Monday, April 23, 2012

Day Trippers: Biltmore House and Gardens, Asheville NC

I know I whine a lot about there being nothing to do. In this sleepy little county there’s not a lot happening! But in truth, Western North Carolina has a lot to offer, within a couple of hours ride. In the future, I’ll try to focus on NC Day Trips in a series called Day Trippers. But we all know me well enough to know that I post such things with the best of intentions that never seem to come to fruition!

First up in this new series, is Biltmore House. Biltmore is a turn-of-the-century French chateau built by George Vanderbilt in Asheville, North Carolina. At 135,000 square feet, it’s the largest “private home” in America and it is a self-sustaining estate. Admission is fairly steep, $59 for a day ticket with addition fees for guided “behind-the-scenes” tours, but it is all day admission to the house, all the Gardens and grounds, and Antler Hill village. There is no shortage of food, with the Stable Café, which used to serve as the carriage house and stables, offering soups, sandwiches and entrees at reasonable prices, as well as less expensive but no less tasty options at a bakery, a wood-fired pizza stall, candy store and an ice cream shop that sells Biltmore made ice cream. Tables are spread out within the stable courtyard, under the towers of the house. If you’re looking for fine dining, you can find it at the Biltmore Winery Bistro. Speaking of the winery, since my last visit a few years ago, Antler Hill Village has grown by leaps and bounds. It now not only includes the Biltmore winery (complete with wine tastings), but also a new special exhibits hall that will showcase the collections of George Vanderbilt on a rotating basis. Still included at Antler Hill is a small farm with the most adorable and petable animals in the world, the blacksmith shop, with blacksmith demonstrations, a woodwrights shop, with woodworking demonstrations. Should you get hungry while visiting Antler Hill, there’s a new pub, Cedric’s, named after the beloved Vanderbilt family dog, that features their locally brewed Cedric’s Ale (available at all restaurants) served up alongside traditional pub fare such as fish and chips. I’m a huge fan of Asheville, and a lover of this estate. I’ve been there several times, but always manage to find something new!
But where are the photos??
I’m so glad you asked!!!

So, how about stepping into my humble home? IMG_3006
I seemed to have missed taking a full shot of the house this trip! So have one from a previous time!

Two of my favorite details on the house are on this façade.
St. Louis of France
And St. Joan of Arc.
Stone cutters and sculptors were brought in from Scotland, Ireland and England to complete the work. Local artisans were used when possible, but at that time in North Carolina, we were building out of wood, not stone. And I have to say the stone work is ASTOUNDING.
And another favorite carving on the loggia. Isn't he a happy little devil? Even with a bird on his head.

The stone is limestone shipped via railroad from Indiana. The Vanderbilts made their money first with steamships and later with the railroads. It was the railroads already in place in Asheville that allowed Vanderbilt to build his marvel. But the limestone is a facade. The structure underneath that facade is good North Carolina brick, made on site.

We chose to go in April because it was their Festival of Flower celebration. The entire house was filled with lovely cut flower arrangements. In the foyer, they offer a display showing the types of flowers that are used throughout the house. The air was redolent with hydrangea, Asiatic lilies, snapdragons and other flowers I didn’t recognize. Columns were wreathed in rose garlands, at least a foot wide, a solid carpet of floral vibrancy. It was really seeing the house at its best, I think. Even better than Christmas, when every room has a tree but so many things are lost in there shadow. They do not allow photography indoors but I snuck a photo anyway. I’m not very good shooting from the hip, but you can see part of the “Winter Garden” and the fresh flower garlands that were wreathing the columns.
We opted to take an architectural guided tour because it allows you to go places that aren’t normal open to the public. Mainly ON THE ROOF. That’s right, all the way up to the top, through George Vanderbilt’s “study” (think gorgeous dark paneling in a room built to resemble a ships interior) up a wrought iron spiral staircase and out to a roof top catwalk that puts you on level with the gargoyles. It was GLORIOUS. Totally and completely worth the cost. Don’t hesitate. DO IT. Buy the ticket and take this tour.
See? Looking down, or at least level, with the rooftops.
Down at the entrance to the Courtyard!
Gargoyle butt crack!! (I love this gargoyle. LOVE HIM. I hugged him).
But we didn’t linger here. They lead us back through the study and out the “windows” on the other side, out to a rooftop deck that was even higher, with better views of the surrounding mountains.
Here we were eye level with the copper ridgeline of the roof, with the Vanderbilt crest.
And even more gargoyles!
We were overlooking the estate. The Esplanade, with the statue of Diana in the gazebo at the top of the hill.
And the Italian Gardens to the right, followed by the shrub gardens and the formal gardens and conservatory.
But we did not linger there long enough. A day would not be lingering long enough. Instead we trouped back into the house, past the attic and down to the family loggia, and the view that made George Vanderbilt fall in love with this land.
And here were some of the most beautiful gargoyles of all!
(Doesn’t this one look like Obi-Wan Kenobi???)
That ended our “rooftop” tour and we returned through the door on the right (The left door leads into George Vanderbilt’s bedroom, if I remember correctly) and our time at the house ended.

