Biltmore Estate, the largest privately owned home in America, is located in Ashville, North Carolina

Having lived in the southeastern U.S. for over twenty years, my husband Glenn and I decided it was finally time to visit the fabled Biltmore Estate in Ashville, North Carolina. As we travel by motorcoach with our dogs, we checked the Internet for RV sites close to our destination and found Campfire Lodgings, a camping site "ten minutes" from the Estate.

A clue that this campground might not be the best choice for a large motorcoach should have been the wording in the brochure, “mountaintop camping,” though we didn't think of that until we turned at the sign leading to the campground. Once past the entrance sign, the narrow, paved road immediately turned to dirt and began winding almost straight up; however, once we had made the turn, there was no way to turn around, and backing onto the highway was not an option. For the next quarter of a mile there was no room for a car coming from the opposite direction. Luckily, we arrived at our destination without incident - although going into hairpin curves and momentarily hanging out in space was more than a little disconcerting.

The campsite itself was very nice, situated on top of a narrow, flat ridge that was covered with trees on either side. Guests could choose from RV sites, campsites, cabins, a cliff house, yurts, and tent sites. (Yurts are a modern adaptation of the ancient circular structures used for centuries by Central Asian nomads.) Our parking site was positioned about ten feet away from a sheer drop and overlooked the valley far below - a breathtaking view of treetops, open green spaces, and a river that lay like a fat, shiny snake. The site had full RV hookups and WiFi Internet access. Best of all, the area had trails where we and our Standard Poodles Jyah and Sydney spent a couple of hours each day walking, once even seeing a family of wild turkeys.

Early Tuesday morning, we drove to Biltmore Estate and parked in a designated RV space. Dogs on six-foot leashes are allowed in the gardens and on the grounds but not in the house; however, we didn't see any other dogs throughout our time there.

The huge estate was planned by Frederick Law Olmsted (the designer of New York's Central Park). We drove on a meandering three-mile approach road where imported plant material (which seemed natural) lined the road. Leading to the house, there was a wide boulevard on either side of a huge grass field which had a fountain in the middle. Our first visit was to the estate's gardens (also planned by Olmsted) which included a Walled Garden, an Azalea Garden with one of the country's most complete collections of native and hybrid azaleas, a formal Italian Garden, and a glass Conservatory designed by Biltmore House architect Richard Morris Hunt.

The Conservatory consisted of several “rooms” and was absolutely wonderful. It included palms, ferns, and orchids among its collection of plants. There were benches and chairs in some of the rooms where we and the dogs could have spent hours relaxing in the beauty and serenity of the cool interior.

View of the valley below from our campsite

This pond was by one of the trails

One of the many roads where we could walk the dogs

Main entrance to the Conservatory and three of the "rooms"

Biltmore Estate was built as a country retreat in 1888 -1895 by George W. Vanderbilt, youngest son of William H. Vanderbilt, with the $200 million inherited from his father (equivalent to $96 billion in today's dollars) and covered 125,000 acres of land. Intending that the estate could be self-supporting, Vanderbilt set up scientific forestry programs, poultry farms, cattle farms, hog farms, and a dairy. The estate included its own village (today Biltmore Village) and a church. The Vanderbilts invited family and friends from across the country: famous guests have included author Edith Wharton, novelist Henry James, presidents McKinley, Wilson, and Nixon, and Charles, Prince of Wales.

The Bass Pond is located below the Azalea Garden within walking distance of the house. I can imagine Vanderbilt and his guests strolling leisurely down to the pond and fishing off the deck of the open, cabin-like structure that was set out over the edge of the pond. We walked on a trail around the pond to the other side where the dogs and I ventured out on the rocks in the stream below the waterfall.

A fishing "cabin" on the edge of Bass Pond below the main gardens with a waterfall on the opposite side of the pond

Built of Indiana limestone, the house is sited facing east with a front facade of more than 375 feet. The western facade (or rear) has an extensive porch, opening on to the main rooms of the house, in order to take advantage of the lofty view. At the north end of the house, Hunt placed the stables as a way of protecting the house from the wind. The south end of the house, where the library is located, opens on to an arbor with wisteria and looks over a bowling green with a small teahouse.

The house is situated on the highest point of the surrounding area, and the south side overlooks the gardens. After walking up from the gardens, we rested on a bench under the wisteria arbor where Jyah and Sydney's attention was immediately captured by a small grey cat that climbed the huge, twisted wisteria trunk in front of them and disappeared into the leafy ceiling.

Glenn stayed with Jyah and Sydney while I took an abbreviated tour of the house. The inside of the house was not of primary interest to either of us - although, had I lived there, I would gladly have spent hours in the two-story library, the atrium, and the 70,000 gallon indoor swimming pool.

Though the main building had its design in sixteenth century France (via Victorian England), it was constructed with the most up-to-date technological advances - central heating and plumbing (including instantly available hot water), electricity, mechanical refrigeration, two electric elevators, and an electric dumb waiter.

The house is the largest privately owned home in the United States at 175,000 square feet, and has 255 rooms. At a time when bathrooms were virtually unheard of, Biltmore House had 43. There are 65 fireplaces and three kitchens, along with 34 bedrooms, a grand banquet hall, a bowling alley, an indoor swimming pool, and a library containing 10,000 volumes. The interior floor area of the house covers four acres and showcases Vanderbilt's vast collection of art and antiques gathered in world travels - a collection that remains intact today.

Included on the estate's present 8,000 acres, besides the house, the grounds feature approximately 75 acres of formal gardens, vineyards that provide more than 250 tons of grapes for the Biltmore Estate Winery, as well as farmland, pastures, and forests. In addition to Biltmore House, the Estate operates four restaurants, eight shops, and its award-winning winery. In spring of 2001, a 213-room Inn opened on Biltmore Estate. Carriage and trail rides originate from the Deerpark area of the estate as well as seasonal art shows.

Jyah and Sydney are looking for the cat that just went up the wisteria trunk.  The bowling green and tea house are on the other side of the wall.

The beautiful grounds and buildings of Biltmore Estate have appeared in a number of major motion pictures including Hannibal (2001), Patch Adams (1998), Forrest Gump (1994), Last of the Mohicans (1992), and The Swan (1956).

Vanderbilt's only child Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbuilt and her husband John Amherst Cecil opened Biltmore House to the public on March 15, 1930, and it was permanently opened to the public as a house museum in 1956. Biltmore Estate is still privately owned and operated by George W. Vanderbilt's descendants.

There is something of interest to see for just about everyone who visits Biltmore Estate. Inside the house, one million visitors a year from all over the world continue to marvel at rooms filled with artworks, furniture, and 19th century novelties such as elevators, forced-air heating, centrally controlled clocks, fire alarms, and an intercom system. For those like myself and my family, the walking trails, the gardens, the stables, and the beauty of the landscaping fill the senses with wonder.

By Charlene Dunlap
September 2008