Four stories and four acres of floor space. 250 rooms. 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces. A tiled and lighted swimming pool in the basement, along with a gymnasium, changing rooms, a two-lane bowling alley (servants provided the ball return and pin replacement), servant’s quarters and kitchens (with both an electric and manual dumbwaiter). Twenty to thirty indoor servants.
The Biltmore home, the largest home in America, took six years to build. George Vanderbilt (grandson of Cornelius, the Vanderbilt who went from zero to $100 million as a transportation magnate) officially “opened” his home to family and friends on Christmas Eve in 1895. Now it is open to us, the hoi polloi. What fun! (Hover your cursor on a photo for a caption; double click any photo to enlarge it.)
Our $60 tickets included entrance to the grand house, an audio tour on an MP3 player, and unlimited access to the gardens from opening until closing. We could visit the winery, the farm, the lakes and all the trails. Tickets include a specific time to enter the home (we scheduled our entrance at 10:30 am), and the audio tour takes about 2 hours.
We choose Monday for our visit, assuming it would be less crowded than the weekend, and we were right. Arriving a hour early, at 9:30, the parking lots were mostly empty and we were able to wander the garden paths almost in solitude.
Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of American landscape architecture who designed New York’s Central Park, designed the gardens and landscape of the estate. (Gifford Pinchot, who went on to become the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, founded the first private forest in the U.S. on the grounds of the Biltmore Estate.) Olmsted’s design called for “grand gardens” closest to the house, with less manicured wild land gardens beyond.
With time to spare, we walked into the “Walled Garden” and were dazzled by the tulips in bloom. In the Conservatory beyond, tropical plants touched the ceiling, and orchids bloomed in profusion. We wandered through the Azalea Garden (where most of the plants are a week or two from blooming) and down to the Bass Pond and Waterfall. Words fail!
One extremely interesting detail (to me): at the entrance to each garden and the conservatory, a small, tasteful sign gave a phone number to call for an audio tour. Call the number, press a single digit specified on the sign, and you could listen to a 3-4 minutes “guided tour” of the garden you had just entered! Pretty cool use of technology.
Ten thirty was fast approaching, so we hurried back to the house to begin our tour. No photos are allowed in the house, which is a good thing – flashes would be flaring non-stop and the already slow-moving tourists would move even more slowly… and this blog would grow exponentially!
The audio tour is worth whatever it cost (it was included in the price of our tickets, which we had picked up previously in the Asheville Visitor Center) – we could move at our own speed without missing the highlights. As we stood in the Grand Dining Hall (two stories high), our audio tour described the dress code – white tuxes for the gentlemen, floor length ball gowns for the ladies – accompanied by the sounds of a champagne cork popping and the bubbly filling (imaginary, crystal) glasses. In the kitchen, we heard sounds of cutlery and plates, and in the maids’ living room, the approach of the head housekeeper was signaled by the jingling of her many keys – all in background to the voice-over of the tour.
One of my favorite rooms was the library, with its soaring ceiling and a balcony that ran all the way around the room for access to the upper tier shelves. A spiral staircase climbed to the balcony, which also could be accessed from the guest room hallway through a door that opened directly onto the balcony – so guest could stroll into the library to pick out a book for an afternoon read.
Today was a different story! Imagine never giving a thought to doing your laundry, to planning and cooking your meals, to packing and unpacking for travels. Lonely? Invite friends or the interesting authors, actors, inventors or politicians of the day to come and stay in your home, so huge you fold them seamlessly into your life. Bored? Walk down to your bowling alley, or take a swim in your pool after changing into the swimming costume your servant left in a changing room. It’s far, far beyond the limits of my imagination! :)
Biltmore Estate is like an amusement park for adults. Once we exited the house, we were a few steps from the huge old stable building, now home to a few shops and a variety of appealing cafes and restaurants. Instead of coffee and baked goodies or pizza slices or ice cream (all upscale, of course), we sat down in the Stable Cafe for lunch. The “Biltmore Sampler Platter for Two” ($19.95), caught our eye – “sample portions” of local southern food: pulled pork, ribs, rotisserie chicken, collards, squash casserole, cole slaw, cornbread and Biltmore-made pickles.
It should have been called “Biltmore Sampler Platter for Three or Maybe Four”! It included about half a pound each of pork and ribs, and half a chicken. We couldn’t begin to finish all the meat, though we did a great job on the sides.
Refreshed, we headed out for more exploration of the grounds and compounds in other corners of the extensive property. Biltmore makes wine under their own Biltmore Estate label (20-30% of the grapes are grown on the estate, with most of the remainder coming from California). The winery, tasting room and gift shop, incorporated into the new Antler Village shopping area, is another big draw.
As with everything else on the estate, the tasting room is incredibly well organized: a host greeted us to ascertain whether we wanted to taste (or tour), then introduced us to our hostess, who escorted us to one of more than two dozen “tasting stations”. At each station, a “pourer” handled ten tasters, pouring measured tastes from an extensive list. No crowding, no waving your empty glass to catch the attention of the pourer. Very efficient, gracious and relaxing.
Finished with our tastes, we headed into the wine/gift shop where the wine - plus every imaginable wine opener, glass, decanter and accessory - is available for purchase. Spoiled by Trader Joe’s, of course we are not willing/able to pay $14 and up for a bottle – but we enjoyed the tasting. :)
After walking close to six miles and tasting 8 wines, we were ready to call it a day. If we lived in Asheville, I’d buy an annual pass (around $100), to enjoy the estate in all four seasons. Due to their huge staff and excellent organization, the Biltmore estate retains an air of graciousness, rather than the feel of a “tourist trap”, in spite of all the shopping venues. We recommend it!