What if a gentlemen with unlimited resources joined forces with a world famous architect and the genius who designed Central Park and built an estate over hundreds of acres in the mountains. George Vanderbilt did exactly that when he initiated The Biltmore over one hundred years ago in the hills of western North Carolina on the edges of the city Asheville.
I've seen the Vanderbilt summer cottage in Newport, known as The Breakers, but the Biltmore estate was much more ambitious. Like The Breakers, the huge mansion is heavily influenced by then current trends in Italian and French architecture, but the piece de resistance is the remarkable estate surrounding this home and the scale on which the estate was envisioned.
I drove into the Biltmore and went at least 2 miles before we even got close to the main Biltmore House. When designing the landscape, Frederick Olmstead deliberately built the long winding roads that pass by lush forests and local rivers, so that guests would realize they were passing into a different kind of experience. Suffice to say, it works. On this day, crews were out with chainsaws repairing the damages from a storm the prior evening, but the many trees and plants along the edges of the roads still enchanted, bringing a calming effect as the drive continued.
Today, the estate has been preserved by the Vanderbilt family, so it is a hugely popular tourist spot that needs the satellite parking lots about a quarter of mile away from the main house. I joined my fellow tourists on the shuttle bus and we were dropped off by the front door. But on this way in, here is the view of the main Biltmore House:
I took the walking tour on my visit. Inside, each of the major rooms is distinct. Sitting rooms often have art from world renowned artists of the day including Whistler, John Stewart Sargent and Renoir.
Looking out, you can see the views which Olmstead sought, where the house stands above the fields below, but also looks on to the Smoky mountains in the distance.
This is the kind of place where even the nooks and crannies are special. The exterior of the main house brought to mind another famous French building -- Notre Dame in Paris. Like Notre Dame, the exterior of the house had a variety of carefully sculpted gargoyles who did double duty in serving as water spouts to drain water away from the house in the event of rain. No sign of such rain this day; the temperatures pushed 90 degrees even in the morning.
The interior rooms for the family members were huge. Each room had a different style, though variations of double posted beds were common. Here again, I saw the influence of Versailles in the attention to detail, be it in special wallpapers, imported furniture and, in one case, a fireplace taken from Europe and reconstructed here.
Tying the house together is the Grand Staircase which winds upward in a style much like the one featured in Gone With the Wind. Here is a glimpse of the staircase looking down from the top floor.
As distinctive as the interior of the house is, the exterior grounds designed by Olmstead offer an even more colorful and varied set of views.
On the left of the main house, the collection of carefully tended gardens begin. Looking forward from the Libary Terrace is the Italian Garden. Here, a combination of leafy green plants, ivory statues and stone bordered pools create an oasis of beauty which contrasts with the wilder appearance of the forests soaring skyward behind it.
Next, I began the walk downhill toward the conservatory and was immediately distracted by magnificent hanging gardens. On a cooler day, I can imagine sitting under the vineyard style trestles and reading for hours.
On this day, the scorching heat made me think it was time to find water and lunch, not necessarily in that order. But first, a quick walk down to the walled gardens seemed essential. Which looked like this:
And putting the garden against its backdrop, revealed this pastiche:
The walk through these gardens provided a feast for my eyes, but the heat from the sun was unrelenting, so I bid adieu to the gardens and returned to the main house of the estate. I circled back to the other side of the house and checked in at the front desk of the stable cafe. The place was very busy, but I was able to get a seat almost immediately. A waiter quickly came by and brought me a large lemonade and ice water, which I began to drink to get rehydrated. Looking around, I noticed that the tables were set in the former horse stalls and built of polished hardwood and wrought iron. Like everything else I experienced at the Biltmore, the drinks were excellent and gave me a chance to scope out the menu. The variety of choices left me with a tough decision, but I opted for Lamb Sliders based on the description provided by my attentive waiter. Shortly afer this, he came by with hot cornbread. Perfect to whet my appetite.
I wrote up a few postcards and then tended to the food when it arrived. The sliders were excellent, silver dollar sized slices of lamb on a small toasted bun with a horseradish sauce. I added a taste of catsup and the blended taste was outrageous.
So ended my trip to the Biltmore. I had an appointment after this, so with great reluctance, I returned to my car and followed the 4 mile loop through more forest and past the Biltmore winery, finally exiting the estate. I got my money's worth on a discounted ticket and definitely want to go back again with my wife and family to share this amazing treasure built into the hills on the outskirts of Asheville.