmore with a couple friends, both of whom are in the landscaping or irrigation businesses.

One friend was Rachael, who is a landscape designer by trade and owns a landscape design and planting company in Richmond Va. She has been in the business for decades and said she has never seen any landscaping as beautiful as this. Not even close. The variety of shrubs, flowers, and trees all carefully selected to compliment each other is nothing short of miraculous, according to Rachael.

The other friend was Daniel. Daniel is in the irrigation business and partners with Rachael quite often to bid on Richmond area projects. Daniel owns an irrigation company in Richmond Va. called Old Dominion Irrigation. Daniel, like Rachael, was awestruck by the intricate flora and complex irrigation techniques employed by the Biltmore staff.

If you ever get a chance to see this, you will not be disappointed. Plus Asheville is just a wonderful little town to explore.

Intro Post

This is my first blog post. In addition to trips with my friend Rob that I talk about on the About Us page, I have traveled extensively myself. Trips to China, South America, the South Pacific, Europe, Mexico, and Canada round out the international portfolio.

Additionally I have been to almost all 50 states and will have lots to share about those as well. I hope you enjoy the site.

Rio Travel

Regarding my trip to Rio, there are a ton of things I can report back. It was a fascinating, scary, beautiful, and poor place all at the same time.

The food was outstanding and I could go on and on about that. The countryside is very unusual and has beauty in itself, but it can be a dangerous place to travel so extreme care is required.

I stayed in Copacabana Beach which is the largest tourist spot in Rio. It is a 5 mile long collection of hotels, bars, restaurants, and condos. The entire 5 mile span has a hand-laid stone sidewalk that must be 30 feet wide. It is quite a spectacle, as you can see in the picture below.

I met a couple who lives there, Eddie and Lessie (I guess that is how you spell it) who took me around and showed me the ropes. Had a great time with them. They have a lovely condo that it 3 stories tall, but not real wide. They have a spiral staircase going up the middle of the place from one floor to the next. On the roof is a big patio where she has lots of plants growing. It is a wonderful place to have a drink, overlooking the South Atlantic. You could do worse!

As we sat there chatting I noticed a mold issue. They told me it can get very damp and humid in Rio and mold problems are a common occurrence. I know the owner of a mold remediation and removal company in Richmond, Va., who I called for advice. He gave me a few suggestions for killing it and suggested we keep an eye on it and call a removal company if it keeps coming back.

Anyway Eddie really enjoys his beers and Lessie is a great cook so we had a wonderful time together. We went for some walks along the beach and they showed me an old fort at one end of the beach. The beach that adjoins Copacabana is called Iponema. There is a song about that one. Iponema is a wonderful place that harkens back to the 60’s. There are arts fairs and music and crafts everywhere. If I go back to Rio, I would definitely stay here. It is quieter than Copacabana but still has lots of bars and restaurants and character.

This is a picture of Iponema beach.

Rio Food

Despite the relatively poor status of Rio, there is some outstanding food to be found there. Like much of the world outside the US, there are almost no preservatives used in their food, and therefore most things have a fresh taste that is foreign to lots of foods at home that taste relatively bland by comparison.

While you can find a variety of restaurants there, even the bottom of the line ones seem to take great pride in everything they serve. In fact owners almost have a competitive feel to the presentations they serve. The picture above is from an open market where shoppers do their almost daily shopping. Like Europe, it is much more popular to buy food fresh every day than to store it for weeks at a time in big refrigerators.

Marrakech Trip

This is an Islamic country that reminds me a lot of Las Vegas. There are a lot of old mosques mixed in with Vegas-esque resorts. It is hot and arid there and is built around a number of oasis’. It is mostly a barter society and everything is based on cash. You can negotiate on everything you buy.

There are a number of amazing spas. The old market is composed of a number of old alleyways covered with planking and steel rafters. The colors are out of this world. This market pictured is filled with snake handlers and music and sounds. It is a remarkable sight.

This is a French colony with a ton of European and traditional middle eastern influences. One of the most amazing places is the La Mamounia resort that is one of the top resorts in the nation. It is a very social hotel and out by the pool you meet travelers from all over.

One of the top excursions is a hot air balloon ride over the Atlas mountains where you can see the lush oasis’ of Marrakesh contrasted against the arid desert and mountains. The sunsets here are especially striking due to the sand particles in the air from the Sahara desert.

While at the La Mamounia I met a local couple that shared my fascination in leather goods and invited me to their house for dinner. Their names were Said and Damiya. Always looking to spend time with the locals I jumped at the opportunity. A couple days later they picked me up at the La Mamounia and we went on the hour drive. This included an excellent tour of the city from a couple people that seemed to know everything. I learned a great deal from them.

Prior to going to their house, I did some research on typical food in Marrakech so I might be more prepared for whatever they decided to serve, since they told me it would be “a surprise”. I got a lot of information from this site, however I was still not prepared for what she served. It started with something called pigeon b’stilla which is a type of layered pie with a crunchy crust followed by a lamb shoulder that took all day to cook. It was absolutely mouthwatering. While alcohol is frowned upon in much of the region, they served a beer that went perfectly with the meal. I believe it was called Flag Speciale, a nice full bodied pilsner.

Afterwards we retired to their den where there was a table full of olives, nuts, and wine to cap off the night. As the evening went on, Damiya spilled her wine onto their beautiful Persian Rug. We scrambled to get it cleaned up but she did not have the supplies I am used to seeing. She seemed upset so I called my friend Tammy who owns a residential and commercial cleaning company in Richmond Va. to get her advice. She spoke with Damiya to find out what she had handy and they were able to concoct a cleaning agent from the household supplies available. It didn’t do a great job but was the best possible outcome given the situation.

Anyway, I highly recommend Marrakech to anyone who loves Middle Eastern culture and food. It is a wonderful area rich in color, beautiful old architecture, friendly people, and lots to do.