America’s Largest Private Estate, the Biltmore, or, ‘The Lady on the Hill’
By Tab Hauser
Asheville, located in the mountains of western North Carolina is a vibrant small city that caters to vacationers. It offers good food, galleries and shops as well as good evening entertainment.
It is an ideal place to use as a base for exploring the area. An important tourist draw just 10 minutes outside the city is called the Biltmore House.
The Biltmore House (or “Lady on the Hill” as it is affectionately called) is America’s largest private home.
It has 250 rooms which include 33 bedrooms, three kitchens, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces as well a very grand dining room with a 70-foot ceiling, a grand three-level cantilevered staircase, billiard room, library with 10,000 books, indoor heated pool and bowling alley along with different rooms filled with art and 16th-century tapestries.
George Vanderbilt, Young Bachelor
The house alone sits on four acres of land. It was built by young bachelor, George Vanderbilt with construction started in 1889 and taking six years to complete. The estate at that time sat on 125,000 acres of forest. The house was a marvel for its time having an electric elevator (still in use) along with forced-air heating and bathrooms.
We wanted to really get to know the estate and decided to spend the day there taking a few specialty tours.
The Biltmore today sits on 8000 acres. Half are on one side of the French Broad River where different crops and vines grow.
The other half is on the side of the river with the mansion. The property here includes a shopping and activity area called Antler’s Village, the Biltmore Winery, miles of paths, an original farm house with some farming, gardens, and beautiful man-made and natural landscaping.
Seeing it by Segway
To get to the know some of the property near the mansion we started our day with the 9:30 off-road Segway tour. Segway’s are the computerized, self-balancing two-wheel devices that move you around at up to 12 miles per hour. The off-road model has tires that are larger and better tread meant to be on grass and gravel.
Our guide had us carefully practice on the Segway in an area that mimicked the conditions we would be in on a patch of land near the sign-in office. Once we did well in the different exercises we were ready to go.
A 90-Minute Ride
Segways are a great way to see the property if you don’t have time to walk the grounds or care to bicycle them. We took this tour, not just for the fun of the ride but to have a guide tell us the history and features of the estate. Our 90-minute ride took us past cornfields, the horse pen and along the oldest geological rivers in the country.
We stopped to take in different views with our favorite one being of the back of the mansion high up on a hill being reflected into the man-made pond Mr. Vanderbilt had made.
Anyone can Segway if they have a normal sense of balance and can stand for up to 30 minutes at a time.
After zipping around the property we drove up to the Mansion with a stop at Stable Café next to the mansion. This full-service restaurant is housed in the restored stables.
Diners can sit at tables inside the pens where the horses stayed or in any of the tables in the open area. Here you will see the original tiles and crank out windows as well as have a nice lunch. (The Carolina BBQ sandwich tasted authentic)
A Leisurely but Detailed Walk
From the stables, we strolled into the candy store and shop in the same building before entering the main building to collect our audio guide.
We recommend paying an extra fee on admission for the guide so you can get a description of the various rooms you go through along with extra commentary on life in the house.
Expect a leisurely but detailed walkthrough to take just under 90 minutes.
To get a different perspective and view of the Biltmore we signed up for one of the limited roof tours that close out quickly. Here we met a guide who went into the architectural details of how the house was built.
She described how things were made and pointed out different features on the outside that we did not notice or would not have known about.
After a short history of its architecture, we climbed the grand staircase past the point of normal tours and went into the private living space of the Vanderbilt’s which lead us up a small spiral staircase to the balcony for a view and to learn more about the mansion.
From there we went to different access that had us on the roof where the view to the surrounding grounds and mountains was breathtaking.
On the roof, our guide explained in detail how the special slate was cut and connected by wire to thin steel beams. The slate roofing we saw was all original. She then had us go into a small part of the attic to see it first-hand. We also were able to see the gargoyles up close and personal.
I recommend this add on tour if you have an interest in the building process of this great mansion. Rooftop tours take one hour and requires you to climb over four flights of stairs.
To continue our visit here we exited the mansion to our right to view the seven different gardens and conservatory. This was a pleasant 45-minute stroll viewing flowers, orchids, and landscaping.
Wine at Antler’s Village
To complete our day at the Biltmore we drove back to Antler’s Village to visit the winery there. The Biltmore Winery was open to the public in 1985. The winery store and tasting room are open to everyone.
At the store, there are always several basic wines you can taste at no charge. There is a premium brand of wines that are offered for a small cost if you wish. We opted to take pay $10 and take the winery production tour.
Here a small group goes behind closed doors to see the equipment that produces the wines. We learned which wines were aged in steel verse oak.
We also saw the equipment that produces the estate sparkling wines which is produced in the méthode champenoise or the traditional Champagne method.
After walking through different production rooms our small group was taken to a private tasting bar to sample the sparkling wine as well the premium styles.
From the tasting bar, the group was lead into the store where the large tasting room is. Here we tried some of the lower-cost wines and did a little shopping.
8 Hours in the Mansion
We left the Biltmore around 5:30 PM realizing that we spent about eight hours here. We also felt that we had a good feel for the place due to the specialty tours we had added on.
While we chose to take the Segway, Roof Top, and Winery tours, there are several more tours you can choose from. These include a behind the scenes upstairs / downstairs tour, guided and private guided tour as well as a children’s audio tour.
There are also several outdoor experiences that include horseback riding, sporting clays, rafting, and a Land Rover off-road driving experience.
For information on anything that deals with this grand mansion go to www.biltmore.com