Back in June, I wrote a travel story about visiting the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., after purchasing an annual pass good for the entire year.
My intention at the time was to go at least once during each of the four seasons and chronicle my experiences. Unfortunately, though, the busyness of life interfered and I missed the pretty maple trees and any leaves that turned on the grounds this fall.
In fact, I did not make it back to Biltmore until recent days, when I went on the candlelight Christmas evening tour.
Although I had been to Biltmore two or three other times during the Christmas season in the 10 or so visits I have made over the last 30 years, this was my first candlelight tour. And it actually is not covered in my pass, so I had to purchase an additional $59 ticket for it.
However, I still had a great time wandering through the halls and seeing the Biltmore home in an even more romantic setting than normal and listening to the musicians performing or singing Christmas carols.
I also had a pretty good time the whole weekend. My wife, Laura, and I had planned for several months to meet her two brothers and their wives, so we secured a cabin in the nice, cozy and simple Willow Winds complex only two or three miles from the Biltmore entrance.
After eating supper at a Tupelo Honey Café that Friday night on Hendersonville Road, I arose the next morning and attempted to jog off at least part of the meal on a nice trail behind our ridge-side cabin.
I was having a simply delightful time enjoying the scenery and trying to beat the coming rain before I heard a loud rustle or two in the woods ahead of me. I looked about 75 to 100 yards beyond where I was and what did I see but a black bear.
Or was it a large, fallen tree trunk? To be honest, I did not give myself a chance to figure out, as I quickly took off running back in the other direction like a moonshiner of old fleeing the law.
I decided to stay within 100 yards or so of my cabin while looking around for a possible bear, who might have been simply craving some Tupelo honey, if the Winnie the Pooh stories are correct.
I am not completely positive I saw a bear, but I am at least 50 percent sure I did.
That afternoon, we went to the shops of the quaint town of Black Mountain a short distance away before going into Biltmore.
We had made reservations for the buffet dinner at the Deer Park Restaurant inside the grounds and heartily ate away. The cost was $39 apiece plus drinks (in my case, a sweet tea with lemon), but it was overall quite delicious.
After the salad, my filled-up plate included turkey and dressing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, green beans and black-eyed peas together, cauliflower, a sampling of chicken soup, and some good dinner rolls.
I liked it all, even the more Yankee-style dressing. If I could have changed anything, I would have made the cranberry sauce a little sweeter.
After I enjoyed a chocolate mousse-like pudding with whipped cream and another small velvet cake-flavored cheesecake, we raced off the mile or two drive through the estate to get to the Biltmore House for our tour.
Actually, lumbered might be a better word than raced for me after being so full. Needless to say, I was moving more slowly than when the supposed bear was spotted.
After parking and climbing aboard the shuttle bus, we were treated to some commentary from a man whose positive attitude was as soothing as the aesthetics of the estate setting. He was the perfect host and shared with us a few tips about visiting Biltmore.
The retired-age man also mentioned that when he went through training, he was told that Biltmore was a home, not a mansion or castle, and he certainly gave it that aura with his down-to-Earth comments.
As we exited the bus into the chilly and foggy night air in front of the house after a day of rain, I told him I appreciated his upbeat attitude.
We then stood for just a moment or two in a line of several dozen people waiting to go inside the house at 15-minute intervals.
With the number of people all going in at once, it was slow moving during the first three or four rooms, but it was not a hindrance. We were entertained by several music groups singing or playing in the winter garden in the center of the home, as well as on other floors.
In fact, since I had been to Biltmore several times before, I might have enjoyed just standing and listening to one of the groups perform for 15 or 20 minutes instead of just the minute or two I did while moving past them.
But since I was in a group of six, I continued on the tour.
It was certainly nice seeing all the Christmas decorations, particularly the giant Fraser fir in the main dining room. Biltmore actually uses two trees during the holiday season for freshness, and had just replaced the previous one in that room.
I had also read in a newspaper story that a University of Tennessee graduate is in charge of decorations, but I did not see any subtle signs of orange!
I enjoyed the candlelight tour greatly, but in an honest appraisal, I probably did not get a whole lot more of the holiday romance than I would have just by taking a Christmastime tour during normal daytime hours. Of course, the music was nice.
I also had erroneously assumed that the vast majority of the decorations would be natural, but I believe they used plenty of artificial decorations. Of course, I am not sure how practical or easy it is to use natural decorations everywhere.
Regardless, this grand old dame of a home – not mansion -- looked even more beautiful than she normally does.
I look forward to going back in late winter or early spring and also examining more closely before my pass expires some of the grounds away from any buildings.
At least that is my intention!