B-Day Part 2: Ruby Falls and The Lost Sea

31 07 2017

Ruby Falls is just a skip away from Rock City, so you can easily see both on the same day and still have time in your day. The Lost Sea is about 1.5 hours away in Sweetwater, TN, and we saw it a couple days later, but since they’re both caverns, thought one post made sense.

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For Ruby Falls, you park right by the building, go in, and buy a ticket (if you haven’t bought a combined one first) and then at your ticket time, take an elevator down into the caverns to wait on your tour to start. The elevator gets a little packed and is really the only way in/out. Most of your journey to the falls looks like this:

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…fairly dark and narrow, but throughout there are some labeled rock formations and come cool lit up rocks.

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We went on a day when a lot of little kids were there on field trips, and the path is only wide enough for one group to go through (single file) at a time, so it was a little annoying having to press up against a rock wall every few minutes and let people through. Also didn’t give us any time to really stop and take pictures, but that’s because the main attraction is the fall itself. When you’re finally there, it opens into this huge cavern – I mean monstrously high – and your group herds in and waits in almost darkness until the “show” starts where lights and sound bring the falls into view:

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Not a single picture even looks 10% as awe-inspiring as this thing really was. The height is incredible. I couldn’t get the whole thing in a single shot. Here’s the top (interestingly, no one is entirely sure where the water flows from):

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…and here’s the bottom of it:

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The lights kept changing color and were beautiful.

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You just can’t even fathom the scope and height of the place without being there.

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It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. Worth it! Go see it!

Now – for The Lost Sea. While still underground, this was completely different in feel. The caverns are much, much wider and roomier, so you’re never squished walking through it, but they also don’t use the colored lights Ruby Falls does, so the place is more natural in color (albeit not as exciting). Still really cool.

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Your tour starts walking down a yellow passageway, above.

You enter into the huge cavern and take a look at some formations before starting your walk to the underground lake. I will say the part at the beginning was a little alarming, because you walk out on this slightly rusty, narrow, metal walkway suspended high over the bottom of the cave.

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The tour guide will point out interesting things, like these living crystals on the ceiling, below:

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…and these charcoal writings done by people in the cave during the civil war and the decades after:

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.. Down, down you go…

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Stopping by a small waterfall:

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And finally down into the dark pit where the sea resides. It was so dark, my camera had trouble focusing, so I had to use flash for some pictures:

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One thing to note, they advertise glass bottom boats, but with the intense darkness of the cave and the cloudiness of the water (which I think was due to recent rain storms), you can’t see anything through the glass.

The group gets in a boat or two which is taken very slowly around the lake – it’s almost silent it’s so slow. The only light comes from these few white lights embedded just under the water line. Every now and then you can see the shadow if a fish swimming around. The below shot was actually really overexposed so you could see some light!

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It was a cool experience, albeit a little creepy. My favorite photo was taken below on the walk out – little scratches people have made on the dark side of an emergency call box:

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Leaving the caves and going into the sun again is a shock:

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As you can see, the rest of the Lost Sea attraction are a group of buildings outdoors that sell some touristy things, have some food and ice cream, and a glass blowing shop. Cute little place! My favorite were the remnants of an old kids’ train ride out back.

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Both cave attractions were fun and worth it, but very different!





B-Day Part 1: Rock City and Fairyland Caverns

25 07 2017

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For the past 3 – 4 years, I’ve made a point to take some time off at my birthday in May and go somewhere fun. This year it was a blast from the past – visiting a place I last saw at age 4: Rock City on Lookout Mountain! Lookout Mountain shares land with both Georgia and Tennessee and is basically right on the edge of Chattanooga.

Rock City was beyond amazing – not a single picture I took begins to do it justice.

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We got there on a Friday close after opening – which I would recommend. It’s great to have it mostly to yourself before the crowds show up.

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At first it was overcast, and the early morning + height and scope of the huge rocks kept in the cool. Everything had a misty, dewey feel.

