Merry Christmas

As I type this my husband is in awe that I am writing a blog post. I have neglected my duties as a blogger but I’m ready to change that in the new year. I enjoy writing and photography and this blog is a way for me to showcase both of those things. It’s also an excuse to get out and try new restaurants and activities.You can look forward to lots of reviews and other posts in the new year. I might even attempt Project 365.

In the meantime, have a very Merry Christmas. Be kind to yourself and those around you. Remember that love came down at Christmas to give us hope and set us free. Thank you Lord for the best Christmas gift of all.

Smoky Mountain Christmas, no not the movie

Smoky Mountain ChristmasWith posts about Christmas in Asheville and the Upstate, I suppose we can consider this the third of my merry trifecta.

Earlier this month, my parents invited me to go along with them for a little getaway in the Smoky Mountains. Our little trip turned out to be a great time filled with old favorites and some fun new experiences.

We rolled into Sevierville/Pigeon Forge around lunch on Saturday and headed to The Partridge and The Pear Tree for lunch. This restaurant is part of The Incredible Christmas Place complex. Mom and I selected this place after viewing the menu online. We had high hopes but given the holiday theme, I was just a little afraid the food might suffer to bend to the kitschy theme.  Thankfully, I was wrong about that. The restaurant didn’t seem tacky at all. The decorators seemed to understand that you would have diners in December and July and they showed appropriate restraint. The food was tasty. The meal starts with a loaf of hot cranberry orange bread. YUMMM!! Mom had the blacked catfish. It was spicy and didn’t taste of fish – yeah, I wrote it but you don’t like fishy-fish either so quit snickering at me. Dad had a large salad with lots of veggies and the boxing day sandwich which is basically a leftover sandwich – turkey, cornbread dressing, and cranberry mayo. He enjoyed it but said that he might order something else the next time. I had the Cuban with ” ‘Tis the Season” fries. My sandwich was very flavorful and filling. I only ate half because I was in love with the fries. These are crispy white-and-sweet potato fries are seasoned with salt and cracked black pepper.  I hate sweet potato fries but these were awesome. We were very tempted by the cakes, including a five-layer sampler where each layer is a different flavor but we were good. I doubt the same restraint would be shown on a repeat visit.

Later that evening we walked off some of our dinner during a visit to The Old Mill in Pigeon Forge. We enjoyed window shopping, a cup of coffee from the ice cream parlor (no ice cream, we were angels that day really) and sampling in the Farm House Kitchen shop.

The next day we made the drive over to Gatlinburg for strolling around and the Trolley Ride of Lights. At my urging, we made a stop at Karmelkorn soon after arriving. Not only does Karmelkorn make wonderful popcorn, it also brings back lots of happy memories. Honestly, if someone could find a way to get me one of their popcorn “suckers” made from colored, sticky popcorn with sugar eyes and a red licorice smile, I might explode from happiness.

In an effort to keep me from inhaling my entire box of popcorn, we walked down to the Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen. This is the spot to get taffy in Gatlinburg, even the local bears prefer it. I have spent hours watching taffy production in Gatlinburg during my lifetime and I doubt I’ll ever grow tired of it. In addition to the husband’s taffy (cherry, vanilla, grape), we also picked up some yummy handmade sugar-free chocolates.

Our wondering landed us at All Sauced Up, a newer shop specializing in all kinds of sauces, jams, and gadgets. They have lots of samples. It’s definitely worth visiting.

We made a few other stops and then it was time to board our trolley to see the Christmas lights. The fare is $5 and seems well worth it for the amount of fun we had. We all sang carols and learned little tidbits about the festivities and the area. For instance, Gatlinburg switched to LED lights a few years ago and while the initial investment was steep, the city is saving a lot of money on electricity. The lighting features in Gatlinburg were designed by locals and are all trademarked so you won’t see them anywhere else. If you want to see the lights, make reservations for the trolley using the site above. Pigeon Forge also has lights but they do not run light tours on the weekends.

It was a great little trip and I’m thankful for the opportunity to go. I enjoyed being in a place with so many happy memories with the two people who are responsible for a lot of them.


The accidental Christmas parade or our new home for the holidays

A friend asked if I felt that my brain cells were dying off during this period of unemployment. I answered with a polite “no,” realizing that this person doesn’t understand what a challenge it can be to get adjusted to a new town, rock the household stuff, and look for a job. I’ve also got a library card and an appetite for really thick historical non-fiction so, again I say “no, my brain is doing just fine.”

