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The Biltmore Estate, Asheville, NC
A Prize from the Gilded Age
by Tommy Ford
Call us crazy, but in our half dozen prior visits to the Asheville, North Carolina area we had never visited the Biltmore Estate.
It only takes a moment to realize that a tour of the Biltmore is like no other. First of all, the place is huge! The house alone occupies close to four acres. Then there are 8000 acres of surrounding property which include forests, gardens, historic farm buildings, and an award winning winery.
Biltmore began with the vision of George Vanderbilt in the late 1800's who imagined a grand estate in the mountains of western North Carolina. Over 1000 workers labored for six years to bring that vision to reality.
At 175,000 square feet, Biltmore House is the largest private residence in the United States. There are 250 rooms in total which includes thirty three guest bedrooms. The house includes many innovations which were cutting edge when the house was constructed, such as central heat, hot water from the tap, elevators, and electric power.
To step inside Biltmore House is to be transported back to the gilded age. This is more than a house, it is a palace which has played host to numerous US Presidents, Prince Charles of England, and many Hollywood stars.
There are several tour options. Guided tours take you to parts of the house not on the "regular," tour, such as to the roof. Our tour allowed us to roam the open parts of the house at will. This is a wonderful way to see the house. Each visitor can take their time and not be hurried along.
We all have our favorite parts of Biltmore House. Mine was the banquet hall. At 3000 square feet this room alone is larger than most houses. Other rooms contain the works of artists such as Renoir and Whistler. There is a chess set owned by Napoleon and antiques far too numerous to mention.
Another thing we enjoyed about Biltmore was seeing not only how the wealthy owners lived but also visiting the servants quarters. There are many, many rooms, each once occupied by a servant. One begins to realize just how many people were required to keep such a vast estate operating.
Everything about Biltmore House is fascinating. There are kitchens and laundry rooms. Narrow hallways along which we can easily imagine a maid or butler hurrying on an errand for their employer. Wonder how the wealthy occupied themselves? The answers are here. There is a bowling alley, an indoor swimming pool, exercise rooms, billiard tables, the list goes on.
Take as long as you wish to tour the house. When the crowds grow too heavy find a place and have a seat. They'll thin out soon. Climb the grand staircase one step at a time, imagining the ladies and gentlemen who's feet trod the same way when the 20th century was new.
The tour does not end with the house. Far from it. There are the gardens based on the designs of Fredrick Law Olmsted who designed New York City's Central Park. The Walled Garden is a favorite as is the 15 acre azalea garden. You can even purchase plants that were grown in the estate's own nursery.
George Vanderbilt intended that his grand estate be self supporting. In the Farm Village you can see examples of how that was done. The Horse Barn contains exhibits and shops. A blacksmith was hard at work during our visit patiently explaining his craft to curious children and senior citizens alike.
There are many more opportunities for exploration and adventure on the Biltmore Estate. There are a number of shops and fine opportunities to dine. You can rent a bike or take a carriage ride. Tour the estate from horseback or take it off road with the Land Rover Experience Driving School. Ride the river on a raft or kayak, or test your fly fishing expertise.
Though still owned by descendants of George Vanderbilt, Biltmore House has been unoccupied since the 1950's. You can however stay in the rental cottage or the Inn.
Consider ahead of time how long you think it will take to tour the Biltmore Estate then double that estimate. There really is that much to see and do.