Originally set on 125,000 (now a mere 8,000) acres in the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia, Biltmore Estate was built by George Vanderbilt along the French Broad River in North Carolina. With its original acreage, the expansive estate would have taken seven days to traverse on horseback.
As I stood on the veranda, I heard a guide tell a nearby group that his lands had extended to the hills on the horizon, then two days beyond. A kingdom, indeed.
The 175,000-square-foot, 250-room replica French chateau is the largest home in the country. Besides its size, Biltmore was also the first grand mansion to include an indoor pool, heated or otherwise. It also had such novelties including multiple flush indoor toilets, as well as an alarm system and elevator.
Although I immediately adored Biltmore aesthetically, it was the landscaping that first caught my eye, and I don’t mean manicured gardens but rather the lay of the land – the relationship between what’s built on the land to the land itself. When done with a sense of spirit, it can be felt. Whether artistic or ecological in intent, it lends an undeniable sense to a place.
As I drove up the narrow, curving driveway, affording peak pastoral views upon gentle assent, I knew the grounds had to have been designed by the infamous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. One of my all-time favorites, Olmsted’s style is unmistakable. His influence can be seen in places like New York City’s Central Park and throughout the Boulevard System of Chicago.
Money comes and money goes. Although not the only blue blood to lose his fortune, George’s pile dwindled and after his death, his wife ditched acreage that, in part, became part of the Pisgah National Forest. His second-born grandson, upon inheriting the money pit of a house instead of income-producing agricultural estate lands, put his elbow to the grindstone, restoring the house, opening it to the public and developing a few satellite businesses, such as a vineyard.
Unique in that it is a National Historic Landmark supported entirely by private resources, Biltmore attracts more than a million visitors per annum.
Go. You’ll know why the minute you set foot on the grounds. After taking the house and rooftop tours, hiking the extensive trail system and dining at the Arbor Café, I didn’t want to leave. I could have easily spent a highly enjoyable week here, taking horse-drawn carriage rides along the miles of forested lanes and canoeing the meandering river.
The Festival of Flowers is going on now at Biltmore through May, but there are events year-round that attract visitors. The Concert Series runs from July through October, and Biltmore at Christmas is something out of a fairytale. The house is decorated with “miles” of garland, thousands of candles and dozens of shimmering trees.
Doesn’t matter when you go, but that you go.