I must admit that my brain isn’t concerned about the actual calendar date like it was when I was working outside the home. I know what day it is, but the date – not so much. It’s for this reason that we wound up going to dinner in downtown Greenville on the same night as the Christmas parade. I was pretty sure that the parade was on December 3 (which it was) and that December 3 was a Friday (no, nope not at all.)

We drove down to the West End to eat at Smoke On the Water (more on this later) and quickly realized that the parade is indeed the same night. We found a parking spot, with just a little difficulty, and decided to make a full night of it.

First for dinner, Smoke On the Water, “a saucy Southern tavern,” specializes in burgers, smoked entrees, and barbecue.  The atmosphere is relaxed and modern-rustic. Our server was fast and helpful. Before our meals were served, we were treated to cornbread and brought a variety of bbq sauces. While Mr. McB found the sweet sauce to be his favorite, I went for the thin peppery sauce that was a bit like Tabasco. Neither of us were overly fond of the mustard-black pepper sauce but agreed that it was an interesting spin on the Carolina mustard sauce. I thought it could help clear the sinuses.

McB had the bbq chicken sandwich. He was pleased with the saucy, grilled breast that was topped with melted cheese. We were both quite pleased with his fries. I don’t know what’s happening, but I’m becoming a fry-thief and these were definitely worth taking.

I had the “home plate” which featured three side dishes of my choice. I selected the baked beans, squash casserole, and loaded potato cake. The baked beans were sweet and spicy; I’m almost positive that there were a few bits of jalapeno in the dish. The squash casserole was good but since it contained red peppers, something I wasn’t expecting, I had to pick around those pieces. For that reason alone, I probably wouldn’t order it again. I’ve saved the best for last with the loaded potato cake. The cake was made from mashed potatoes blended with something both creamy and tangy. It was then breaded with panko and deep-fried before being finished with a sour cream sauce and chives. That was a little lump of heaven. It melted in my mouth, my big smiling mouth.

Our meals were reasonable and we felt full but not miserable as we made our way from the restaurant and out to explore before the parade began. Our first stop was The Cook’s Station.  It’s a local, high-end culinary store. They have beautiful things including some dream kitchen setups and lots of nifty gadgets. We had lots of fun looking around. The husband made a mental note that if the bank account is drained, I may have blown it all there.

We continued to stroll around until we found a spot for parade viewing. The night was warm and we enjoyed the people watching before things got started. The parade itself was lots of fun. There were bands, floats, cute little kids, several Grinches, Storm Troopers, Santa and everything else you could expect from a Christmas parade.

After the show was over, we continued up to The Chocolate Moose for a treat. We were dismayed to see the mess that folks left behind on the street and sidewalks.  The pizza boxes, bottles, cups, napkins, and other rubbish were all contrary to the civic pride of the parade. Once inside the cupcake shop, we grabbed a seat and enjoyed delicious, rich cupcakes (black-and-white for him, black bottom for me) and fresh coffee that really hit the spot.

As we made our way toward the car, we made a quick stop at Ice on Main and the Christmas tree. Despite the fact that the ice wasn’t optimal for skating, everyone seemed to be having a good time including the guys in shorts.

Just this past Sunday, we decided to add another Upstate Christmas tradition to our holiday celebration and headed to see the Roper Mountain Lights. The fee is $10 per car and proceeds go to the Roper Mountain Science Center and several educational charities. They also offer a deal on three admissions for $21 which would be perfect if you are expecting company during the holiday season. In addition to the drive-through features, there is a walk-through Winter Wonderland where you can sit on Santa’s lap and roast marshmallows though not at the same time.

We enjoyed both parts of the attraction. After roasting (and eating) marshmallows, we saw the large boards that were decorated by various local schools. There was a lot of creativity and good use of recycled materials in many of these displays.

The drive-through features were quite nice as well. I thought the big caterpillar near the butterfly garden was especially cute. Our only complaint is that you don’t get a good view of the majestic star at the top of the mountain.

I hope to repeat both of these holiday traditions in 2012. I can’t wait to add new experiences to the repertoire too, as long as we still get to go to The Chocolate Moose that is.




Christmas in Asheville

While I love the Upstate on its own merits, its proximity to Asheville, NC only adds to my affection. Asheville is one of the prettiest and most quirky cities in all of creation. It’s known for both Biltmore and bohemians – think of it as the oddly peaceful intersection of high-class and hippy.