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The path works its way around and through rocks, taking you up on outcroppings, under and through narrow passageways… it feels like an adventure.

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Look at the scope! Did not have a proper lens for capturing it. What I don’t show here but did take pics of are the cute labels they have for rock formations like “Mushroom Rock” or the little gnomes set up in random places.

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The few animals were a surprise. A couple deer reside here in an enclosure, and wild chipmunks run around everywhere, usually too quickly to get a decent shot, but I did try:

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The waterfall under Lover’s Leap has a couple great “selfie” spots and a rainbow wall (with glass windows in each color of the rainbow) that you can walk behind. Only got cell phone shots there, and they weren’t great.

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At the top-most area is the lookout over 7 states at once. It’s actually a big area with viewing binoculars and a café.  You then make your way down through more bridges and cavern-like areas with cute names:

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My childhood memories revolved around a part of Rock City called Fairyland Caverns, which you wander into near the end of the path:

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It’s definitely a hold over from decades past (mostly the 30s) when these kind of attractions (specifically the dark park and walk through sites) were big. Well, I still thought it was awesome.

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First, the entrance is decked out in all these crystals (see the one peeking out under the plants above?), and the ceiling is embedded with coral.

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You descend down into the cavern which becomes super dark except for little scenes embedded in the walls of gnome life:

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Above, green light illuminates the path behind us. Then finally you get to the main area with fairy tales depicted in individual cave windows. I took a picture for each but will only show a few here.

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Little Red Riding Hood…and Cinderella:

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My favorite was Snow White:

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It concludes in a large room with a huge castle and other fairy tale characters surrounding it.

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Looking back, I wish I’d taken different lenses because the whole attraction was amazing and so different than anything you see anywhere else. Would def recommend. Even better, you can buy joint tickets to Ruby Falls which is practically right around the corner, and coming up next!





Not-So-“Supermoon” Experience

22 11 2016

So apparently, we had a supermoon recently  – the biggest in 60-some years. I tried to meet up with a photo group in Green Cove Springs to attempt some photos of the thing, but the night didn’t turn out quite as planned.

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A photog crowd gathered on the banks by the dock right at sundown. As you can see, a massive cloud cover blocked the night sky. I passed time taking some random pics:

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…a fancy boat across the river, and the gazebo in the park behind me:

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But the night drew on, and still no break in the clouds. So I just started shooting randomly from the tripod.

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And then even more randomly:

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…until we finally had to admit defeat – the moon was not gonna show itself that night. Stupid clouds!

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Right before I packed up, I got a fun shot of a bicycler:

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And that was it! No supermoon. 😦 I did get to see the moon the next night (perfectly clear, of course), but it did not look super! Guess 1 day really makes a difference. Oh well, maybe 18 years from now!





The Tower on Iron Mountain

10 08 2016

Should have titled this “Bok Tower,” but Iron Mountain makes it sound more dramatic! Bok Tower gardens is just south of Orlando and is a beautiful way to spend a few hours on a sunny day. I first and last went in high school, so it’s been quite a while since I’d visited.

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The gardens charges reasonable admission and includes an eatery, visitor center/museum, the gardens themselves, and Bok Tower (which you can look at but can’t actually go into). The area actually *is* on Iron Mountain, which seems like a misnomer if you know anything about Florida (a perpetually flat land), but it really is the highest point in the state. They charge an additional fee if you want to tour Pinewood Estate – more on that later.

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This is the area right by the restaurant and visitor center  – pretty like everything here!

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They’re doing a bit of new construction right now to add some cool stuff: a kids’ area, outdoor kitchen, and an edible garden.

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This is going to be worth another visit when finished! It looks like it nearly is:

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…and the edible garden:

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check out this okra! Now, saying “edible garden”… I don’t think you’re supposed to just pick and eat things, but I anticipate they’ll use this stuff in their outdoor kitchen. Some yummy looking eggplant:

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And look who we found amongst the veggies!

