Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Weekend at the Biltmore

We arrived in Asheville late on Friday and went to the hotel to recover from altitude sickness. (Not really. Though we live at 15 feet above sea level, and Asheville is at 2, 216 feet above sea level, so it *did* take some getting used to.) We set off early on Saturday morning to visit the Biltmore Estate. On the way there, we were held up by an impromptu duck parade. There were about 20 ducks that decided that this was the appropriate time to cross what is most likely a busy street on weekdays. For some reason, the sight of the ducks put us in a rather silly mood, and we smiled all the way to Biltmore.

We drove through Biltmore's entrance, and after about 10 minutes of driving through scenic woods just chock-a-block with gorgeous vistas, we parked in one of Biltmore's lots. We spotted a trail sign that informed us that the house was an eight minute walk from the parking lot. The drive and that sign were our first hints that this place was huge. You know, when you hear that Biltmore is set on 8,000 acres, it *sounds* really large, but it doesn't quite make an impact until it sets in that you might actually be WALKING those 8,000 acres.

We broke through the trees to the above view. It was breathtaking. It almost doesn't seem real. Most of the other people had the same reaction we did -- *gasp!* Where we are standing is the Esplanade. There are fountains and marble stairs that lead down to ground level. Looking at the Esplanade from the house, you can see a large expanse of lawn that slopes sharply upward to a pergola-covered statue of Diana. (Bonus conversation: I heard a young woman asking another member of her party why the Vanderbilts had a statue of the Princess of Wales. Duh. I flashed to "A Fish Called Wanda" and Wanda's comment that Otto had asked why Archie had named his daughter Portia "after a car.") JF later bravely made this arduous trek to the statue while Offspring and I took on the Herculean task of sitting in the shade and eating ice cream.

Right at the entrance to the house, this lion guards the main door. There are two of them and we are posing with the lion to the left of the main entrance. Behind us to the left, you can just see the spiraling of the Grand Staircase. The Biltmore staff do not let you take pictures inside the house, as flash can damage delicate art and fabric over time. You do get to take as many pictures as you'd like of the outside of the house. We decided to take a specialty tour that allowed us access to parts of the house that are sealed off to the general public. We saw the room where all of the Vanderbilt children were born, and which is currently under restoration. We also got to see the "Blue Room" (my name for it) that was restored in 1980 for the filming of "The Private Eyes" with Tim Conway and Don Knotts. This room featured hidden passageways, and the staff had left the passageway open so we could see how it blended in seamlessly with the wall. In addition, the tour also included getting to see some balconies that were not accessible by the general public, and a trip to the rooftop.

This is a picture of Offspring and I, standing on top of what's called the Copper Dome. The Dome caps off the Grand Staircase, and holds a massive, four-story 1,700 pound iron chandelier in place. The view from here was simply astonishing. You could see to Mount Pisgah through the haze from 19 miles away. Mount Pisgah is northwest of the house, and part of the Pisgah National Forest, much of which was land that the Vanderbilts originally owned. The estate started out at 125,000 acres, and was whittled down to the current size of 8,000. The only drawback to the Copper Dome was the fact that copper radiates heat like no-one's business, and it was sweltering up there. In fact, the whole house was warm since there was no A/C in the Vanderbilt's time. The staff had fans going everywhere, and the windows were all open to get those breezes through, but all those bodies do heat things up.

Behind us, you can see the Esplanade in the distance. There are several trucks parked there, unloading equipment for that evening's entertainment. Biltmore has a summer concert series, and while we were there, we got to the hear the B-52's warming up in rehearsal. They were just jamming away while we strolled in the gardens. Nice work if you can get it.

Another lady on our tour asked us to take a picture of her whole group, and she returned the favor. Here are the three of us, on top of the Copper Dome, with the roof and a tiny portion of the Esplanade behind us. We are on top of the fourth floor, and I wasn't all that comfortable leaning on just a railing, with nothing else between me and the solid, and very hard ground. That may account for why I look like I'm grinding glass between my teeth. That, or it was just flippin' hot.

By this time, we were flat worn out. We headed back to the hotel for some rest and then out to a wonderful Italian restaurant for dinner. We all fell asleep fairly early, worn out from the heat and the trudging through four acres of house. And the grounds on top of that.

We spent Sunday at all of the other places on the Estate, since the house took up nearly every second of Saturday. We awoke early on Sunday, and set out with plans to visit the Winery. We didn't bother (this is where JF would most likely point out that *I* fell down on the job here) to read the little insert given to us of what each facility's operating hours were. The Winery didn't open until noon on Sunday, due to (I assume) North Carolina's blue laws. So, we bypassed the Winery, and slogged off to the historic Horse Barn and Barnyard. In the Barnyard, we met Stanley, the fluffiest goat I've ever petted in my life. The docent there told us that he was half dwarf and half angora, and had just been weaned. Stanley proved this true by sucking on my pinkie like there was no tomorrow. He gave up when he realized that I don't produce milk out of my fingers. Sorry to disappoint. The Barnyard also had chickens; sheep; and Bert and Ernie, the Belgian draft horses. They were the largest horses I have ever been close to. They were also very gentle and sweet, and Offspring was enchanted.

Close to noon, we swung by the Winery to grab a bottle of chardonnay for the 'rents and to let JF take advantage of the free wine tasting. Being that neither of us are big wine drinkers, we didn't stay long, and headed out to Biltmore Village for lunch in a funky little bistro. After lunch, based on CCW's suggestion, we proved ourselves total tourists by gawking like idiots at the swanky McDonald's, which has a grand piano in the lobby. We stopped for milkshakes just for an excuse to go in. And, yes -- we took pictures.

We didn't want to leave, but headed home shortly thereafter. We had a great time, and can't wait to return at another time. While I was in the hotel I picked up a brochure for a spa, which is complete with isolated open-air hot tubs dotted all over the pastoral mountaintop. It looks like a slice of heaven. I'm going to start saving my pennies for a treatment there during our next visit.


Jenevieve said...

Wow, sounds fantastic!

When we were there, they were having a horse show on the grounds, not open to the general public. Um, we chose to ignore that tidbit and stroll around looking at the gorgeous horses. I think Matt was a little in the "Why did we travel to the Biltmore to watch a horse show?" camp, but we had a good time.

Marni said...

Looks beautiful. I've never been there but have always wanted to go. Bug would have a FIT over the horses, don't cha know!

Miche said...

Looks / sounds like you're having a lovely time!

ccw said...

It looks and sounds like you all had a lot of fun!! So glad!

We didn't see the horses but spent a lot of time in the garden. I think it's funny that you actually checked out the McDonald's. It is rather fancy.

I have pictures at us by those big lions. Kid L was 6 so she looks extra tiny to me.

Anonymous said...

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coffeypot said...

Looks like my house - NOT.

Yankee T said...

Sweet family photo.

Songbird said...

love, love, love the Biltmore, and the pictures of your family. Thanks for your kind words at my place.