Downtown Asheville, NC scurries with activity like a university campus on graduation day. From fancy dress to cutoffs and tees, folks move about and dine in small eateries serving up gourmet to down-home dishes. Musicians serenade on street corners adding a rhythmic beat to the air and micro-breweries concoct the latest craft beer. Outdoor enthusiasts hustle up mountainous roads: bicycling, jogging, hiking while others practice yoga in the plaza. Asheville is a happening crossroads where visitors and locals thrive on diversity and natural delights.
I was attracted by the elegant and extraordinary Biltmore Estate, Asheville’s claim to fame. No wonder; it’s America’s largest home, constructed for George Vanderbilt over six years and opened on Christmas 1895. After the NYC tycoon first visited the area, he fell in love with the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains and clean air. His decision to build in Asheville brought prosperity to the entire region.
The house sits on something like 8,000 acres and your first stop is at the welcoming center where you pick up tickets. Then, you drive to the parking lot where you pick up a shuttle bus that takes you on to the main house.
An audio guide is a must for touring the art-filled home. Vanderbilt hired architect Richard Morris Hunt and worked closely with him as they designed the blueprints. Note: a kid’s audio guide is available with Cedric, the family’s Saint Bernard, as narrator. Allow between one and a half to two hours, but don’t rush. Think of the place as a vast art museum with the personal touches of a multi-millionaire: medieval tapestries, spectacular sculpture, detailed wood prints, exquisite paintings, and fine furniture from world-class craftsmen. Plus, the house includes a library with 10,000 rare volumes, a castle-like banquet hall with a 70-foot ceiling, 65 fireplaces, and 43 bathrooms.
The rambling exterior incorporates stone architecture resembling the chateaux in the Loire Valley of France and carved stone figures like those found on Notre Dame. Every detail held meaning such as the intertwined initials GV on embossed copper flashing. The immense property and astonishing wealth make you shake your head in disbelief.
I also signed-up for the behind the scenes Rooftop Tour that’s led by a knowledgeable guide. The additional tour slips you through areas off limits to regular visitors. You climb the spiral staircase in the Observatory to venture outside. The views from this height and the wrap-around balconies provide spectacular panoramic vistas of the property and mountains. My group inspected stone grotesques and gargoyles (stone figures that act as drain pipes) up close. “Pat the buttocks of the statue without a tail for good karma, “said my guide. So, naturally I just had to give it a gentle tap! You peek into the rafters and learn how the roof was designed to prevent snow from cascading down and damaging the glass solarium. Lastly, you stop at the spot George Vanderbilt liked to take his guests for sunset. This area shows off the skills of the architects, landscapers, stone carvers and other artisans who brought the project to fruition.
I had to hurry through the colorful gardens planned by America’s foremost landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted. Vanderbilt was studied horticulture so his gardens and forest were important to him. One can explore 2.5 miles of paths in the manicured gardens alone or stroll along the French Broad River, if time permits.
The daily admission ticket includes wine tasting, but I just couldn’t fit in the Antler Hill Village and Winery, an activity that would be right up my alley! You need a full day to properly experience the estate, gardens and vineyards (or barn and farmland with kids). Consider advance reservation at an additional cost for outdoor extras such as the Sports Clay School, horseback riding, Segway tours, fly-fishing, biking, and kayaking. Don’t cut yourself short, but then again, like me, you’ll have many reasons to return to breathtaking Asheville.
An article similar to this appeared in the August 2015 issue of the Mandarin Newsline.