Sunday, October 30, 2011

Hilton Head, Alligators, and Civil War Ruins

We traveled from Asheville to Hilton Head, South Carolina.  October is a great time to visit the island, while it is far less frenetic than during the summer high season, when the normal population of 50,000 swells to a crowd of 300,000.  Writing about the popular golf courses or great restaurants would be easy, but that's not what makes Hilton Head special.  The magic happens when you turn off a main road and drive slowly along a two-lane strip beneath the stout limbs of Live Oak trees shrouded in shimmering Spanish moss.  Or, even better, when you amble along a quiet path and crest the sand dunes as the vast blueness of the Atlantic envelopes you. 

Saw dolphins feeding behind these shrimp boats while at lunch at the Crazy Crab

My beloved Low Country

Commercial docks on the North side by several restaurants

Looks exactly like Botswana, except there were Elephants in the water in Africa!

 Looks lovely, but don't touch, there may be Gators in that water!

Live Oaks and Spanish Moss

The first breath of that salt air slows your pace as you shuffle through the soft sand of the dunes and onto the wide expanse of firm beach left behind by the receding tide.  Seagulls drift, floating wisps of white against the azul sky, and tiny crabs scurry into shallow pools that gleam in the sunlight.  Children frolic, contented dogs trot by their masters, fathers teach sons to cast a line.  Yet it's possible to walk alone, lost in the comfort of your own thoughts. 

Michael and Max watching the kite surfers

An evening stroll, with the wind whipping waves into swirls of white, brings something else spectacular: a dark canvas set with countless diamonds of brilliant stars.  There is little ambient light to interfere with the panorama and no better ending to a day than resting in the sand and staring at the endless sky above.

Our house, not far from the ocean, is nestled against one of the lagoons that wind through more than twelve miles of Hilton Head.  Our first morning there, while walking our small puppy, Max, I stood near the water's edge and something caught my eye.  A something that moved slowly and dipped beneath the surface.  I returned to the house, grabbed a flashlight and camera, and--without the puppy--returned.  As the rising sun brought the morning into focus, I watched as a five-foot alligator broke the surface and slithered through the water.  Linda came outside, watched the creature's powerful tail undulate, and compared the size of its snout to Max.  She advised me that we would not be taking the canoe out this trip. 

There are several great day trips that can be taken from HH, including visits to Charleston and Savannah.  Both are great, but for a slower pace check out Daufuskie Island or the Old Sheldon Church ruins and the town of Beaufort. 

Strolling towards Savannah's Forsyth Square

Rose Hill Plantation

Old Sheldon Church Ruins

Arranging a guided boat tour to Daufuskie is well worth the effort.  The island retains vestiges of the Gullah people, enslaved African-Americans whose language and traditions were influenced by West and Central African cultures.  As the barrier islands have become far more accessible over the last several decades the Gullah traditions have eroded, but efforts have been undertaken to preserve this unique aspect of American  history.  The island itself is worth a visit, motoring about in a golf cart along dirt roads and paths that wind around beautiful beaches, oak forests draped with that magical Spanish moss, and isolated settlements.  A bar near the dock is notable for maintaining a huge pet pig that rumbles between tables hustling scraps and beer.

Approaching Daufuskie ("da fust kay" in Gullah)

The main dock you land at

The bar, Marshside Mama's, by the dock

Island Library

Haunted Gullah cemetery

Tabby ruins

First Union African Baptist Church

School Pat Conroy (Prince of Tides) taught at this school
Someone still lives here

Silver Dew Winery (closed)

Back to Harbor Town

The Old Sheldon Church ruins, near Beaufort, are definitely worth a visit.  The church was burned twice, first during the Revolutionary War and again during the Civil War.  The large plot of land, graced with ancient oaks and incredibly long blankets of Spanish moss, is dotted with graves over one hundred years old.  The ruins rise like a sepia-toned photograph, something that calls out from the past and evokes a sense of wonder about what happened here.  Little imagination is needed to picture the flames bursting through now empty windows or to wonder at the horror of the parishioners who first witnessed the smoldering ruins.  The church is a place of melancholy beauty.  One warning, bring your strongest mosquito spray.  They are small and vicious.
Shelden Church ruins

Haunting, but...

bring your strongest bug spray!!!!!