When Mr. McB had to take a few vacation days in early December, it seemed like a great time to head north to visit Asheville. Biltmore was the big priority for the trip. We wanted to purchase annual passes and see the estate’s gorgeous Christmas decorations. After doing a little research, we added a stop at the Grove Park Inn to view the National Gingerbread House Competition, a large annual event hosted at the hotel.

Fearing that our hunger might cause us to assault a gingerbread man, we started the day with a big breakfast before hitting the road.

Despite the fog, the trip was smooth and easy. I will take this opportunity to remind everyone that you really should turn on your headlights (normal, no high-beams) when driving in the fog. The GPS gave us a little trouble but eventually we made it.

The Grove Park is lovely, but can be a little hard to navigate. Even with the pamphlet and map, it took us a little while to fully understand the layout and location of the many gingerbread creations. It was a minor bother as we both enjoyed tooling around the property and the staff were quite happy to allow you to do so.

The entries were all amazing in their own way. While the children’s categoryGingerbread WalMart didn’t have fancy and flawless techniques, the creativity and enthusiasm couldn’t be missed. Each creation represented a good deal of effort and thought and we enjoyed admiring them all.

On the day of our visit, the 2011 winner was in New York City as part of a GMA taping. A few visitors were upset by this but the Grove Park’s site clearly explains this possibility and the “substitute” was an amazing box of ornaments. Gingerbread competition entry

After we saw all the entries (or so we think, again the setup is a bit confusing), we hit the road for Biltmore. Our visit began at the ticket center where we purchased annual passes for just $29 more than the daily admission.  This was cheaper than the price advertised on the web – yippee! As someone who both worked at a membership organization and held memberships to cultural attractions, I was very impressed by the membership materials. Our cards have our photo so we never have to show a membership card and license. If we lose the card, we pay $2 – the hard cost to have it remade. Take note Columbus Zoo, members feel bad about losing their cards, you don’t have to make it worse by charging a big fee to make a new one. Biltmore EstateThe thing that impressed me most was the special toll-free number for pass-holder services. We even got a little magnet with the number. It was an easy way to make your valued customers feel appreciated.

We have been to Biltmore before but never at Christmas. I had some idea of what to expect but as soon as we turned the corner and saw the first magnificent tree in the billiard room, I knew the experience would far exceed my expectations. Each room had gorgeous holiday decorations. Photos are not allowed so alas, I cannot share the beauty of these trees. I can say that having a professional bow maker on staff would be a great benefit.

the "back yard" at BiltmoreWe spent a good deal of time on the breezeway. This is one of my favorite spots. On this day we relaxed in the large, comfortable chairs while watching a rafter of wild turkeys (yes, rafter – thanks Google!) strut around the edge of the massive lawn.

yummy ice cream treatsAfter another hour of enjoying the house, we remembered just how big it is and just how easy it is to go from mildly hungry to “low blood sugar – I’m going to pass out.” In an effort to avoid an accident and general grouchiness, we zoomed through the servants’ quarters and headed over to the former stables to grab a bite. We staved off hunger with a stop at the ice cream parlor and then hit the road in hopes of beating the rain and making the best use of our remaining daylight. We didn’t beat the rain but we made it home safely with many happy memories of the day. I suspect that Christmas in Asheville will become a regular part of our December routine.

Here’s the breakdown:
Grove Park InnGrove Park Inn
290 Macon Ave.  
Asheville, NC 28804
Admission to the National Gingerbread House Competition is free. The parking fee starts at $5 for up to three hours in the garage.
– Visit the website as viewing is limited to guests on certain days.
– The Grove Park Inn is a great place to explore even without the gingerbread. Take some time to look around.

entry lion at BiltmoreBiltmore Estate
1 Lodge Street
Asheville, NC 28803
Daily admission during the holiday season – $64-69 per person
AAA does offer discounted, advance purchase tickets.
Eat before you get to Biltmore. I don’t care if you had breakfast an hour before you arrive, take a snack bar and break it out when you first roll into the main gates. By time you have parked you will have downed the sustenance you need to make it through the house tour.
– Buy a book about the house. The soft back copies are less than $20 and you won’t remember everything you saw if you don’t take the time to pick one up.
– Eat before you sample at the winery. The pours are generous and you’ve already walked off the snack bar so just go ahead and grab a bite before you enjoy the many wonderful vintages available at the estate.