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Visit to the Biltmore Estate, a Destination in Itself

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We were recently heading back to the Winston-Salem area to visit our daughter and son in law, and this time we tacked on a couple of extra days to make the drive to Asheville and visit the Biltmore House.  This has been something on our list of things to do for quite a while, and it seemed like the perfect time.  Mansion houses from this era always interest us, and this was the biggest.  Built by George Vanderbilt, the grandson of the founding father of the Vanderbilt fortune, no expense was spared in the design and construction of this place.  Far more than just a great house, this property is really a destination in and of itself, as you can stay in a beautifully appointed inn, indulge in some of the activities the Vanderbilts and their guests might have passed their days with, as well as shopping, eating and drinking to your heart’s content.

While we certainly wished we could have stayed an extra night at the estate, the evening we spent at the Inn on Biltmore Estate was very enjoyable.  After a late afternoon flight into Charlotte we had slept in Gastonia, rising early to complete the drive to Asheville and tour the house in the morning.  We had arrangements for a production tour

Front Lawn from the Rooftop

Front Lawn from the Rooftop

and tasting at the estate winery in the afternoon (a separate blog on the winery and wines will be coming).  They greeted us at the checkpoint with a prepared parking certificate for guests and directed us to the inn, where we parked the car, left the bags, and hopped on board their comfortable shuttle for the trip to the house.  You really don’t need your car if you’re staying at the inn and are going anywhere on property.  Characteristics of a Disney like experience were definitely evident, minus the characters and thrill rides.  They do, of course, have a castle here.

We would recommend taking the audio tour of the house first, as it allows you to take a self paced walk through the generally open areas and you can tailor the amount of detail you wish to explore.  Here will come a word of advice as well, the house can get very crowded on holidays and weekends.  We arrived on a Thursday, and our audio tour was leisurely paced throughout and we never had to wait or try to push through a throng of visitors to get to our next stop.  This was not the case on Friday, as we had booked two private tours (both excellent and highly recommended), so we went behind the ropes in our small group.  On the other side of the ropes the lines lengthened throughout the day, and when we left at about 1 PM there were lines out the door, lines all the way up the four story stair case and crowds milling about everywhere inside and out.  This is a very popular attraction, and we presume our experience would have been slightly less enjoyable had we waited until Friday to do the audio tour.  We strongly recommend a weekday visit if you can manage it.

The Mansion House and Gardens

The house is spectacular, really built as almost a luxury hotel and clearly intended to provide a place where friends and family could visit and stay for extended periods.  While the main rooms downstairs are grand, there are a series

Looking down at the Winter Garden

Looking down at the Winter Garden

of areas on various floors where sets of guest rooms are located, all with adjoining salons and library areas where those guests could relax and interact.  Please don’t read this and be disappointed however.  You will gaze in awe at the 70 foot vaulted ceilings in the dining room, a space of staggering proportions, including an impressive pipe organ on one side and a very cool triple fireplace on the other.  Most of the rest of the house is closer to mortal dimensions, although the ninety foot long tapestry gallery is almost three times as long as our house. While it is large, it is also kind of homey in many places and I could live in parts of it.  Not sure what I would do with the other 95% however, even though Cheri could probably convince herself we would use it.  The big soaking tubs in every bathroom were nice.

Architecturally it is a marvel, with a very evident French Chateau inspiration and an attention to detail that is almost

Normally Unseen Gargoyles

Normally Unseen Gargoyles

George Vanderbilt's Initials on the Roof Ridge

George Vanderbilt’s Initials on the Roof Ridge

unbelievable. To really get an appreciation for that you should take the Architect’s tour, which will take you to the upper levels and out onto some balconies which give you views of the upper rooftops, close ups of some of the gargoyles, and incredible views of the surrounding gardens, the gables and especially the giant cupola covering the Winter Garden.  You will get to see the ornamentation on every corner and line, the embossed initials GV (for George Vanderbilt) which are on the top roof flashing and the carvings you could never see unless you were actually on the roof.  It is a monumental commitment to quality that went into this amazing property.  We highly recommend the Architect’s Tour, although for those afraid of heights it might be a bit scary.

When you have finished the house you can visit the gardens, which are also grand in scale and splendid in execution.  While we were there a bit early for the azaleas and rhododendrons, the tulips were up and they covered the expanse of the walled flower garden in a simply spectacular way.  It was gorgeous.  As we left the tulips we entered the

Part of the Tulip Seas

Part of the Tulip Seas

greenhouses, and the theme switched to orchids and lilies.  This was equally impressive, and there were several rooms within the greenhouse complex including one devoted to cacti.

