One of my favourite activities as a child was exploring other people’s houses when we visited: getting into nooks and crannies, imagining the day-to-day lives people led in those spaces. Visiting the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, was the adult version of this game and I LOVED it.
The Biltmore bills itself as “America’s Largest Home”, and it’s backed by the numbers: 250 rooms and 135,000-plus square feet of living space make it America’s largest privately-owned residence (it’s still retained by the Vanderbilts today.) Look on any travel itinerary for Asheville and you’re sure to find mention of the estate; once the largest employer of the area, it is now (in addition to the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park) a major tourist attraction. True to their commitment to hospitality, everything on the Estate, from the tours of the house to the shuttle buses from the parking lots, runs relatively seamlessly given how many visitors they have a year (76,000 are annual pass holders, not to mention one-time guests, the sum of which totals 1.4 million according to the Asheville Citizen-Times).
The Estate comprises not only the Biltmore House and Gardens, but also vast tracts of land split by the French Broad River, a winery, a barn and animal yard, and Antler Hill Village, a pedestrian-friendly area with boutiques, restaurants, and a museum. Additionally, there are two hotels on the Estate: The Village Hotel and The Inn.
We wanted to fully take advantage of our time we had on the estate, so we booked a night at the Village Hotel, taking advantage of a special end-of-summer rate. From the moment we drove onto the grounds of the estate, I could feel us slipping into holiday mode. We drove up a road winding past a gatehouse, stopping at a checkpoint where we gave our name to a guard. He referenced his list of hotel guests checking in for the evening and then waved us through.
We continued a leisurely drive through woods and past open fields. While the Village Hotel is billed as the more casual of the two hotels, it still felt plenty luxurious for us. There’s something nice about being able to park your car and know you have access to everything on the estate within walking distance or via a shuttle bus. The Village Hotel is located right on the edge of Antler Hill Village, which has a “town square” feeling about the Village Green and features a bandstand with live performers, plenty of benches for relaxing, and several restaurants and shops. Just a quick walk past Antler Hill Village is an outdoor model train display and Pisgah playground (popular with the children), and the barns and petting zoo.
The barns were our first stop; incredibly well-preserved, they function in a variety of capacities today, featuring antique farm equipment and demonstrations by craftsmen, as well as a gift shop and The Smokehouse, a Carolina barbecque joint. Biltmore Industries was an historically important part of the estate, producing dairy, poultry, beef, and pork products; today, the dairy stil provides the milk for Biltmore’s ice cream at the Dairy Bar and Creamery! Many of the fields are also still harvested, and the restaurants on the Estate make use of much of the produce in what is truly farm-to-table fare. For our part, we enjoyed wandering the barnyard and watching a demonstration of broom making. Afterwards, we stopped in at the farmyard to say hello to some friendly locals.
The museum in Antler Hill Village, The Biltmore Legacy, is a wonderful introduction to some of the history of the estate. It takes you through the romance and aspirations of George and Edith Vanderbilt, their family history as it related to the house, and the many changes Biltmore has seen, right up to the present day. You get a glimpse of George Vanderbilt’s vision for his family estate; this was no gaudy American McMansion but a gentleman’s country retreat modeled off British manors and French chateaux. The museum also includes lots of the trinkets and souvenirs the Vanderbilts incurred on their travels, but they aren’t your run-of-the-mill “I Love NY” t-shirts. Think: Napoleon’s chess set or a vintage Louis Vuitton trunk. The Vanderbilts truly wanted for nothing at their peak, a sentiment expressed in their elaborate silver sets and memorabilia from their daughter’s 21st birthday. It is a tantalising peek into life in the Gilded Age for the very rich: lavish, well-educated, and, chiefly, very indulgent. The whole museum puts the Estate and its owners in a historical context, and gives you some insight into the workings of this massive operation today. It’s the perfect teaser to the big event: the house tour.
We reserved tickets for the 9:30am time slot ahead of our visit and caught the shuttle from the Village Hotel to the house with no issue. We were told it took visitors to Biltmore Estate an entire hour to make it up the driveway back in the day- a deliberate move by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect employed by George Vanderbilt. (He was also responsible for such famous parks as Central Park in New York City, Mount Royal in Montreal, and numerous others across America and Canada.) You were meant to feel as though you were disappearing from the hubub of everyday life into a tranquil mountain retreat. There’s more traffic on the roads these days, but they still have the feel, winding through the trees as they do, of leading you somewhere peaceful. Despite a line of ticket holders that looked deceptively long, processing through security was painless. And then, there we were, crossing the threshold into the Biltmore House.
