By Mary Gallagher
My previous Asheville experience consisted of about six hours for a fast guided downtown walking tour and drive around. This time, we drove from Rocky Mount for about 5 hours to Asheville and the Biltmore, our base for the first few days.
George Vanderbilt’s vision more than a century ago, created a larger-than-life 125,000-acre country retreat (8,000 acres today) in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Its centerpiece, Biltmore House, by architect Richard Morris Hunt features four of the most fascinating acres at Biltmore all under one roof. America’s largest home boasts 250 rooms, 65 fireplaces, an indoor pool, bowling alley, priceless art and antiques. We did an extensive tour of the house including kitchen and laundry areas.
Today, Biltmore continues to have guests who can enjoy the grandeur of Vanderbilt’s collection of fine art and antiques. It is here that this country’s father of landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted, at 66, designed his last and largest project nearly a century ago.
In keeping with Vanderbilt’s vision of a working estate, Olmsted laid out plans for a large farm, impressive planned woodlands, fields, and gardens all enhanced with Olmsted’s naturalistic style. Included in the plans were several formal gardens, a shrub garden or ramble, pools, a lagoon and an elaborately designed three-mile approach road. Driving up on this road, I thought “My how nature laid this particular landscape out so magnificently” then realized it is the best of Olmsted’s style.
The estate provides local rhododendron, mountain laurel, deciduous azalea, hemlock and pine and Olmstead added the rare and exotic creating a unique horticultural setting.
After George Vanderbilt’s early death in 1914, a large portion of the original estate was obtained by the U.S. government, forming the nucleus for Pisgah National Forest. Because Vanderbilt, along with German forester Dr. Carl A. Schenck, established the Biltmore School of Forestry here in America—this seems a fitting legacy to the man behind Biltmore and a protected treasure for us all to enjoy.
Today, Biltmore’s forests, grounds and gardens continue to reflect Olmsted’s plans from nearly a century ago. Estate staff manages approximately 8,000 acres of forest and woodland as well as maintaining the estate grounds and greenhouses. Their jobs include pruning some 80 varieties of roses in the rose garden, planting 50,000 tulip bulbs in the Walled Garden each year, raising and planting 20,000 bedding plants annually, and growing more than 1,000 poinsettias which decorate Biltmore House every Christmas.
In addition to routine gardening and grounds keeping, garden staffs are heavily involved in landscaping restoration projects, implemented in an effort to maintain the integrity and intent of Olmsted’s original plans for Biltmore.
I could spend days with Bill Alexander, Biltmore’s Landscape and Forest Historian, whose knowledge and scope of experience at the property was unending. “George Washington Vanderbilt, like many of his peers, was fascinated with cutting edge technologies and innovations. I believe he would have been excited by all the research, work and sheer effort we have put into updating—and preserving—this historic building,” said Alexander regarding the Conservatory, one of his many projects.
Another long-term Biltmore employee, Displays Manager, Cathy Barnhardt oversees the stunning day-to-day decorations inside Biltmore House and across the estate. Barnhardt has become a recognized expert in turn-of-the-century floral arranging and decorating. Decorations for popular special events, such as Christmas and Festival of Flowers, also fall under her supervision. I asked her about horror stories of which she had a few but years of experience have given her many ways to “save the day.”
The Inn on Biltmore Estate, is an on site luxury hotel built in a style compatible with the main house. The large guest rooms are very complete with many featuring long rolling countryside views. There is a pleasant quiet atmosphere, excellent service from the entire staff, fine dining using produce and beef grown on the property, large open public spaces and a convenient shuttle bus circles the various sites so you can park your car and leave it. The highways coming into town are very well marked for Biltmore and other area attractions. It isn’t too hard to get around and follow your interests.
I believe North Carolina was one of the first states to plant massive flowerscapes in the medians of their highways and I always marvel at mile after mile of glorious color and blooms enticing you into Asheville.
If you’re staying at the Inn it could easily take a week to do everything. You can enjoy a good book and glass of wine in the library, splash in the round outdoor pool and hot tub, or relax over afternoon tea. Outside activities include hiking with or without a naturalist or take one of the guided horseback trail rides that depart daily. Many equestrian opportunities are available.
Practice your off-road auto skills at the Land Rover Experience Driving School, led by experienced instructors, offering lessons that cover the basics of expedition-style driving and are customized to fit your skill and comfort level or golf at a nearby course and of course visit the two lobby gift shops.
Carriage rides follow different routes each season to showcase the best natural surroundings. During our visit a bride and groom arrived by horse drawn carriage. For bike touring bring your own bike or rent one of theirs and follow the paved path or more challenging trails. Paddle down the gentle French Broad River with its magnificent views of Biltmore House’s west façade. Choose from a guided trip on a raft or simply kayak.
I liked the greenhouse and garden shops. Although our visit was in early spring and it was unseasonably cold—like 40 degrees below the average! We still forged on. This is a great destination for multigenerational families. Everyone except perhaps the smaller children will enjoy the house, the River Bend Farm had exhibits and the types of demonstrations everyone enjoys. I thought the very entertaining blacksmiths were the highlight of that day.
The winery tour was informative and a lot of people purchased wine. At Biltmore Winery, tradition meets state-of-the-art technology under the direction of French winemaker Bernard Delille. Vineyards on the estate’s west side grow several varieties of vinifera grapes while the estate’s former dairy complex now houses the winery. Additional grapes are imported from Napa Valley and blended in with the estates producing 160,000 cases of wine each year in about 15 varieties. Biltmore wines have received awards in national and international competitions.
Probably the single most significant aspect that I enjoyed about the Biltmore was the people that worked there. No one was rude; every single person seemed to know more than was required about their job, the facility and whatever else you needed to know. Over and over they took extra time to tell about the area they worked in or their favorite view or feature.
There are many dining options on the grounds and everything we tested was great.
Check the very comprehensive website for ticket prices as there are a number of options available plus add on tours of some areas.
Biltmore information, call 877- BBILTMORE or 828-225-1333.
Inn on Biltmore Estate reservations, call 800-411-3812 or 828-225-1600.
Biltmore, 1 Approach Road, Asheville, N.C. 28803.
Photos courtesy of The Biltmore Company