Roads: US-19 North to I-26/US-23 N to I-81 N to I-64 E to US-29 North
Time: 5.5 hours
The morning was cold and clear after the front moved through during the night. The car doors were partially frozen shut, nothing that a little force couldn’t fix but still well below freezing. I had stayed at the Baymont Inn just down the street from the Biltmore Estate so that an early start would get me to the gate when they opened. I wasn’t the first in line but then it seemed that many people had actually planned their vacation and thus bought tickets early. The drive into the estate is bucolic and evokes a much earlier time when George Washington Vanderbilt was entertaining guests for weeks and months. The French Broad River runs through the entire estate. Before I even got to the ticket stand, I saw a flock of turkeys coming down from roost and later learned that roast turkey was Vanderbilt’s favorite meal.
I rode the shuttle from Parking Lot A to the house. I wish in retrospect that I would have walked, it was a short 8 minute walk and the house coming into view through the path and trees would have been stunning. Still, words cannot possibly explain the sheer size and grandeur of the house. Finished in 1895, the house still remains the largest private residence in the United States. The house alone covers over 4 acres of land. It is a testament to what vision and more money than God can do if so desired. Even having visited, I can’t completely comprehend the scope of the place. The tour takes 2 hours if you get the audio tour and listen to each station which I did. Lots of people were just wandering through and that seems almost pointless to me. Why visit an historical landmark of such scope and then just brush through it without a full examination? Perhaps that’s the $75 ticket price talking but still, the opportunity to really learn about Vanderbilt and his house were avoided by well over 50% of the guests.
The bottom floor of the tour includes the banquet room, billiards room, tapestry room, library, music room and garden room. There are heads of moose and elk on the wall of the banquet room that are immense yet look like child’s toys in relation. In an era when ostentation was considered de rigueur in Vanderbilt’s social circle, this house must have still been shocking to his guests and family. Understand that Vanderbilt was a bachelor when he built it and even later in life was only married with a single child. They lived in a house with 250 rooms and a staff of 35. Of course, guests would come and stay for weeks or even months. Still, this was a house built in a very rural area of North Carolina that probably wasn’t even lived in full time. A testament to the kind of wealth the Vanderbilts held.
A certain nostalgia swept over me during the trip, not one of having ever experienced something like this house myself but a literary nostalgia for what it must have been like to come to the estate in the early 1900s. To sit in the tapestry room while a guest played on the piano, chatting with other friends of the Vanderbilts. Working out in the gymnasium, swimming in the heated indoor pool, hunting on the grounds. Even for the most wealthy guests, it must have been quite something.
After the house tour, I walked the gardens which are just as impressive, laid out by the same man who built Central Park. Winter isn’t the best time to appreciate them yet the Walled Garden as well as the layouts of the Shrub and Azalea Gardens are amazing. There is a Conservatory that houses amazing specimens of orchids and ferns. The gardens got just as much attention as the house did and must be a spectacle in spring and summer.
Included in the tour is Antler Hill Village, once the dairy which is 3 miles from the house. It’s since been converted into a top-notch winery along with shops and excursions for those staying at the Inn. The winery tour is short but an extension of Vanderbilt’s original hope that the estate would have an agricultural focus to provide for the guests of the estate. The dairy at the time was state of the art with cows that produced some of the highest butterfat content, making the milk and ice cream delicious.
There was also an exhibit of Tiffany lamps currently on display but I had been on the estate 6 hours and still had a long drive. I pointed the GPS towards Charlottesville, VA and took off. Stopping only once for gas and a coke, I arrived in Charlottesville at 8 PM.