“The Polar Express and Other Train Rides with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad” (By: Michele Babcock-Nice)

Our First Ride on the Polar Express with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, Bryson City, North Carolina, December 2012

Our First Ride on the Polar Express with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, Bryson City, North Carolina, December 2012

For the past seven years, my family has enjoyed many rides on the trains of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (“GSMR”).  During those years, my family has ridden the trains for different events on approximately seven occasions.  Each occasion has been wonderful and memorable, and our enjoyment of each event, as well as the consistently friendly service, kindness, and professionalism of the GSMR staff keeps us coming back for more! 

My Son Happily Meeting Santa Claus on The Polar Express, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, Bryson City, North Carolina, December 2012

My Son Happily Meeting Santa Claus on The Polar Express, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, Bryson City, North Carolina, December 2012

Our previous rides with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad have included several to the Halloween Pumpkin Patch to visit Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and Lucy, as well as a couple of rides on the Thomas the Tank Engine Train, about which I will describe further on in this article.  This time, during the current month of December, my family experienced The Polar Express for the first time!  And, what a wonderful and exciting ride it was, indeed.  It was especially memorable; and we have the GSMR Vice President/General Manager to personally thank for our great experience on this ride.

Santa Claus Speaking with Children on The Polar Express, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, Bryson City, North Carolina, December 2012

Santa Claus Speaking with Children on The Polar Express, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, Bryson City, North Carolina, December 2012

On our Polar Express ride, we were served chocolate chip cookies and hot chocolate by the friendly chefs; the children met and spoke with Santa Claus, who was accompanied by his #1 Elf, Brandon; and everyone sang Christmas carols on the way back to Bryson City from our stop to board Santa Claus at the North Pole.  An audio storytelling of The Polar Express book was read to children.  And, children also had the opportunity to march back and forth in the aisles with the chefs as they all pretended to be a train.  My son immediately jumped at the chance to participate in the imaginary train, and all those children who took part had a wonderful time.

My Son with his Silver Jingle Bell and Roundtrip Ticket on The Polar Express, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, Bryson City, North Carolina, December 2012

My Son with his Silver Jingle Bell and Roundtrip Ticket on The Polar Express, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, Bryson City, North Carolina, December 2012

Each child on the train personally received a special “silver” jingle bell from Santa Claus; and they also had their unique Polar Express Roundtrip tickets humorously hole-punched many times by the Conductor.  My son held onto that special roundtrip ticket for his entire ride, not even setting it down for a moment.  Once he received the silver jingle bell from Santa Claus, he also maintained that on his person for quite some time.  The Polar Express was a wonderful experience for my family, and made quite a happy, memorable impression upon my son, who, no doubt, will ride it again in the future.

My Son at the Halloween Pumpkin Patch with Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and Lucy in Whittier, North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, October 2012

My Son at the Halloween Pumpkin Patch with Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and Lucy in Whittier, North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, October 2012

On four occasions throughout the years, my family has ridden on the GSMR Halloween Pumpkin Patch Train Ride.  Each experience has been happy, wonderful, and memorable, particularly due to the fun Halloween atmosphere that the rail company creates for it’s riders.  On the ride to the Pumpkin Patch, an audio storytelling of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is played for the children.  Once the train arrives at the Pumpkin Patch, Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and Lucy are waiting to great the children. 

My Son at the Halloween Pumpkin Patch in Whittier, North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, October 2010

My Son at the Halloween Pumpkin Patch in Whittier, North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, October 2010

Then, the kids have the opportunity to participate in many activities, such as going on a hay ride, roasting marshmallows, jumping on inflatables, using a bobber to get an apple, playing fun Halloween games, eating Halloween cookies, playing checkers, going Trick-or-Treating in a makeshift neighborhood, and other memorable experiences.  Again, every ride and event is sure to remain in one’s memory as a wonderful and lasting experience.

About to Enjoy a ride on the Thomas the Tank Engine Train, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, Bryson City, North Carolina, July 2010

About to Enjoy a ride on the Thomas the Tank Engine Train, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, Bryson City, North Carolina, July 2010

Two of the GSMR train rides that my family has enjoyed have also included those on the Thomas the Tank Engine Train.  The first of these rides for my son was when he was three years old – and this was also our very first of many outstanding rides and events enjoyed with the GSMR throughout the past seven years.

