If you are an American history buff or just love spectacular mountain scenery, beautiful gardens and magnificent architecture, make a visit to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina a priority this year. The Biltmore House is the largest privately-owned residence in the United States, with an estate that includes 8,000 acres of managed forest, stunning gardens and the most-visited winery in the country.
The Biltmore House
The Biltmore House, perhaps our most impressive monument to the Gilded Age, was built by George Washington Vanderbilt and completed in time to welcome guests for Christmas in 1895. He hired renowned architect Richard Morris Hunt to build his “country home,” a French Renaissance-style chateau with the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The result is a monument to opulence. The sheer size of the residence is impressive – over four acres under one roof – about 175,000 square feet. There are 250 rooms, 65 fireplaces, 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, a bowling alley, gymnasium and indoor swimming pool. The home contains a priceless collection of original furnishings, paintings and 16th-century tapestries, 40 bronze sculptures and a library that contains over 10,000 books and even
Napoleon Bonaparte’s chess set and gaming table!
Your admission ticket will include a detailed brochure of the house to use on a self-guided tour. For a more in-depth experience, you can buy an audio tour that covers the history of all the rooms open for public viewing, or you can purchase specialty behind-the-scenes tours of areas not open to the public.
The Biltmore Gardens
While you will be enthralled by the mansion, serious and casual gardeners alike will be even more captivated by the grounds. Frederick Law Olmsted, considered the father of American landscape architecture, designed the gardens. Travel and Leisure magazine has named the site one of the top ten botanical gardens in the world.
You will want to get an early start if you expect to savor all the garden “rooms” and features throughout the massive estate. From the house, you will notice a long esplanade with a statue of Diana sitting on a hill directly opposite the mansion. As you walk downhill toward the conservatory, you pass the Italian Garden where you can imagine the Vanderbilts whiling away an afternoon with their guests, playing croquet and lawn tennis. Continuing on, you can stroll through the Shrub Garden with more than 500 varieties of trees, shrubs and other plants, including North Carolina’s largest Purple Leaf European Beech.
The formal four-acre Walled Garden is a stunning focal point, massed with seasonal garden displays like blooming spring tulips and a rose garden filled with heirloom roses that were popular during the Vanderbilt’s era. Don’t miss the Conservatory nearby that houses tropical and exotic plants and creative displays of containers. Just below the Conservatory is a favorite gift shop, A Gardener’s Place, where you can buy plants and unusual garden gifts. Continue your walk along charming pathways through the Spring Garden, Azalea Garden and down to the Bass Pond.
Planning Your Visit
For the best deal, purchase your Biltmore tickets online at least seven days in advance for a savings of $15 per ticket off the regular admission price. Your admission includes free parking, self-guided tour of the house, access to the gardens and a visit to Antler Hill Village and Winery, where you can dine, shop and enjoy free wine tasting and guided tour.
If you really want to splurge, plan a stay at the Inn on Biltmore Estate or at the world-renowned Grove Park Inn. For those on a tighter budget, you will find numerous hotels and bed-and-breakfasts in the Asheville area. Check out www.exploreasheville.com for tips on lodging and dining in Asheville.
For more information on planning a visit to Biltmore Estate, go to www.biltmore.com.
A 19th-Century Mansion:
Fun for the Whole Family? You Bet!
Biltmore Estate is renowned for its beauty and opulence: awe-inspiring architecture, medieval tapestries, 18th c. antiques, a house tour that takes you through a good portion of 250 amazing rooms. But the Biltmore also promotes itself as a getaway vacation for families, and my husband Erik and I decided to test this claim over the Easter weekend with our three kids: Anika (age 11), Ethan (age 7) and Owen (age 3 1/2). I had no doubt that Anika would enjoy the house and the gardens, but as for Ethan and Owen, my expectations were less about enjoyment than about survival: would we make it through the house tour without one of them knocking over some Ming-dynasty vase? Or having a complete meltdown in George Washington Vanderbilt’s private sanctuary?
As it turned out, though, it was one of the nicest weekend getaways we’ve ever experienced as a family. Saturday morning, with its low-70s temps and bright sunny sky, was perfect weather for appreciating the estate’s stunning gardens, with thousands of tulips in bloom. Then, because of an early-afternoon appointment at the stables, we had time to tour only the downstairs of the house, still giving us plenty of time to marvel at the architecture and décor. Our abbreviated visit turned out to be for the better, since it kept our viewing of the amazing and elegant mansion manageable for the boys (which, to be honest, they had very little interest in), while Erik, Anika and I had enough time to appreciate the stunning house and grounds.
After the house tour, Erik took the boys to more familiar territory—the McDonald’s across the street—while Anika and I went for our first horseback ride together at the estate’s Deerpark Stables, a one-hour ride through the trails and forests of the estate that was capped by a stunning view of the Biltmore house. It was relaxing, peaceful, and quiet, and our entertaining guides treated us to interesting facts and tidbits about the house and the estate, pointing out spots along the trails where parts of movies like Forrest Gump and The Last of the Mohicans had been filmed.
After the ride, we rejoined Erik and the boys and spent the rest of the afternoon at Antler Hill Village, a newly debuted section of the estate that includes the Winery, shops, restaurants, and kid-friendly activities such as the grape stomp. We peered into the Biltmore Legacy museum, where several of the Vanderbilts’ items were displayed and storyteller explained to an audience of children what life was like in the mansion in the late 19th century. Then, after a delicious early dinner al fresco at Cedric’s Tavern (with wiggly Owen in tow, we were happy to have the outdoor space to let him move around while we ate), we walked over to Antler Hill Farm, a recreated of a turn-of-the-century farm, including a blacksmith, woodworkers, and craft demonstrations. Anika and Ethan made Easter baskets at a craft station while Owen and I shopped at an old-fashioned Mercantile shop. Later, we walked over to the farm animal petting area, where Owen chased chickens and petted sheep, and Anika and Ethan got to hold baby chicks and pet the horses.
That evening, we returned to the Inn at Biltmore; although the kids were in awe at the impressive luxury and amenities of the hotel, it still appealed to them with its long expanses of lawn (perfect for some “father-son time” of throwing the baseball) and, of course, the swimming pool. Situated on the top of the hill, with the mountains in the distance, all five of us were able to relax and enjoy the heated pool and the spa. It was an absolutely perfect way to end the day.
The next day, Easter Sunday, all three of the kids lined up on the vast lawn of the estate along with hundreds of other kids of all ages; on cue, they all dashed around and filled their baskets with plastic eggs, turning them in for treat bags after the hunt. We then returned to the house to finish our tour of the house (upstairs and basement; this time, Ethan was actually interested in features like the one-hundred-year old swimming pool and bowling alley), enjoyed lunch outside at the estate’s Stable Café courtyard (kid- and budget-friendly pizza and ice cream), then walked up the hill across from the house, the Vista, where we relaxed and enjoyed the view for a while.
When it was time to head home, we all agreed: it was one of the best times we’d experienced, ever. It turned out there was no need to “survive” this weekend; all we had to do was enjoy being together as a family in an amazing and beautiful vacation spot.