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After that we began exploring gardens. They have some trails and some sections (e.g. wetlands). Ultimately, it’s not a huge area; you can see the tower from several points:

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It’s also not too far to walk to Pinewood Estate:

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Honestly, I didn’t know this was here. We completely missed it on my last visit. If you paid for the admission, you get a ticket and can line up for a tour, about every 15 minutes. The initial portion had a guide but after you can roam around, except you go on a directed path, and there are attendants in most rooms that will give a speech or else be available for questions. Luckily, they do allow photos inside!

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I’m excited they did, as most estate home museums in America don’t.

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I think the docent described it as “Mediterranean Revival” style, but am not sure. I was paying more attention to taking pictures.

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They had this one super narrow staircase that was pretty cool:

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You can walk around outside the house too and see its gardens.

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I read a book that featured a moon garden as a major plot point but had never seen one, so I was excited about this:

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However, they said it was never finished, so I guess I still don’t know what a moon garden really looks like.

After that, it was clouding up so we made a beeline for Bok Tower itself. On the way and leaving Pinewood, we saw some cool trees:

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Winding our way through tree-lined paths, it didn’t take long to reach the tower.

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Truly, a beautiful and unique Florida icon. Its carillon bells ring at different times of the day. Like I said, you can’t go inside but can get fairly close.

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I didn’t get a good picture of it, but the pond is filled with koi fish.

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A sundial, truly cool. The whole thing is ornate.

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My favorite part might actually be the ironwork for the gate in front of it (there are gates to a bridge that crosses the moat surrounding the tower). It’s both creepy and cute:

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And now to prove it really IS above sea level:

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The view down the mountain, behind the tower:orange groves of Lake Wales. Oh, and a little local denizen we came across:

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Bok Tower is definitely worth a visit. If you don’t live close, you can easily combine it with a visit to Orlando or the surrounding area. 🙂

 





Peacocks!

19 07 2016

Been saving the best of my Charleston trip for last! I might be just a *little* obsessed with peacocks. Up until this trip in fact I thought they would make awesome pets, but I learned they can be louder than heck! So Middleton Place AND Magnolia Plantation both have peacocks. It’s amazing. 🙂

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Below, the super loud peacock call you can hear from like a mile away:

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And then the adorable female peacock resting on a stagecoach:

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So far these peacocks have been from Middleton:

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These next guys are from Magnolia:

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Gotta love ’em!





Magnolia Plantation

13 07 2016

Just 4 miles down the road from Middleton Place is Magnolia Plantation. Compared to Middleton, it’s more crowded and landscaped with more flowers. They feel very different, and I think both are worth visiting.

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Admission to the house is separate, and we didn’t go for that as we only had a few hours there. Even without the house, there is plenty to see wandering around the gardens – that’s the bulk of what you go to see.

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The thing about Magnolia is that it has some of the most gorgeous bridges – some people were doing wedding shoots on them, and it’s almost impossible to get clear shots with all the people in general (not to mention hard to get a sweeping shot when you only have a 50 mm lens!)

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…and in looking for all the bridges, you might stumble upon some more beautiful things like this gazebo:

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…or this carved tomb:

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Then there’s the Peacock Café (roof painting below), an outdoor situation with sandwiches, hot dogs, and similar. And yes, peacocks really do walk around it!

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But most of the peacocks stay in the petting zoo, which was an amazing experience! You’re not supposed to pet the peacocks, but they wander around close to you, so you can get some great photos (more on that later!), plus there are deer wandering around (and yes, you can pet them!), and feed is available for purchase.

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Some other animals that are in cages, like this white squirrel (below), or a pot-bellied pig.

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There’s plenty more there, but our visit had to be brief. Definitely a place to stop by if you find yourself near Charleston.





Exploring Middleton Place

5 07 2016

Last post was about our hotel experience – now for the estate itself! Having the freedom to just walk over from the hotel, we spent some part of 3 full days there.