After viewing the ruins, we stopped in Beaufort for lunch.  A quiet town with antebellum mansions and a quaint downtown, Beaufort has a nice park lined with sheltered benches facing the Intra-Coastal Waterway.  Find a restaurant that serves seafood--the shrimp and oysters are fresh-caught in the morning--and gaze across the Intra-Coastal while nursing a cold beer.  Not a bad way to spend a day--or several.

<div style='text-align:center;font-size:11px;font-family:arial;font-weight:normal;margin:10px;padding:0;line-height:normal'><a href='' style='border:none'><img src='' style='width:102px;height:20px;border:none;margin:0;padding:0'><br>Hilton Head on Dwellable</a></div>

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Biltmore Estate--an American Castle

Rising up from the rolling green hills of the lush North Carolina countryside is the largest private residence in America, the Biltmore Estate.  Constructed by George Vanderbilt, son of the legendary entrepreneur Cornelius Vanderbilt, perhaps nothing better exemplifies turn of the century opulence.  Originally situated on 125,000 acres, the four-story mansion boasts over 175,000 square feet, 250 rooms--including 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces--and a stunning collection of furniture and artwork.  The largest room in the home, the Banquet Hall, is alone 72 feet long, 42 feet wide, and housed beneath a gleaming 70-foot-high barrel vaulted ceiling.  The square footage of this room alone, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling?  Over 6,000.
Cornelia, the daughter of George, used to swim in the fountain as a little girl.

The gardens by the Conservatory.

Unfortunately, interior photos are not permitted, but photographs of the mansion and formal gardens (of which there are more than 77 acres) convey some sense of the atmosphere of the property.  Completed in 1895 (when George Vanderbilt was 33 years old), the Biltmore had electric power--the consultant was one Thomas Edison--which allowed for amenities such as elevators and refrigerators.  All bedrooms had water closets, but were also equipped with chamberpots because some guests were reluctant to use the new-fangled toilets.  Recreational facilities included a 70,000 gallon swimming pool, bowling alley, and gymnasium. 
Max discovers the Koi pond!

One of 3 Koi ponds right below the drive.

View of the mountains from the Loggia surrounded by sculptures.

Trellis Walk leading to the formal gardens by the Conservatory.

If you look carefully you can see the flower dragonflies in the center of the beds in front of the Conservatory.

Much of the original acreage of the estate became the foundation for the Pisgah National Forest, with 8,000 acres reserved for the estate.  The property now includes a winery, hotel accommodations, and restaurant facilities.  The Biltmore Company, controlled by members of the Biltmore family, operates the estate and other facilities.  During our visit, we stayed in Asheville, North Carolina, a charming town imbued with a college-town atmosphere (primarily the University of North Carolina at Asheville) and teeming with an array of restaurants, galleries, bars and shops. 

Front of the Inn.

Courtyard behind the Inn with a charming garden and dog sculpture that tinkles on a rock when you walk past.  Max loved it!

Our lovely bedroom.

The garden behind our room.  Max loved running up and down this little hill.

Our dream coach.
We stayed at the gracious 1900 Inn on Montford, a B&B operated with enthusiasm and care by a lovely couple who make certain that you feel right at home.  From cocktails shared at 6:00 with other guests, to dining recommendations and shopping suggestions, they make a great effort to satisfy every request.  We stayed in the pet-friendly Rossetti Suite, with heated floors, a large whirlpool tub, and a private garden.  The ambiance was refined and relaxing.  When we checked in, even our puppy, Max, was given a special treat embossed with his name.  The in-room breakfasts were fantastic and, on Saturday evening, we were chauffeured to dinner in a beautifully restored eighties-era Rolls Royce.  I nestled into the dark leather seat and felt, for a small sliver of time, that I lived the life of George Vanderbilt.

Well, not really.  That came later, after the martinis.