Go behind the scenes at a jaw-dropping estate
“Strange, colossal, heartbreaking . . . in effect, like a gorgeous practical joke,” said Henry James upon visiting George Vanderbilt II’s new palace in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt, who also conceived the family’s similarly grandiose Breakers mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, the Biltmore was completed in 1895 after an eight-year construction. It took 1,000 labourers to lay the 11,000 bricks for this ‘weekend getaway’, which has hosted Edith Wharton, Henry Ford and Woodrow Wilson.
Believed to be the largest private home ever built in America, the Biltmore contains 31 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces. The Vanderbilts’ vast shipping and railway empire financed the home’s extravagances, many of them—telephones, hot and cold running water, elevators and refrigeration—unheard of at the turn of the century.
You can see the estate—still owned by the Vanderbilts and decorated as it was when George II lived in it—on a variety of tours, including a memorable behind-the-scenes look that ventures into the Biltmore’s sub-basement. All told, the public can explore about 60 rooms, including a bowling alley and a 23,000-volume library. On view are some 1,600 works of art, including masterpieces by Renoir, Whistler and Sargent. You can also tour the Biltmore Estate Winery. Once the grazing land for family cattle, the vineyards now produce several well-respected wines.
Arguably as breathtaking as the house are the Biltmore’s 8,000 acres of gardens, meadows and woodland, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, of Central Park fame. Each spring, the Festival of Flowers showcases the magnificent daffodils, azaleas, roses, dogwoods and more than 50,000 tulips. Christmas time features evening candlelight tours with songs by visiting choirs, the aroma of crackling fires, dozens of glimmering candlelit trees and 10,000 feet of evergreen swags.
Pretend you’re a Vanderbilt by spending the night at the Inn on Biltmore Estate, where many of the rooms have balconies overlooking the surrounding wilderness. You can take in the estate’s lush panorama while sipping wine on the inn’s veranda, or savour a full meal in the natty Dining Room on Vanderbilt china.
Four miles north in Asheville’s Montford Historic District, a more intimate experience can be had at the Black Walnut Inn, designed in 1899 by the Biltmore’s supervising architect, Richard Sharp-Smith. Its eight graciously appointed guest rooms feature sleigh beds and wood-burning fireplaces. A delightful high tea is served each afternoon before the parlour’s pine-mantel fireplace.
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Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.