In a departure from the physical attributes of the property, let’s talk about the people who are maintaining it.  The staff we encountered were extremely courteous and knowledgeable.  They were also all apparently genuinely pleased to be working there, as we heard several of them actually say that.  Not once did we meet someone who was curt, aloof, inattentive or less than pleasant.  This place is run well, efficiently and apparently profitably as they don’t seem to spare expense anywhere.  You can appreciate that when you look at the arrangements of fresh cut flowers that adorn the house.  We noticed them when we walked in and the fragrant lilies filled our senses.  We saw them at every turn.  We met several of the people responsible in the lower levels as we came upon the working floral shop and the five or six women busily creating new works.  It really is pretty impressive.

This is worth the trip.  If you spend the day you could do the self guided tour and maybe two specialty tours, as well as stroll through the gardens. That accounts for one day, but there is much more to do on the estate, and it is the other things that really make the Biltmore Estate a destination.  A side benefit is that when you take the plunge and stay here, visiting the house becomes easier and less stressful as well.  It’s all good.

The Inn

Luxury best describes The Inn on Biltmore Estate.  From the moment you pull up they will take care of everything, and you should let them.  We got out of our car, had them put the bags on a cart, handed the keys to the valet and

The Inn from Antler Village Below

The Inn from Antler Village Below

jumped on the shuttle to the house.  This was great.  We didn’t have to deal with the parking lots at the house, which are certainly manageable but still nothing beats getting dropped off at the entrance.  When we got back the way the inn the high service level really became evident. We stopped at the front desk, received our key and handed them our luggage tag, and were literally not in our room long enough to look around when the knock on the door came and the bellhop arrived with the luggage.  We have never, never had a bell stand respond this quickly.  Service almost never missed a beat from this point until the moment we left.

There is complimentary coffee in the lobby in the morning, which is not that different

Part of the Lobby

Part of the Lobby

than other hotels but which is really good.  You can have lunch in the lobby, or you can have tea in the lobby.  The lobby is beautiful.  There is a lobby bar (with an excellent scotch selection by the way).  This is all good.  We believe you can really tell the tenor of a hotel by the lobby, and this is exceptional.

Our comfortable room

Our comfortable room

Dinner was downstairs in the dining room, and while there were a few issues overall, it was very good.  You can read about that in our food review of the trip.

Our description of the room is easy, it was elegant and comfortable.  The only slightly negative comment is that the separate bathtub was a bit small, and really isn’t a soaking tub.  Other than that it was wonderful, spacious and comfortable.

We really have nothing negative to say about the Inn.  When we were reluctantly leaving I called the front desk and asked for a bellhop.  They were there within three minutes.  Simply amazing.

The Estate

Biltmore Estate is huge.  Once it was far bigger at 125,000 acres, but it still sports 8,000 acres of rolling hills, forests. rivers and farmlands.  Cattle and sheep graze in the fields.   Overall it is a very calming pastoral scene.  That’s one of the reasons the shuttles are so convenient, as it is too large to really walk between areas.

Activities abound for a two to three day stay.  There are archery classes, skeet shooting, horseback riding, an off road driving experience, the Inn, the restaurants, the winery and the spa.  Not to mention the likelihood of spending an hour or two, or an afternoon, in serious relaxation.  You could stay here for a couple or three nights and never leave the grounds.  We’d like to try that approach next time.

A statue of Cornelia and Cedric the St. Bernard in Antler Village

A statue of Cornelia and Cedric the St. Bernard in Antler Village

Antler Village is right down the hill from the inn and accommodates additional restaurants, shops, a petting zoo and a small museum on the family who built, lived in and still own the estate.  The museum is worth the visit and includes a lot of old photographs of the Vanderbilts and the people who designed and oversaw construction of the house and gardens.

At one time the estate accommodated its own sawmill, nurseries, a railroad to bring in building supplies and later the largest herd of Jersey cows anywhere.  In fact the dairy farm at the Biltmore was renowned for its quality, its ice cream and distributed milk as far as Charlotte.  Sometime after the dairy business was moved off site (it was eventually sold to Pet Milk) the building was re-purposed into the winery.

Summary

We’ll be posting blogs on the winery and wines as well as the food over the next week or two.  Restaurant reviews will be added to the blog and Urban Spoon also, so look for them.  We followed up with a few days in Winston-Salem and will add a few restaurants from that area.

Visiting the Biltmore Estate was a great way to start our trip and a relaxing and interesting destination.  From what we have read the city of Asheville is also great, and we’ll have to spend some time there on a future excursion.  We heartily recommend a visit to the Biltmore.  If you have the time spend two nights at the inn and really relax.

A votre sante!

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