The home is a marvel, and it’s so full of priceless art and curious ancedotes that it’s worth doing a house tour. You can do a guided tour with a person, or opt for the audio guides which you carry with you from room to room, at your own pace. That is probably the most flexible option, as it allows you to spend as much time as you like ogling the fine art on the walls or the opulence of the furniture. It’s also possible to take supplemental tours of the house with specific themes- a rooftop tour for architecture and photography junkies, a Biltmore House Revealed tour for history lovers who want to see the Archives and unrestored rooms of the house, as well as tours of the gardens and estate grounds. These are great options for those spending several nights on the estate.
How to explain how the interior of the house makes you gasp the minute you walk in and are greeted by the Winter Garden, crowned by a delicate glass atrium and filled with tropical plants in their own little greenhouse?
The sense of wonder only grows as you move into the next room. And the next, and the next. There is the formal dining room, which takes after some of the medieval great halls of the past and features a massive pipe organ occupying an entire upper balcony.
There is the loggia, a covered porch with stately columns overlooking smoky blue mountains in the distance.
There is a Rembrandt painting. There is an etching by Albrecht Durer. There are bedrooms, each completed with a different theme and colour palette. There is a tapestry gallery with priceless 14th century Flemish cloths.
My favourite room was the library, because, well, see for yourself. It’s fairly self-explanatory.
Even the basement is interesting: the servants quarters, the kitchens, the state-of-the-art (for the time period) pool. There’s a room with billiards tables weighing a tonne each. Every room tells a story and sparks wonder- what about the vast number of rooms in the house not covered on the tour? Is there a block that’s been modernized? Are the Vanderbilts in residence right now? Surely there’s a ghost wandering the expansive hallways? The mystique is part of the experience.
Don’t skip the gardens! Frederick Law Olmsted is often regarded as the father of American landscape architecture, and his work shines at the Biltmore Estate. There are beautiful terraces, including the photogenic Library Terrace with its arbor of vines. If the house gets too crowded, the grounds are the place to which you should retreat. The grounds are divided into a number of gardens: a shrub garden, Italian garden, and azalea garden among others. We loved the rose garden, filled with fragrant blossoms even in mid-September, and the conservatory was full of lush orchids and other exotic blooms. At the time, it also featured their model train running through a miniature Biltmore Estate; I loved spying the buildings hidden among the flowers and plants. So whimsical.
There are more than twenty miles of trails on the grounds of the estate as well; if you want an easy one, it is possible to walk down from the conservatory to the bass pond and boat house. The trail takes you through woods teeming with birdsong, and the trickle of a creek is never too far. For the more adventurous types, it is possible to see the trails by bike, on horseback, or even via Land Rover. You can even try your hand at falconry or clay pigeon shooting. George Vanderbilt, after all, envisioned Biltmore as a retreat full of diversion and entertainment for his guests.
We worked up a sweat touring the house and gardens, so we stopped in the courtyard by the stables (well, they were stables, but now they function as a food court/gift shop arrangement). There, I enjoyed banana pudding flavoured ice cream and a glass of cold lemonade, much needed in the warm late summer sun. The numerous gift shops on the estate offer any kind of memento for you to remember your visit, including plenty of home goods to spruce up your own personal Biltmore.
We caught a shuttle back to Antler Hill Village to round out our visit to Biltmore Estate. The winery, whose building is the estate’s former dairy barn, offers complimentary tastings in their expansive tasting room. It’s “America’s Most Visited Winery” after all, so they’re quite efficient in the process of moving people along. We weren’t particularly blown away by any of the wines, although the dry Riesling was quite unique on the palate. (The reds were especially harsh, and this is coming from someone who loves a solid merlot.) All the same, it was nice to sit back in air-conditioned comfort and sip on wines selected from a generously extensive list.
Three restaurants are just a few steps from the winery: Cedric’s Tavern for pub grub, the Bistro for farm-to-table fare, and the Village Social for seafood with a southern twist. (If you fancy something a little more elegant, the shuttle can take you to the Dining Room at the Inn on Biltmore Estate for fantastic vistas while you eat.) Alternatively, there is a buffet at Deerpark Restaurant, serving elevated southern cuisine and located in the estate’s event facility, or the no-frills Stable Cafe in the Biltmore House’s carriage complex for Appalachian comfort food.
Given the fact that the Biltmore Estate is essentially a very fancy house sitting on a lot of land (it used to sit on more, but that was eventually sold to the government to become Pisgah National Forest), I loved how individualized an experience you could have on your visit. Love the outdoors? You don’t even need to set foot in the house (although you should, because your ticket includes the price of admission.) Want some inspiration for your green thumb? Check out the gardener’s place seminars, which change with the seasons. Interested in some R&R? Hit the winery and the spa to luxuriate. You can tailor your entire trip to your interests. The estate has done a fantastic job with their marketing and branding; it feels a bit like an adults’ Disney World. It’s a little less tacky, a lot more hospitable, and manages to give you a taste of the Vanderbilt experience: a chance to leave the everyday and treat yourself, whatever way that looks like to you.