The Biltmore House Adventure in a Cup
The Vanderbilt family story is one of rags to riches. It is a portrayal of the mild boggling American wealth gained during the Gilded Age intertwined with the romanticism in constructing a grand European manor in rural Appalachia. It is difficult to put into words why I am so enamored with the Vanderbilt’s and Biltmore Estate but it lands at the top of my #adventureinacup list. While Biltmore isn’t known for coffee (they do have afternoon tea and a winery) you can purchase an excellent cup of single origin (Honduran) coffee from HC Valentine (www.hcvalentine.com) at most eateries on property. Grab a cup of your favorite coffee and let’s get ready to plan your trip to visit America’s Last Castle.
Ideally, you would spend several days on the Biltmore Estate when visiting Asheville, North Carolina. You should check out the Biltmore website for tickets and a full list of things offered. I would recommend that anyone within a few hours drive of Asheville splurge extra for the season pass (they are on sale in March). There are many season pass perks but my personal favorite is that with one adult pass I can bring all three of our kids for no cost and see Biltmore in all four seasons. I’ve renewed my pass every year for the past decade and it never disappoints.
As someone who travels often and squeezes every ounce of “stuff” into every possible trip-I understand that you may only have one day to spare for Biltmore while you are in the area. I’ve made a one-day itinerary that you make you feel every bit the Vanderbilt. It begins with a picnic breakfast with the house as your backdrop and ends with a laid-back dinner at Antler Ridge.
I’ll start with a little background story-because I think touring the house and gardens is a lot cooler if you know the story behind their existence. George Vanderbilt was a man with a grand vision and the means to make it come true. The Vanderbilt upstart began in the late 1700’s with George’s grandfather, Cornelius. Descended from Dutch Immigrants, Cornelius Vanderbilt lived impoverished in a Staten Island farm community. He quit school at the age of 11 to help earn money for the family then later borrowed $100 to buy a boat so he could ferry people across the Hudson River from Staten Island to Manhattan. He purchased a ferry fleet after saving for many years. Cornelius offered his passengers such a cut rate, with luxury amenities, that his competitors (whom he had practically ruined) paid Cornelius handsomely to retire. The Commodore, which he was often called instead of his birth name of Cornelius, invested his money first in shipping and later in rail. Before his death, The Commodore was a multi-millionaire with 13 children and had built Grand Central Station in NYC! One of his sons, Reggie, had a daughter named Gloria who became a prominent New York fashion designer. You’ve seen Gloria Vanderbilt jeans in Belk, right? Gloria’s youngest son, Anderson Cooper, achieved his own fame on CNN and 60 minutes. The Commodore’s oldest son, William, doubled the Vanderbilt fortune during his life. Several of The Commodore’s grandchildren were part of “The Four Hundred” (a list of “who’s who” among New York socialites released by the New York Times in the late 1800’s).
William’s youngest son, George Vanderbilt was an avid reader, traveler, art collector, and horticulturist. George visited Asheville several times and wanted to build a “little mountain escape” so he purchased 250,000 acres and hired a team of superheroes to complete his vision. At the age of 27, George Vanderbilt commissioned the Biltmore House to parody the self-sufficient estates he visited in Europe. His team included Fredrick Olmstead (who designed Central Park in NYC) and Richard Morris Hunt (who designed the base of the Statue of Liberty and the Met, among other things) to help with his vision. George was also friends with Thomas Edison, who encouraged him to have electricity in the house. The construction of Biltmore was such an undertaking that railroad tracks were laid to the front door of the house so that materials could easily be transported. George chose the name Biltmore as it combined the region in the Netherlands from which his family immigrated (Der Bilt) with the English word for open rolling land (moor).
On Christmas Eve 1895 the Biltmore House opened its doors with a dinner party hosted by the bachelor George, and his mom. Three years later, he married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser and by 1900 she delivered their only child, a daughter, Cornelia. Another of George’s accomplishments is that he opened the first Forestry school in the US (you can still visit the Cradle of Forestry and old school). George and Edith loved to travel and were in England in April of 1912 with tickets to return to America on the Titanic! George switched their tickets at the last minute and they left England 3 days earlier on the Olympic. Letters from the family show that the ticket change was made so suddenly, that the family feared they had been on the Titanic and drowned.
Their eccentric daughter, Cornelia, dutifully married John Cecil at 24 then inherited $50,000,000 on her 25th birthday. The couple had two sons before Cornelia moved to Europe, died her hair pink, divorced her husband, and never returned to the Biltmore House. Cornelia and John’s grandchildren own and operate the Biltmore House to this day. The Cecil family opened the house to the public in 1930 in hopes that admission fees would bolster the estates finances during the depression. Biltmore closed briefly during WW2 so that it could safely house art and statues from war torn Europe. Other than the WW2 closure, Biltmore has been open to the public until early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic which forced closure for several months.