So, when you walk over from the hotel path, you have 2 options: you can walk down some steps to this little building that then feeds into the path in the picture below, or you can keep walking on the upraised hotel path, cross a little bridge, and end up closer to the main house. Obviously we did the former and were greeted with this sight!

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Oh, just a gator in the sun while a hapless couple walks toward it, unaware. They eventually saw it and skirted around it but said they really couldn’t see it from that vantage point. Sneaky gators!

Here’s a shot from inside the little building:

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It sits right on the water of the river, and is also right on the banks of the “butterfly pools” or ponds created for Middleton. Here’s a shot of the building and ponds:

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We walked around all this way, because that gator was on the other side of that stretch of land. Anyway, they don’t move much and tend to go back into the water if people get close. The land is tiered up, so by the time you climb to the top:

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So here we’re standing where the original main house was, facing onto the back side of the estate (and the Ashley River). The hotel would be basically up and to the left. The main house was burned down by Union troops right before the end of the civil war. The house had a north and south “flanker” on either side of it; one was also burned, but one survived, and that is the house museum that you can tour today.

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Here’s the backside of the remaining flanker, above, and the front side:

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Now, on one side of the flanker (and leading far up the property) are the gardens, and on the other side are the animals/stable area and a restaurant. We walked toward the animal side from the back of the house..

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Above, you can see the ice house (the bottom floor was used for cooling things), with the top floor being a chapel for all races to attend service in. To the right, past the water, is the hotel path that goes to the bridge. Down at the water, what did we see?

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Lil’ sneaky! Anyway, back up the hill toward the animals, we passed by the restaurant:

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…and then up and out where the animals are, first goats,  and then water buffalo!:

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They keep types of animals that would have been kept by the Middleton family in the 17-1800s. Apparently one of the Middleton men saw water buffalo on a trip to Asia, I think, and thought they’d be good help with rice farming (yes, rice – people always think of cotton and tobacco as the staple old Southern crops, but rice was the thing here).

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The estate is known for letting its sheep wander freely around the grounds. I was really excited about this because I thought it’d make a cool picture (and I wanted to get a selfie with a lamb, I admit), but this weekend they were kept pinned, because they were doing special events on the lawn and thought it would be too much for them. Okay…sigh… I understand.

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This next picture was taken Sunday morning. They do a cow milking daily at 9 and again at 4, and you can go and participate!

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This guy gets the cow set up and then you can step in if you like… I did it for a minute, but didn’t get any pictures, plus my hands were gross afterward. He kept saying the cow was being difficult that day, but she was good during the milking – I guess because she was eating hay.

Anyway, around that stable area there are demonstrations, like a blacksmith, or candle making…

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Didn’t get many pics of that stuff, as I was distracted by:

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Peacocks on stagecoaches!!! Sleeping! I was so excited about the peacocks, you don’t even know. They get a whole post to themselves, later.

So we then walked up the grounds and to the other side. If you drive here versus walking from the hotel, there’s an area where you park and pay admission, and right outside of it’s this little market with some food and gifts.

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We grabbed some pre-made chicken salad sandwiches (that weren’t great, honestly) and had lunch before heading to the gardens, on just the other side of this.

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I believe that this was the statue they buried during the war to save it. These gardens are the oldest landscaped gardens in America, I believe. They’re very woodsy and wild, so not the flower-filled, super landscaped type I typically think of, but still nice. Because it was mostly long stretches of greenery (with some water), I didn’t take many pics. It mostly looked like this:

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Though in season, the azalea walk is probably really beautiful. And then they also have some areas like this, with the finely trimmed hedges:

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They do have this long pool where a couple swans swim about at times, but the swans were in a cage this time. 😦

Some nice flower shots:

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Didn’t get any pics of the house tour since they weren’t allowed, but the tour is worth it. Lots of good info on the many generations that lived there, and neat heirlooms too.