My Son with Sir Topham Hat, Day Out With Thomas, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, Bryson City, North Carolina, July 2010

My Son with Sir Topham Hat, Day Out With Thomas, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, Bryson City, North Carolina, July 2010

Of course, I had to buy a train whistle for my son, as well as a “Day Out With Thomas” pennant, and a couple of other souvenirs.  We were also able to get pictures with Sir Topham Hat, Thomas’ railway manager.  That was a real treat, especially because it was an extremely hot day, and Sir Topham Hat was roasting, even while getting photographed in a shady spot.

We are so thankful to have happened upon the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad many years ago, and that we have been able to experience and enjoy the many train rides and events offered by the railroad, with those included in this article being only a few.  All of the trains are well-maintained and are staffed by caring, professional people, making it a joy to ride every time.  Bryson City is also a pleasant and beautiful locale with breath-taking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Great Smokies.  The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad can be found online at www.gsmr.com.  Check out and experience their outstanding train rides today!

“The Biltmore, Decorated for Christmas” (By: Michele Babcock-Nice)

Visiting the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, December 2012

Visiting the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, December 2012

The amazing and impressive Biltmore Estate, in Asheville, North Carolina, served as the residence of George Washington Vanderbilt II and his family; and is known as America’s Largest Home.  Nestled into 100s of acres of woods – known as Biltmore Forest – with picturesque views of the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounding it, the Biltmore House is more akin to a royal castle, and is filled with many beautiful and exquisite materialistic reflections of enormously-wealthy Americans of the 1800s.

Nativity Scene at The Biltmore, December 2012

Nativity Scene at The Biltmore, December 2012

In all, I have visited The Biltmore on three occasions, having enjoyed viewing all of the Christmas decorations there twice.  Our visit this month was a surprise for my son who is extremely impressed with this majestic and astounding home.  Experiencing the festive and holiday atmosphere of this gigantic house is very memorable, what with the 57 Christmas trees throughout the home, as well as all of the lights, pointsettias, the nativity scene, and other decorations. 

At the Main Entrance to The Biltmore House, December 2012

At the Main Entrance to The Biltmore House, December 2012

The expense to visit the home is considerable, and thus, the reason that we have not visited often.  Photographs by visitors are also not permitted, and the staff is quick to make a fuss about it.  However, I captured a few memories of our visit, some of which are reflected within this article.  After all, the visit is much more pleasant if one is able to take with them some personal, photo mementos.  It would definitely make the visit more pleasant if visitors could take pictures, especially since the staff desires to photograph every visitor and sell the pricey photos to them as souvenirs.

Holiday Scene at The Biltmore, December 2012

Holiday Scene at The Biltmore, December 2012

In all for this visit, my son and I spent about four hours at The Biltmore, with two hours spent touring it’s several floors and many rooms.  We always enjoy seeing the great dining room with it’s high ceiling, beautiful artwork and furniture, and wonderful artifacts.  The library is always an impressive room with it’s many books, stacked within numerous shelves that it takes a ladder to a balcony-type level to reach at least half of them. 

At the Main Entrance to The Biltmore House, December 2012

A Christmas tree at The Biltmore, December 2012

The basement area that houses the bowling alley and former indoor swimming pool – as well as the kitchen and other areas, including sleeping quarters of maids and butlers – is also very interesting and neat to view. 

Partial View of the Indoor, Unused Swimming Pool at The Biltmore, December 2012

Partial View of the Indoor, Unused Swimming Pool at The Biltmore, December 2012

Walking throughout the home, we enjoyed viewing how it has been maintained and how areas of it have been restored, particularly those areas that involve cloth on the walls and reupholstering of the furniture.  It is great to see that those experts who care for The Biltmore have so closely-matched new upholstering to the original fabrics and patterns.

Doll and Doll Carriage at The Biltmore, December 2012

Doll and Doll Carriage at The Biltmore, December 2012

There are so many artifacts and various works of art, sculpture, statues, clocks, dolls, furniture pieces, tapestries, and other wonderful items to view at The Biltmore that, not only could one consider it an American palace, but also a museum fit for royalty. 

