Enjoy a relaxing visit to the sprawling 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC.
By Alice Shapin
Have you ever wondered if anyone in America lived like the Crawley family did in Downton Abbey? Well, the answer is yes, starting with George Vanderbilt, grandson of railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. And you can see how his family lived by visiting the magnificent Biltmore Estate near Asheville, in the cool mountains of North Carolina. It’s been on my bucket list way before Downton hit the airways.
As we drove through the Biltmore’s gatehouse to the natural but meticulously tended 8,000-acre estate, the grandeur began to unfold. Towering pines and lush greenery lined the road, while further along we traveled under a tree canopy. The estate is so large that it was still almost a four-mile drive to the house which is over 175,000-square-feet.
Although the house has 34 bedrooms, that’s not where we or any other tourist stayed. Where we did stay, the Inn on Biltmore Estate, wasn’t too shabby. Driving up the road, the hotel, perched high above the estate, is surrounded by tall trees and a kaleidoscope of flowering plants. When we arrived, the hospitably that Vanderbilt extended to his numerous houseguests was rolled out for us. We were immediately impressed as we entered the lobby with its soaring ceilings, marble floors, rich woods, huge floor-to-ceiling windows, potted orchids with 50 flowers, oversized fireplaces and cozy seating areas.
Decorated with fine wood furniture and lavish drapes, our large premier room didn’t disappoint either.Nor did the generous-sized bathroom where there was a soaking tub, separate rain shower, marble double sink and plush robes and towels. It seemed to whisper a quiet luxury.
What’s on the menu?
Well it depends on whether you’re in the mood for casual or white tablecloth fine dining. We chose the Library Lounge, casual dining in an elegant setting. As we learned later, George Vanderbilt loved books, so the Library Lounge pays homage to his passion. Tables with magnificent views or comfy couches by the fireplace are where lunch, dinner and afternoon tea are served. The seasonal menu gets much of its fresh ingredients from the estate’s kitchen gardens, and on Thursday nights, when we happened to be there, they have live jazz.
The Dining Room specializes in regional cuisine and guests enjoy such meats as estate-raised beef and lamb. It reminds one of when George Vanderbilt lived here and the food came from the estate’s land.
In good weather breakfast is best enjoyed on the veranda overlooking the mountains. Pick something from the menu or have the buffet. It’s the perfect place to linger over morning coffee.
But we didn’t have to limit our dining choices to the hotel. A short walk from the hotel, and still on the estate, is Antler Hill Village where we headed to the Creamery, a tribute to the original Biltmore Dairy Bar and the place to indulge in Winky bar sundaes, ice-cream and root beer floats. A statue and the Tavern pay homage to Cedric, Vanderbilt’s beloved St. Bernard.
While in the village we took a guided tour of the historic winery, celebrating its 30th anniversary. The tour and complimentary wine tasting are included with Biltmore Estate admission and there is a variety of additional add-ons. The add-ons gave us more of an in depth look at the winery. If you need a gift for wine lovers or you want to treat yourself there is a huge selection of wines, dips, cheese and all things wine themed. Then we stayed and enjoyed music on the Village Green.
For a little background on the Biltmore legacy, we visited the exhibition, “The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad.” It gave us lots of background on the family.
If you’re thinking about some fun activities, stop by the Outdoor Adventure Center to explore what they offer – biking, fly-fishing, hiking, horseback riding, Land Rover’s Driving School, float trips, and Segway tours.
The Biltmore House & Gardens
The piece de resistance of the estate is the Biltmore home. We decided to take our car rather than the shuttle. We walked along the tree-lined path from the parking when we reached a clearing and the magnificent, regal French Renaissance Chateau came into view. I thought we’d arrived at Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed.
We opted for the self-guided audio tour. Very well done, the tour tells about each room, the pieces in it and gives you more background if you wish. Construction of the home started in 1889 and lasted for six years under the guidance of architect Richard Morris Hunt. The tour spans three floors and the basement where vintage clothing, accessories, art, and furniture are on display. It’s hard to wrap your mind around these numbers: 250 rooms, 43 bathrooms, a banquet hall with a 70-foot ceiling, 65 fireplaces, a 70,000-gallon indoor pool, a bowling alley, gym, 16th century tapestries, forced-air heating, indoor plumbing, and even two Otis elevators, representing state-of-the-art technology.
Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York’s famed Central Park, created the Biltmore gardens. Wander through acres of formal and informal gardens, enjoy a quiet moment in the Butterfly Garden, walk to Bass Pond or the lagoon, and visit the Conservatory where the glass-roofed building nurtures exotic orchids, fern and palms and provides flowers and plants for the house just as it did in the Vanderbilts’ time.
If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey the Upstairs, Downstairs tour is a must. Even if you’ve never seen the show, you’ll find out how the house was run, discover late 19th century cutting-edge technology that kept the home humming, visit the domains of the servants, and learn about the grand house parties the Vanderbilts hosted. For Downton followers, we were informed that the head housekeeper Mrs. Hughes would have been in charge, not Mr. Carson the butler.
We didn’t have time to take it, but the Rooftop Tour, offers amazing views from the rooftops and balconies. You also get a closer look at the design and construction of Biltmore House.
There things to do in the area besides going to the Biltmore Estate. Edgy and artsy, Ashville, a mountain city with a funky downtown, has a burgeoning culinary scene. The bartender at the winery gave us several recommendations, and we chose Wicked Weed Brewing. Hip and happening, the restaurant has outdoor and indoor seating, and serves a wide variety of craft beers and such items as bison burger, Carolina bison meatloaf and fried tortillas & black bean hummus. The Asheville art scene is booming. If you happen to there the first Friday of the month (April – December), do the Art Walk where you can visit 25 galleries, and jewelry studios within a half mile radius.
Since we wanted to extend our vacation we decided to head to an all-inclusive bed & breakfast. The Swag, 50 minutes from Asheville, sits on the edge of the magnificent Smoky Mountains National Park and offers breathtaking views and a quiet serenity. Showcasing rustic luxury, sit and read in one of the common rooms with wood-beamed high ceilings and a giant fireplace. Outdoors take a short walk, a challenging hike, a walk across a swinging bridge, lounge on a hammock, soak in the hot tub and gaze out over four of North Carolina’s six highest mountain peaks, or just enjoy sitting in a rocking chair on the porch and watch the humming birds stop by. Meals are a special time starting with the breakfast buffet – made to order omelets, cider-simmered oatmeal, breads, bacon, country sausage, and fresh juices. For lunch they’ll pack you a picnic – a sandwich, fruit, the special Swag Bar, chips, and coleslaw. Take it on a hike or climb into the two-level tree house. Evening starts with a social hour of hors d’oeuvres before the chef’s regional cuisine four-course meals featuring such delights as local mountain trout and fresh herbs, fruits, and vegetables from their garden and local farmers. Cookies, nuts, and ice-cream are available all day. Bring your own wine or whatever alcohol you want. And when your head hits the pillow, you’ll love the comfy beds and luxurious bedding.