This is the first in my series about my girlfriend getaway to North Carolina.
What’s one of the best ways to save money on a vacation? Add in something fun to a work-related trip. So while I went to North Carolina last weekend to speak at a tourism conference about how to pitch bloggers, I took advantage of the location and scheduled a girlfriend getaway to Biltmore, the American version of Downton Abbey.
My friend Kathryn loves historic homes. She’s always been that way; when she lived in Virginia in her 20s, she joined a historic home committee comprised of women who were several decades older than she was. But while she had seen ALL of the Loire Valley chateau that influenced George Vanderbilt while he was building Biltmore (which, for the record, are Blois, Chenonceau and Chambord), she had never seen the actual residence. So this trip was a little bit like scoring the middle of a historic home Bingo card for her.
Biltmore Estate 101
I didn’t know too much about Biltmore, other than it was built and owned by the grandson of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt. Gilded Age moguls are not exactly my prime Jeopardy category, but I did live in Rhode Island for a year so I had toured The Breakers and other mansions in Newport (not surprisingly, with Kathryn).
While The Breakers is impressive, the Biltmore is on another plane altogther. It’s STILL the largest private house in America, boasting 250 rooms, an indoor swimming pool and bowling alley, a dining room that rises seven stories, grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and gargoyles that rival Oxford. It’s pure American nouveau riche, a McMansion of its time built by a family that didn’t have its own castles to inherit.
While he may not have had his own plantation passed down from generations, George Vanderbilt himself did have something more valuable – one of the world’s biggest fortunes. His older brothers took over running the family business; George preferred to read and travel (and who can blame him?)
A Vanderbilt Mansion Designed as a Retreat
George was a bachelor when he built Biltmore, designing the home with Richard Morris Hunt, one of the world’s best-known architects during that time. Asheville was a popular mountain resort during that time, attracting not only vacationers but people seeking better air to recover from tuberculous. Vanderbilt saw Biltmore as a retreat where he and his rich friends and family could escape the New York paparazzi. The house opened on Christmas Day, 1895.
George eventually married, to a socialite with impressive name of Edith Stuyvesent Dresser. They had one daughter, Cornelia, who eventually owned Biltmore with her own family. In order to attract tourism to the Asheville area during the Depression, Biltmore opened to visitors in 1930. It’s still owned by descendants of the Vanderbilts, the Cecil family.
Like a Downtown Abbey set
So with all this wealth where does Downton Abbey come in? Unlike some historic home tours, the Biltmore includes a thorough tour of the servants’ quarters. It took a vast amount of staff to keep the Vanderbilt’s cushy daily life going – at any time, 30 to 35 servants worked there. Those rooms look very much like the ones you see on Downton Abbey, complete with the call boxes that let the workers know if the Vanderbilts needed anything. I could visualize a Mr. Carson furrowing his eyebrows.
For all that Americans allegedly hate the 1 percent, Biltmore is incredibly popular. At $45 each, tickets are not cheap. The website has some specials, including $10 off if you buy your ticket in advance, so I’d check those out before you plan your trip. During our visit, the audio guides were included in the price. If you do the self-guided walking tour, it will take at least 90 minutes. There is a fair amount of steps and walking involved.
If you do splurge on the Biltmore, make a day of it. Walk around the grounds, or pack a picnic from nearby Asheville to eat near the lagoon.
After our tour, we went out and toodled around the grounds. While the temperatures were in the 60s, it was too early for most of the spring flowers, and very few of the tulips were blooming in the Conservancy. If you’re looking to see Biltmore in all of its floral glory, wait until early April.
Besides the property, your admission allows you admission to Antler Hill, a collection of new shops and restaurants that’s also home to the Biltmore Winery is. Forget any of the Napa powerhouses; this winery is the most visited in the United States (hard to believe, given that the North Carolina wine industry is still emerging). A tasting is included with your ticket.
Antler Hill lies in the shadow of the Inn at the Biltmore, a four-star hotel that also contains a spa and restaurants. An Outdoor Center on the grounds allows you to take fly fishing lessons, shoot at sporting clays or take a guided horseback riding tour. The Vanderbilt descendants have made it possible for tourists to spend an entire weekend at the Biltmore – and judging from the crowds we saw on a Sunday, many people do.
As to who these tourists are, we noticed a lot of middle-aged couples walking hand-in-hand. “Empty nesters reconnecting after the kids left,” whispered Kathryn. “And this trip was all their wife’s idea,” I replied.
Which left me pondering whether or not my husband would enjoy a romantic weekend at Biltmore. He would like the history and the architecture, although the sheer excess would leave us both a little cold. The house really is over the top, and it’s boggling to imagine that the people that owned it didn’t pay any income taxes. That being said, Biltmore is an icon of a certain time and place, and if you enjoy American history, you will like visiting.
My trip was sponsored by the North Carolina Governor’s Conference on Tourism, but my opinions remain my own.