An Artifact in The Biltmore, December 2012

An Artifact in The Biltmore, December 2012

One can buy many books that document and record the countless artifacts with which The Biltmore is outfitted, however it is quite another wonderful experience to personally experience them.  Seeing and experiencing the many, many equisitely-fine pieces truly takes the visitor back to the time of the Vanderbilts, to only dream of contemplating their wealthy, powerful, and influential lifestyle.

Enjoying Some Artwork in The Biltmore, December 2012

Enjoying Some Artwork in The Biltmore, December 2012

With the many rooms of The Biltmore, as well as it’s many staircases – either winding, wide, or narrow – and it’s long hallways, one might easily become pleasantly lost in a maze of architectural and artistic brilliance. 

At a Beautiful Spiral Staircase, Spanning Four Floors, in The Biltmore, December 2012

At a Beautiful Spiral Staircase, Spanning Four Floors, in The Biltmore, December 2012

If it took us at least two hours to tour the home, without being plugged in to the audio devices, imagine how everything might be even more appreciated and valued by the beholder during a longer visit.  Each time that I visit The Biltmore, so much is both familiar and unfamiliar, with some items seeming as though I am viewing them for the first time, particularly since there is such a vast quantity of beautiful and impressive works within the home.

A Third Floor Room in The Biltmore, December 2012

A Third Floor Room in The Biltmore, December 2012

Next to The Biltmore House is The Stable Restaurant; an outdoor eating area; an area to purchase hot dogs, drinks, and pizza; and a number of intimate gift shops that are very crowded with shoppers during the holiday season. 

A Nativity Scene Available for Purchase at The Biltmore Christmas Store, December 2012

A Nativity Scene Available for Purchase at The Biltmore Christmas Store, December 2012

To buy are gifts galore, including a wide array of souvenirs to clothing to toys to nativity scenes to jewelry, and so much more.  The shops are decked out so festively that they are also wonderful places in which to take photos, more of which will follow in this article.

My Son in the Candy Store at The Biltmore, December 2012

My Son in the Candy Store at The Biltmore, December 2012

In all, we did very well in keeping to our budget by only spending about $20 on three souvenirs, all of which were for my son.  One cannot go into a gift shop or souvenir store and not purchase anything, especially for a child! 

Christmas Decorations and Candy in The Biltmore Candy Store, December 2012

Christmas Decorations and Candy in The Biltmore Candy Store, December 2012

However, it was difficult on our tight budget not to spend money in the Candy Store, what with all of the lovely chocolates, maple sugar candy, and luscious sweets!

My Son in a Christmas Gift Shop at The Biltmore, December 2012

My Son in a Christmas Gift Shop at The Biltmore, December 2012

Admittedly, with my favorite occasion and holiday being that of Christmas, it was also difficult not to spend money on the many festive holiday items and gifts for sale in the Christmas Shop.  It is, however, easier not to spend money when one does not have it.

A Festively-Decorated Christmas Tree in the Christmas Shop at The Biltmore, December 2012

A Festively-Decorated Christmas Tree in the Christmas Shop at The Biltmore, December 2012

Another must-see shop at The Biltmore – particularly for my son – was the Toy Store.  Chock full of toys upon toys was the fabulous Biltmore Toy Store.  There are unique toys, gifts, and gadgets for every child, including those that bring back memories of days gone by. 

Holiday Toys at The Biltmore Toy Store, December 2012

Holiday Toys at The Biltmore Toy Store, December 2012

Perhaps the biggest display of dolls that I have ever seen – besides that of my own mother – is that at The Biltmore Toy Store.  There are many lovely dolls and various other toys that one can buy there.

Some of the Dolls that are on Display at The Biltmore Toy Store, December 2012

Some of the Dolls that are on Display at The Biltmore Toy Store, December 2012

The Biltmore Estate also boasts fantastic gardens and a winery on it’s vast acreage, however we did not get to either place on this visit.  Experiencing a wet and rainy day, as well as having to travel back to the Atlanta area in Georgia from Asheville, North Carolina, we could only aford a few short hours on our weekend to enjoy the fabulous Biltmore.  Hopefully, on future occasions when we may have more time, we will be able to take in even more of the wonders of the Biltmore Estate.  Though we were set back by about $100 for this short visit, it was worth the exciting holiday surprise for my son who absolutely loves this luxurious, incredible historic home!