Hot and tired, we made our way back to the hotel path, seeing one more gator:

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…and a good few of the ponds:

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Next time… peacocks!





Inn at Middleton Place

30 06 2016

Last month, I took a 3 day weekend to celebrate my birthday, and we went up to a hidden gem just outside of Charleston, South Carolina – Middleton Place.

Middleton Place itself is an old estate (parts of it from the 1700s) that you can visit, and right next to it – actually connected to the grounds – is an Inn that just happened to offer better prices than anything in Charleston proper, admission included to the estate and gardens, and the most beautiful scenery.

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After a stop by Pie Society for a birthday pasty on the way up and a 4 hour drive, we checked in to the Inn and were given a map, keys, and the code to the gate. Our rooms were to the left of the Lodge (above); everything circled a grass courtyard that faced (to the right) over the Ashley River.

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Our rooms, the bottom far left and the bottom middle, above. Rooms were fairly big with 2 twin beds and fireplaces (!), but the fireplaces were closed in the summer. The bathrooms have good counter space and large tubs. I’m a shower person, and glad of it because after my first shower, some bugs appeared in the tub, probably attracted by water. I think the place is clean, but being on the ground and so close to the river, bugs do get in. It’s literally the 1 downside about the place.

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More rooms, with hammocks. Seriously the most peaceful place. Would make a great artists’ retreat.

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Should have mentioned that the grass courtyard also overlooks a pool, which overlooks the river – it’s gorgeous! The only pic I got of the whole thing was on my cell phone though.

If you walk down to the left of the pool (like 1 minute from our rooms!), you’ll see the kayak area:

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We went kayaking the next morning for about 3 hours. I didn’t get pictures, but you can see from this vantage point of the hotel pathway some of our kayak path down the river:

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It’s great, because the fee is reasonable, and they give you the oars, map, lifejackets, etc. and push you off, then you’re on your own. (Or we were, but they have guided tours you can do.) We went around 9 and were the first ones out there. The tide was low, and there were tons of alligators on the banks that would slide into the water as we approached. I was a bit freaked out by it! That’s one thing to watch out for; there are gators everywhere here.

Anyway, if you walk a bit further than the kayak area, you’ll find a huge mulberry tree!

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I’d never seen one before and was so excited. You can reach up and pick the berries and eat them (I mean, you’re probably not supposed to, but I did), and they’re SO sweet and delicious, but they do stain everything red. Go for the dark ones; those are ripe.

Walk past that, and you’ll find a clearing that’s lined with a wall of sweet-scented jasmine:

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You can’t really tell in the picture, but there’s tons of it, with the little white flowers. This was in mid May, so not sure if it’s still in bloom.

Back at the hotel, they do a happy hour every night in the Lodge from 5 – 7 with complimentary (included in your stay) drinks and apps. It was very worth it!

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Beyond these cheeses and fruits, they had crackers and a hot dish or two each night (we were there for 2). The first night was pretty rushed, because we walked around actual Middleton Place a bit (more on that later) and then went to downtown Charleston. The second night was a Saturday, and lots of people went to the happy hour.

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The Lodge itself was pretty cute – 2 stories with the food area up top, this chess table halfway down, and below some games you can play, including croquet. Here’s the backside of the Lodge in the next morning’s light:

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They do a complimentary breakfast in the Lakehouse, which was really nice. It’s a quick walk from the rooms on a shadowy path….

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Oh, and do you see the umbrella stand above, with all the umbrella handles sticking out? They had umbrellas everywhere, including outside each room – which I thought was nice.

Anyway, the Lakehouse breakfast is cereals, an oatmeal bar, coffee and juices, and is self serve, and/or you can order hot items for extra charge.

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I was content with oatmeal, because they have so many add in options! (I’m on an oatmeal kick now.) I got blueberries, pecans, walnuts, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Yum!

The Lakehouse overlooks a creek and beautiful greenery. You can sit indoors and admire the view while listening to classical music, or sit outside on the deck. We sat inside, because it was chilly in the mornings.