Whew! What a way to fill the dash between 1862-1914 George! I love every bit of their story. I seriously had a hard time culling parts of it. The Vanderbilt’s left their mark on American History and it is certainly nice that a tiny piece of it can be enjoyed in Western North Carolina! It is time to plan your trip now that you know a little about the man behind the house. Biltmore is one hour 20 minutes from my café (Dolce www.dolcebryson.com) in Bryson City. If you are in the Smokies, you won't want to leave beautiful Bryson City off your list! Make sure to swing by and grab a coffee , brunch, or a pastry if you are in the area. You can even stay in a Suite above Dolce!
Itinerary, planning advice, tips, and FAQ’s
Things to do before you visit:
· Purchase your ticket and select your house day and time as far in advance as possible. My itinerary uses a 2:30 house entry time.
*splurge for the headset add-on!
· Book Dinner reservations at Antler Ridge (I like Cedric’s Tavern)
· Familiarize yourself with a map of the property.
· Pack breakfast, coffee, a blanket, and old bread to feed the geese.
· Double check what time the gate will be open on the morning of your arrival.
· Check out some of the Biltmore house media (listed below).
8:30 Arrive at gate
8:30-9:00- Continue driving through ticket check booth then follow the road to parking.
Tip: You will see a parking attendant. You can park wherever the attendant parks you and ride the trolley to the front of Biltmore House-OR-you can park yourself. I prefer to park myself at the top of lot A and enjoy a picnic breakfast then walk to the house. If you want to park yourself, put on your car’s hazard lights, and the parking attendant will wave you through. Park in the top of parking lot A-6, near the Diana Venue.
9:00-Grab your breakfast and blanket then walk towards Diana (it is a 2 minute walk).
9:00-9:30-Spread your blanket on the hill and enjoy breakfast with the house in the background.
9:30-9:45-Take what you don’t need back to your car. You can use the restroom in the building behind the Diana statue.
9:45-12:00-Garden & Greenhouse tour! Walk to the house, take a left, and follow signs to the garden.
12:00-2:30-Lunch Break! The Stable Café and several other food sources are near the house (opposite the gardens). Use the restrooms in the stable café area before entering the house.
Tip: Don’t buy souvenirs until you have finished walking through the house.
2:30-4:30-Self guided house tour. If you didn’t pre-purchase the headset you can do that now (unless they are sold out).
4:30-5:00-Buy Souvenirs then walk back up the hill to your car.
5:00-6:00-Follow the “all traffic” or “exit” signs towards Antler Ridge.
Tip: You can stop at the pond for one last house photo op and to feed the geese on the way. After you pass the Bass pond there will be a sharp right curve and the road will become two lanes. Take a left over the narrow stone bridge and drive behind and around the pond about ¾ of the way. You’ll be on a dirt road with the French Broad on your left and the pond on your right. You will see parking near the spot shown in the photograph below.
6:00-until you are ready to leave: Follow the signs to Antler Ridge and find parking. You can walk to everything at Antler Ridge from this parking shop. At Antler Ridge you can enjoy dinner, shopping, ice cream, music, and wine tasting. Sometimes there are additional exhibits to tour.
Tip: There is a goat petting “zoo” and a playground to the far left of Antler Ridge if you are have kids with you.
Can I visit Biltmore any day? Yes! The Biltmore house is typically open 365 days a year. You should reserve your ticket in advance to guarantee entry.
Are there bathrooms? Yes, but they are often a long walk away and sometimes with a line. There are bathrooms behind the Diana statue, in the house, in the old Stable (in several places), to the far right of the greenhouse, and in several places at Antler Ridge.
Can I buy food and drinks? Yes
Can I pack food and drinks? Yes and no. There are many places you can take food and snacks on the Biltmore property. I think it is safe to unpack food/drink anywhere that you are close to your car but otherwise frowned upon. I usually pack kids snacks and no one has ever cared. We don’t eat them in the house.
Can I take a stroller? Yes, but I wouldn’t. Both the house and the gardens have many staircases (which are very narrow in the house). I would opt for a sling or a backpack. If the stroller is a must then I would also bring a backpack so that I could park the stroller on the ground floor of the house and use the backpack while inside.
Biltmore house related media:
· Downton Abbey (it doesn’t take place at Biltmore but it is from the same time period). Biltmore often hosts Downton exhibits.
· The Secret Garden 2 (parts of it were filmed in the garden)
· Richie Rich (one of the scenes is filmed in hallway of the former milk barn (converted to the winery)).
· The Last Castle (by Denise Kiernan)-An engaging narrative about the Vanderbilt’s and Biltmore.
· The Serafina series (by Robert Beatty)-It’s a kids book but I liked it as much as my kids. It may be a little intense for some young readers.