The Biltmore and Its Inn: Elegant But Very Friendly

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Any weekend of the year is fine for a getaway to the 8,000-acre country estate known as the Biltmore, tucked into the hills, valleys, forests, rivers and farmlands in the Blue Ridge Mountains near the historic town of Asheville, North Carolina, about 450 miles from Washington, D.C. But over the Christmas season, it is truly special.

That is because the estate’s Chateauesque main house, built by George Washington Vanderbilt, was officially opened to family and friends on Christmas Eve, 1895. The Biltmore mansion is still the largest ever built in the United States, comprising more than four acres (178,926 square feet) of floor space, 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces, all lavishly decorated with the most elegant furnishings of the time.

During the Christmas season, the house is dripping with decorations, including some 50 decorated and lighted trees, miles of garlands and a galaxy of ornaments in platinum, gold, silver and jewel tones. There is a special candlelight tour most evenings, during which visitors can see the magnificent home illuminated only by thousands of candles and those dozens of glowing fireplaces.

There is always a lot to do and see besides the main house on the estate, developed and still maintained by the Vanderbilt and Cecil families. Acres of grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmsted feature formal and informal gardens and a multi-roomed conservatory. Over the holiday season, the conservatory’s tropical rooms are filled with poinsettias and blooming orchids, plus a palm-tree Christmas tree.

There are also tours of the estate’s historic, still-operating agricultural and dairy enterprises and its rivers and bridges. Miles of parkway paths are available for bicycling and horseback riding.

In the 1960s, the Cecil family, direct descendants of Cornelia Vanderbilt, focused their management of the estate on self-sufficiency and preserving its historic splendor. The family added vineyards and a first-class winery in what had been the estate’s dairy. William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil proclaimed in 1981 that it was “the most historic event since my grandfather had opened his estate to his family on Christmas Day ninety years earlier.” The winery opened to guests in 1985.

Then there is Antler Hill Village on the way to the main house. A collection of shops that includes a confectionery, a bookbinder, five of the seven restaurants on the estate and a museum, the village is constantly evolving. It now includes a just-opened village hotel.

But for the weekend visitor who wants to experience the relaxed yet luxurious service that visitors to the original house knew more than a century ago, there is the stunning Inn at the Biltmore. Overlooking the entire estate and village, the 210-room inn, designed by the architectural firm Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates of Atlanta, was planned by Vanderbilt in the early part of the century. It finally came to fruition in 2001. The inn has everything expected in the four-star hotel that it is, including a large rimless swimming pool and Jacuzzis set at the edge of the hill.

According to officials, the goal of the inn is to make guests feel as if they were personal guests of the Vanderbilts. The rooms are decorated in a 19th-century French- and English- manor style, with paneled walls, desks, sofas, cushioned chairs and four-poster mahogany beds with pristine white quilts, slippers, robes and pillows bearing the “V” monogram of the Vanderbilt family. Gilchrist & Soames amenities are provided in the marble bathrooms.

The inn prides itself on personal service. Valets run to your car to make sure they get to you and get your car to you as swiftly as possible. Bellhops take up your luggage immediately to your room and will lay it out on request. Guests are encouraged to mingle at tea in the paneled library, with rose-adorned tables, fine china and cushioned chairs and couches. A pianist plays soft music during tea and singable tunes all evening near the bar in the windowed whiskey room. Encompassing it all is a large veranda filled with comfortable furniture and heat lamps.

“It’s all very elegant, but also very friendly. I go up often to hang out on the veranda, lounge in the inn’s living room, walk the grounds and gardens. I used to ride my horse almost daily through the parklands as a little girl,” recalled Emmy-winning journalist Elizabeth Colton, who grew up and has returned to live in Ashville after working in the Middle East as a reporter and later as a diplomat.

“The people of Asheville love the Biltmore estate,” said Colton. “We are very proud of it and we feel strongly that it is our land. Residents can obtain yearlong passes to come onto the property and enjoy it all whenever they want. They are excited and proud that it is such an attraction to the Asheville that we all love as well.”

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