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Pretty view! We spent most of our time walking across the wooded path to the estate, which is super convenient, as you can go anytime between sunrise and sunset….I wanted to go at night, but with all the gators (they live in the estate pools and like to hang out on the grass, hard to see in the dark), I didn’t want to risk it.

I would highly recommend the Inn at Middleton Place to anyone really, understanding that it is a “woodsy” place, so some bugs are inevitable. I actually didn’t sleep well either night because of that, but it had so much else going for it, that it was way worth it.

The Inn also has horseback riding, but there was no time. Next up – Middleton Place itself!

 

 





Not Forgotten

20 06 2016

30 peacock22I’m still here! Sorry for the super long hiatus – I had a big birthday, left one job, started another, went on a big business trip, and then got sick, so it’s been a little cray. Posts will be coming in the next few weeks, and this pic is a little teaser of what’s to come. 🙂





Savannah in Spring

28 04 2016

Piggybacking off my last post about Pie Society, that might have been our reason for visiting Savannah, but it wasn’t the only attraction. We turned it into a lovely day trip, just in time for the green fountains a few days before St. Patty’s.

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Hard to see the green…this one’s better:

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Festive! And so many flowers in bloom:

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We spent some time at first in the Pie Society area (City Market), walking around to see shops, art galleries, and most importantly, treat shops:

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This one was making fresh praline and giving out samples of it. Of course we were easily coaxed into buying some.

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Outside it was beautiful with lots to see. Check out this underground bar!

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Then we stumbled on Byrd Cookies. Lots of variations of little, round, crunchy cookies. Got some oatmeal for my co-worker since she raved about them, and the guy in the store said they’re the classic ones and a favorite of locals.

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After Byrd’s, we saw another fountain and then went for lunch (afternoon tea really) at my favorite place, The Gryphon. I’ve written about it previously here.

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Just as gorgeous as ever.

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And just as unique.

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It was a pharmacy at one point, as you can see from the old “tablet” drawers above.

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I love afternoon tea. Cute + delicious, it looks like there’s not enough there, because it’s all small bites, but we were stuffed by the end. I started from the bottom tier and worked my way up.

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I’m hungry again just looking at these pics! After lunch, we wandered back to our car, parked on the street. Just so happened it was parked in front of an old house doing tours for only $10/person.

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It turned out to be the Frances Sorrel house, built in the 1800s. The house has been through a lot; in the 1990s someone bought it and started refurbishing it, but not necessarily in a way accurate to the period, so it’s a mix of unfinished, old school, weird 90s stuff, and in-progress.

This piece below was original, and really beautiful:

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And check out this ornate mirror:

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This next pic really shows how much the house has changed over time.

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They had gone underneath the current wall covering and found this – battered but original paint designed to look like relief. The tour guide was using her phone as a light so everyone could see.

The tour includes the main floor (sort of the like second floor), the basement level, and the outdoor back courtyard. They don’t yet let people onto the upper floor with the bedrooms.

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The bottom floor of the house was a department store at one time; now it’s mostly barren brick. Once part of it was also used by a doctor as an operating room. Lots of ghost stories (they do a night tour as well.)

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The courtyard in back of the house is a good way to see what a work in progress the place is.

Our guide pointed out that the brick on the ground had thumbprints in places:

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The story is that slaves at the time (early 1800s) would make these bricks and these prints were made by the brickmakers. They also have a 2 story building out back, that I didn’t really get good pictures of, where the slaves lived. In the upstairs, it was just one big room where everyone lived. A terrible part of history, but one that’s important to remember.

Here’re steps down to a basement area in that building. Didn’t ask what was housed there, but the courtyard at the time was for horses/chickens, so maybe it was related to that?

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And one last shot of the juxtaposition of old and new:

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If you’re ever in Savannah, get some British pies, some afternoon tea, and walk around the place. So many old houses like this one to explore, as well as more modern shops/restaurants.








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