With 178,000 sq. ft. of living space, 250 rooms, and 8,000 acres of property, you’d hardly consider the Biltmore Estate to be a “little mountain escape,” but that’s exactly what George Washington Vanderbilt II called his summer house in Asheville, North Carolina. I can’t begin to imagine what his winter house must have looked like.
The Biltmore Estate is the largest privately owned home in America. Built between 1889 and 1895, it was once the home of George Washington Vanderbilt II and his wife Edith Stuyvesant Dresser. Though much of the Vanderbilt’s wealth came from railroads and other business ventures, George Vanderbilt dabbled in dairy farming at the estate. His heirs later sold the dairy barns and built a winery, which is still in operation today. One of George’s grandsons, William Cecil, later inherited the estate and opened it to the public, though it is still privately owned.
You can tell immediately that a tour of the house will be daunting. To begin with, visitors must drive 3 miles from the entrance gate to the parking area where they can catch a shuttle to the house. It’s another 2 miles to the winery from there. But start with the house.
I highly recommend the audio guides to accompany your self-guided tour. We chose the children’s audio guide for my daughter. I listened to it through some of the rooms in the house and found it perfectly entertaining for kids who may not be as taken with the museum-like atmosphere of the opulent rooms as their parents are. The children’s audio guide is narrated by Cedric, the dog. He points out features in each room that appeal to children, like the fact that 27 stockings are hung from the fireplace at Christmas. He also points out pictures of dogs hanging on the walls in the Billiard Room – which, oddly, turned out to be my favorite room of the house.
The library was fantastic. Filled with 10,000 books, I know this is where I would have spent the majority of my time if I’d lived there. George and Edith’s bedrooms were magnificent, too. As were the various sitting rooms, guest rooms, dining rooms, breakfast rooms, music rooms, indoor pool, bowling alley, etc., etc., etc. Seriously, how many rooms could one family really need?
The house was gorgeous, as were the grounds. There are gardens and paths and scenic picnic areas that guests are allowed to wander. There are also stables and lakes and a small lagoon. You could easily spend days wandering all that the Biltmores owned.
They wisely steer visitors past the Antler Hill Winery as you exit the estate. A free wine tasting is included with your ticket price and we happily partook. First we took a guided tour of the winery operation. It was quite interesting. Biltmore Estate wine is produced there, but the grapes are brought in from California, making it a California wine. We saw the vats and the processing involved in making reds, whites, and roses before we went to the tasting room and were greeted by a bartender who patiently let us try as many different flavors of Biltmore Wines as we liked. (Which ended up being all the wines on the menu since I like white and my husband likes red.)
There was live music playing in the village square. Many people bought several bottles of wine and sat at one of the tables enjoying the music and ambiance around them. Others headed to one of the restaurants on site. We drove through the grounds, admiring the mountains in the background and listing all the bits of opulence that astounded us. I still cannot fathom what it must have been like to live there in its Gilded Age heyday. But the Behind-the-Scenes Butler Tour gave me a glimpse of what it might have been like if I’d worked there instead. It was a little easier for me to relate to that. I’ll tell you more about that next.
Where have you experienced opulence?
*I’d like to thank the Biltmore Estate for hosting my family’s tour of the house and providing complimentary audio guides. All opinions and wistfulness are completely my own.