Vanderbilt Tradition Still Beckons at Biltmore

Friday, July 21, 2017

THE LIST OF THINGS TO SEE and do at Biltmore House and Gardens is extensive, and all of it worthwhile. Combining magnificent architecture, glorious landscapes, and worldly seclusion, there is nothing quite like it on the east coast, perhaps in the country. Which also means that it’s not a matter of whether you should go. The only decisions you need to make are how many days to properly set aside and where to stay when you visit.

It’s not just the exquisite house (designed by Richard Morris Hunt) and the abundant gardens (by Frederick Law Olmsted who also designed Central Park in NY City) that make Biltmore such a special place. Still looming large is a vital family influence and the tradition of hospitality which inspired George Washington Vanderbilt (whose monogram you see inscribed above) to create Biltmore the way he did. Not coincidentally, he first opened the estate to family and guests on Christmas Eve, 1895, after six years of construction, mega shopping trips abroad, and painstaking decoration.

Given how enormous the house and property are, it is surprising how homey they both feel. With the possible exception of the expansive front lawn, everywhere you walk outside feels intimate, accessible, and accepting. The acreage spans that of a European estate, yet Biltmore embraces rather than intimidates you. The same is true of its 250-room mansion which goes on forever but never swallows you up. On the contrary, each room, the opulence notwithstanding, feels more like a house than a castle. Even in a constant stream of visitors you feel like a guest.

That’s also because everywhere you go, inside and out, you encounter cordial, courteous, superbly trained staff who do exactly the opposite of making you feel like a tourist at another large attraction. Their warmth and manner, which even Disney strives for but often over-reaches, is something the Vanderbilt heirs and their managers have mastered to an unparalleled degree.

The Grounds
The Biltmore Estate web site, with its stunning aerial photo, beckons you to “Travel to a whole new state of mind.” That’s not only an accurate statement, it’s a journey which begins the moment you enter the estate and start wending your way to the welcome center. And the journey continues as long as you’re at Biltmore. Perhaps more amazing is that the effect you feel was conceived that way more than a hundred years ago by G.W. Vanderbilt, R.M. Hunt, and F.L. Olmsted who formed one of the best owner-architect-landscape trios in history. It’s not clear whether, or about what, they may have disagreed, but there isn’t a hint of tension anywhere inside the house, in the gardens, or on the grounds. A seamless blend of organic nature, manicured gardens, and harmonious architecture feels inevitably beautiful and tranquil. Together, they usher you into that whole new state of mind—which is why you need at least three days, because once you get there, you won’t want to leave. The place is so captivating that you’ll find yourself wondering why life isn’t like this more often.

FUN FACT: The name Vanderbilt derives from Bildt, the family’s place of origin in the Netherlands. Hence Van der Bilt (“from de Bilt”). George Washington Vanderbilt later named Biltmore accordingly: “Bildt” and “More” (anglo-saxon for ‘open, rolling land’).

The House
The Gilded Age “chateau” calls for a serious, comprehensive tour, even more so if you buy extra packages to see additional rooms and the rooftop. The standard tour alone—for which the self-guided audio ticket ($15) is a must—includes four floors and too many rooms to count, with an endless array of fascinating things to look at and learn about. Just a few worth mentioning are the bowling alley, indoor swimming pool, fabulous kitchens, and gorgeous library—all of which have to be seen in person to be appreciated for their concept, design, construction, and exquisite utilitarianism, especially considering when they were built. A benefit of the audio tour, along with its wealth of information, is that you can pause whenever you want, linger where you want, and take as much time as you need to absorb the astonishing number of furnishings and facts, and to appreciate the distinct ambiance of all the rooms, hallways, and ancillary spaces.

To avoid rushing through the tour, have a hearty breakfast and devote the entire morning so you can amble through the house, enjoy a long sit on the loggia, and glean the extensive art collection. Fine etchings (most of them excellent reproductions of European master works) abound side by side with notable paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and John Singer Sargent, and a collection of large, lavish, sixteenth-century tapestries. After your house tour, plan on lunch right there at the Stable Café which occupies what used to be a state-of-the-art barn whose feeding stalls, dressing stalls, and grand hayloft are still in tact.

The Gardens
With a good lunch behind you, you’re ready to tackle the gardens which have the feel of small parks, all of which you can see in a leisurely afternoon. They offer more than enough places to return to another day, but a first survey reveals what you may want to see again or in more depth. Regular visitors (season pass holders) seem to make an art of bringing a book, a blanket, and plenty of spare time to enjoy the fresh air, seasonal flowers, and long views—which are a nature lover’s bargain at $159 for the year.

An entire second day at Biltmore can easily be spent seeing more of the gardens, walking the trails, riding bikes or horses, taking a carriage tour, or going fishing—all of which take you farther from the house and into the civilized wilderness of the estate. Depending on your preferences, you’ll also have time to visit the village green, farm, and winery, all of which can also occupy a full afternoon, and after which you’ll want to take advantage of the generous, gratuitous wine tasting.

The Inn
By far the best way to top off your experience at Biltmore is to stay at the luxurious Inn on the hill. The Village Hotel below is very nice and not to be ignored. But if you can swing it, the Inn adds yet another dimension to that “whole new state of mind.” Replete with elegant rooms, exceptional dining, and world-class service, the Inn is unique in how it was conceived to mirror the architectural details and landscape variety of the original property from 1896. Along with a softly turreted roof line, the interior furnishings and chandeliers are crafted in a similar, more modern style than their counterparts at the Biltmore mansion. Oil paintings and prints also adorn the Inn walls, while shelves in the lobby “living room” are stocked with fine, hard-bound books available for use in the same vein that George Washington Vanderbilt once offered his vast library to guests while they stayed. Meanwhile, the views from the Inn and its undulating patio are certainly as stupendous as those the Vanderbilts enjoyed from their grand loggia more than a century ago. Rest assured that you won’t be sorry having an entire third day to enjoy your room, luxuriate on the patio, and experience the dining room, tea lounge, pool, and spa.

The Vanderbilts
The overriding impression of Biltmore Estate is that, for the Vanderbilts and their elite contemporaries, leisure was a daily necessity, and abundance an essential way of life. Even though their circumstances were far different than most of ours, the beauty, tranquility, and intimacy of Biltmore have a lot to teach about what it means to nourish our selves in vital ways. Who doesn’t need a daily feast for the eyes, real rest for the body, relaxation for the mind, and delight for the soul?

Ultimately, these are what make a visit to Biltmore mandatory. They also seem to be exactly what G.W. Vanderbilt intended with an inspired design that lives on in his original tradition of hospitality.

With special thanks to M. Flynn and L. Donnelly for their own spirit of hospitality.

Learn more about visiting Biltmore Estate


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2 Responses to “Vanderbilt Tradition Still Beckons at Biltmore”

  1. Bill Stringer

    Tossing around the term “Gilded Age” in our day and time seems insensitive. Read about the origin of the term. Read about the labor conditions in their factories that enabled the Vanderbilts and their ilk to accumulate that kind of money. Maybe some our our current-day billionaires’ heirs will open up their hectare-sized mansions to dazzle our great-grandchildren. ~ Bill Stringer

  2. Addison Ingle

    Very nice. Thank you.


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