In the footsteps of Vanderbilts

Driving up the heavily wooded and romantically shaded road, it’s easy to squint your eyes and be transported back in time to an age when elegant carriages traveled this same route, ushering Presidents and Kings, movie moguls and robber barons through Asheville and the North Carolina mountains. Then, suddenly, there it is in all its stately glory, soaring off its hilltop locale and bidding welcome through massive iron and stone gates. It’s Biltmore, the true American castle that has stood for more than a century as a monument to the wealth and luxury of the Gilded Age.

Built by George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895, Biltmore is the epitome of over-the-top luxury and indulgence fashioned after European models of self-sufficient working estates. With 250 rooms spread out over 175,000 square feet, no expense was spared in adornments and creature comforts, which include a 70,000 gallon indoor pool, bowling alley, exercise rooms, two-story library, elevators, forced-air heat, a comprehensive clock system, fire alarms, and even an intercom. Add in the myriad pieces of priceless art and tapestries and an inventory of furniture dating to the medieval era, and there’s little doubt as to the storied place the home holds in the history of the time.

The gardens at Biltmore are every bit as awe-inspiring as the house. Conceived and constructed by legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, they unfold in French, English, and Italian styles both wild and tamed, beckoning visitors down hidden alleés and past centuries-old trees and second-to-none rose gardens. And in his interest of being self-sustaining, Vanderbilt added cattle, dairy, poultry, and vegetable farms and established a forestry program to manage the estate’s grounds.

Whereas the Chateau-inspired behemoth and it’s 8,000 acres of farmland, forest, and gardens sees nearly a million visitors a year, unbeknownst to many is that the property sports an inn and guest cottage, and it was my great privilege to spend a night there some years ago. A friend and I indulged our haute sensibilities and booked a room at the Inn on Biltmore Estate, and over the next 24 hours lived in luxury. On the perennial Conde Nast Gold list and a four-star honoree on Forbes Travel Guide, the stay was nothing short of spectacular, accented by fantastic meals culled from the estate’s gardens and farms, a multi-hour spa visit (for her), and the Land Rover Experience Driving School (for me).

We unfortunately didn’t have time for the wealth of other experiences and explorations—a horseback ride over the grounds or a bit of lazing by the pool—but we did stop on our way out at the Biltmore Winery (the former dairy barn) and had a quick tasting. We also decided on our next visit to spend some time at Antler Hill Village, where the former homes of Biltmore’s construction crews and farm workers have been re-imagined as a charming little shopping district where visitors can stroll through bookstores and peruse period reproductions of some of the mansion’s artisan treasures.

Like the Hearst Castle at San Simeon and the Gilded Age architectural treasures at Hyde Park and Newport, Biltmore exists to remind us of a time when billionaire dreamers could take a skies-the-limit approach to everything and anything they wished. And for the briefest of moments, we were alongside them, channeling their spirits and living the good life.

Peter Rerig is a Senior Writer for Vacations.com.

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