After walking out the front doors of Biltmore House itself, your day is far from over. There are miles and miles of walking trails and gardens to explore.
But not before we pause at the fountain to reenact the famous portrait of Richard Morris Hunt, architect of Biltmore, painted by John Singer Sargent.
Similar, huh??
Then it was down to the Formal gardens and the Conservatory, by way of a wisteria covered walkway.
More wisteria in the walled formal garden, this time white!
When you first enter the conservatory, it feels you’ve entered the jungle—and as you move on you are inundated with light, smell and color.
A whole room is devoted to different orchids.
But sometimes, it’s the simple things that are best.
It’s worth noting that if you really love any of the plants you see, they do have a garden center behind the conservatory and you can purchase plants to take home with you! I didn’t. Plants and I do not get along. They hate me and die immediately. I don’t know how I’ve managed to keep Dutchboy alive this long. Maybe because he doesn’t have chlorophyll.

Anyway, after leaving the conservatory, we moved back towards the house via the shrub garden, pausing to rest a moment in the shade and to marvel at bleeding hearts.
Then it was back into the sun, and the side gardens that used to house the modern outdoor swimming pool, now filled in and the site of the summer concert series that they have every year.
Not a bad place for a concert, is it??
Then it was on to stroll through the Italian Gardens. Not so named because they are particularly Italian but most likely because the statues were Italian. Or so the tour guide said!
The ponds were almost writhing with tadpoles, though. That sort of gave me the willies. I’m not a frog fan. The fish were nice, though.
It’s a great place for old friends to hang out on a sunny afternoon.
As much fun as it was we had more to see and it was time to push ahead to Antler Hill Farm and the Winery. The wine, it was calling me!! But along the way, we followed the suggestion of our tour guide who told us to follow the gravel road around the lagoon near the French Broad River and we would get a great view of the house, and the family loggia where we had been earlier. She said the bridge was narrow. She did not lie. One compact car width wide. But we made it. And the view was gorgeous!
AS soon as we arrived at Antler Hill Farm I was amazed and how much had been added since my last visit! The Exhibition Hall was our first stop—a Titanic exhibit was on display. The connection to the Vanderbilts??? The Vanderbilts were supposed to travel on the Titanic but decided to change to her sister ship, The Olympic. Also on display were some truly exquisitely carved Japanese netsuke, along with other Japanese artifacts and antiquities, as well as some of the period clothing worn by the Vanderbilts. The exhibition hall is a great addition to Biltmore estates. As it is, they estimate that only ¼ of the entire collection is on display in the house. This allows them to showcase more.
The last stop of our day, before heading to the winery where I would stash my camera and get serious, was the farm. On the last visit, I fell in love with a sheep. This time—baby goats. Tiny three-week old baby goats! They were frolicking around, jumping on the benches and generally stinking up the place with cuteness!! I was scratching one little fella’s knobby horns when he started nuzzling my foot. Little did I realize he was trying to eat my shoe!! But they were honestly so cute, I didn’t mind a little bite out of my shoes.
They were more like lapdogs than goats! I’m not sure this wasn’t the highlight of the trip.
But a girl can only take so much barnyard cuteness when wine awaits! You can tour the winery, see the whole operation if you like, or you can skip it and go straight to the tasting room and wine/gourmet food shop. Having been here before, that’s what we opted to do. You’re shown to a bar and given the wine lists of day. You can choose as many wines from the list as you like. If you’re not a drinker, like the Dutchboy, you’re offered water or Biltmore grape juice. The wines are good, the pours generous for a tasting and the little palate cleansing crackers are sweet and appreciated. It’s a perfect way to end any day but particularly a day at Biltmore—sitting back and enjoying the finer things in life with people you love.


O Norman said...

Enjoyed the tour, Nicole! It's been several years since I've visited there.

Nicole said...

You should go! It's a great trip. And things have changed quite a bit near the Winery!