South Carolina’s historical summer mountain playground is also the sight of the nation’s largest private home. Rooted deeply in their DNA, readers understand intimately that the mountains of Western North Carolina have delighted Lowcountry citizens for decades — long before George Washington Vanderbilt III completed his 250-room Biltmore House in 1895. Nonetheless, drawn by the same natural beauty and climatic advantages as the visitor staying at the Old Mill in nearby Flat Rock, Vanderbilt and his team turned a vision into the ultimate retreat and one that could be sustainable as a business.
Riding the trail at Biltmore. Image courtesy Biltmore Place.
The house and grounds originally suited every desire of each visitor for any time of the year. Hunters and fishermen found plenty of sport on more than 125,000 acres of the original grounds and wilderness and conservationists today can delight in the nearly 90,000 acres sold by Vanderbilt’s widow Edith in 1915 to create the Pisgah National Forest. Gilded Age visitors could also enjoy walks in the gardens; dinner parties and more dinner parties; golf; tennis; croquet; reading; coaching; hiking; picnicking and on and on.
The property is now 8,000 acres of rolling hills and riverfront and gardens — much of it designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Architect Richard Morris Hunt designed the famous French Renaissance house, often termed “America’s Castle,” which is on a bluff above the confluence of the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers. When it opened on Christmas Eve 1895, the Vanderbilts invited all the servants for a grand holiday celebration; this followed six long years of construction.
A tour of house includes seeing the large banquet hall and the extensive library, which President Obama found on a recent trip to be his favorite spot. It is a most handsome room with a large fireplace, containing 10,000 of the 23,000 original volumes as well as a 300-year-old painting on the ceiling. Pellegrini’s work, in 13 canvases, was originally in the Pisani Palace in Venice. The famous house is a study in historic preservation and conservation, as the owners have sought to restore many of the rooms, including period furnishings and food products, as they would have appeared in their prime.
In some ways, a house tour is a study in how to entertain a house party of three dozen. As you take steps into history, it is helpful to imagine the sounds, smells and looks of each room. George Vanderbilt insisted on comfort; it was not just an option. All the guest rooms and master bedrooms contain a bell system for alerting servants. An indoor pool and gymnasium were fitted with the best of the day and elevators, modern heating and plumbing put the house on the cutting edge for its time.
For the keen sportsman, the house will speak to every need from where you gather to play billiards to the smoking room to the gun room. The banquet room is decorated with trophies that look down on those feasting, creating the type of entertaining atmosphere that only Europeans could rival. The house shows clearly that Mr. Vanderbilt made certain his male friends would feel at home; he gave equal room for feminine extravagance as Edith might enjoy in the many dressing rooms and elegant parlors; they wed three years after the house was finished. The couple would go on many trips and acquire many furnishings for the house, including rare clocks, carvings, paintings and tapestries.
The most amusing room is what the estate terms the “Halloween Room,” a one-time storage area where Cornelia and John Cecil held a party in the 1920s where their guests painted various sections of the walls. More than just a leftover artistic musing, the amateurish wall adornments demonstrate that the family knew how to have fun.
The Vanderbilt's luxurious library. Image courtesy Biltmore Place.
Today, the estate seeks to offer guest a myriad of options for entertainment — excluding painting the walls with whimsical designs. With approximately one million visitors a year, the estate also does private events such as weddings and has been the backdrop for several movies. A visit may include a variety of lunch options and the estate has an efficient shuttle system to get you where you need to be. The gift shops tend to offer far more upscale products than you might expect, so be ready to snap up unique replicas and so forth.
Do not come for a quick trip; also, be prepared to walk — though the estate can arrange tours for anyone disabled. We did not have time to see the extensive gardens on a walking tour, but we took note of the exceptional care of the grounds from start to finish, including the vistas along the drive as you enter the estate and head to the welcome center. Outside of any sporting activity, it would safe to set aside four hours for your visit.
One of the big draws is the winery, the most visited in the country. A wine tasting experience is included with the price of your ticket to see the house and grounds and this is well worth your time. The many hosts are patient and knowledgeable. Visitors may also try the more exclusive wines but this comes with an additional tasting ticket.
This facility is where the old dairy was located; in the early 1970s, the Cecil family thought wine might be a noble experiment. They have now refitted the dairy with a winemaking operation, which officially opened in 1985; 1,000 awards later, they produce more than two million bottles a year, including 50 different wines. They began growing local grapes but switched to the European vitis vinifera variety in the early 1980s and now grow more than 60,000 vines on about 100 acres near a 44-acre lake they constructed for irrigation purposes.
Entrepreneurial to the core, the family licenses reproductions of elegant household furnishings, making them available nationally. The Biltmore Inn has a new section under construction right next to the wine tasting facility, so one may correctly suggest the Cecils — and about 1,800 employees — are banking on expanding food and wine tours for overnight guests. The sporting sorts may visit the outdoor center and set up equestrian outings, a rafting trip, a fishing trip or sporting clays. You can take a Segway tour on paths that will take you near the river, forest and sunflower fields.
Visitors may not arrive in a carriage but they may ride in one, brushing against the shadow of the experiences of guests of the Gilded Age. If you are looking for a sporting or culinary experience in an elegant atmosphere, check out your options at www.biltmore.com.