Girlfriend Getaway: Biltmore, the American Downton Abbey

by Chris on March 15, 2012

First stop on my girlfriend getaway trip to Asheville, North Carolina: A visit to the Biltmore Estate, America’s version of Downton Abbey, built by the Vanderbilt family.

This is the first in my series about my girlfriend getaway to North Carolina.

Girlfriend Getaway, Biltmore

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, the American Downton Abbey

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?)

Biltmore, America's Downtown Abbey

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.

Biltmore grounds

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.

 

Biltmore Gardens

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. 

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Megan C. Stroup March 15, 2012 at 2:26 pm

I visited the Biltmore as an included event for a national conference I attended in Asheville one year. I remember that it was gorgeous — and I seem to remember an exorbitantly large kitchen area. Is that right? Glad you enjoyed it and were able to squeeze a fun daycation into your work trip!

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Chris March 15, 2012 at 4:18 pm

Megan – Yep, the kitchen area is huge for a house of that size. There’s a pastry room, a rotisserie room, a regular kitchen, plus numerous specialty storage pantries. It was probably about the same size as what you’d find in a large hotel.

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Caroline March 15, 2012 at 4:12 pm

I’ve only been twice because of the price, especially for a family of five, but it really is an amazing house.

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Chris March 15, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Caroline – Ouch! Yeah, those tickets would add up for a family. And really, it’s a lot for anyone. I also went on a Brews Cruise in Asheville that cost the same amount of money (post coming soon!) and one woman on the tour told me that she’d much rather spend her money on brewery tours than a historic home tour. To each their own!

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Nichole March 15, 2012 at 4:29 pm

I’ve always wanted to visit the Biltmore. It’s so gorgeous.

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Dian Emery April 2, 2012 at 8:49 am

I visited Biltmore during the Festival of Flowers and it was so lovely. My husband enjoyed our stay as well, but I think he preferred downtown Asheville:) Music, good food and beer.

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Alexa Meisler April 16, 2012 at 12:38 pm

I like it. It’s good the families opened up the estate for people to see even if it is a little costly. Definitely should make a day of it! Greta post.

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