Biltmore: The Downton Abbey of North Carolina

Biltmore Estate, which graces the hills of Asheville, North Carolina, will satisfy your urge to explore the world of proper ladies and gentlemen, Downton Abbey-style, without having to venture over the pond.

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As we drove up the Approach Road (yup, a road devoted to approaching the property - there’s another one for sending you on your way), the graceful branches of towering trees arching over the curves of the road seemed to beckon us forward in gestures of sweeping hospitality.  The landscape architecture of this road, let alone of the house and gardens beyond, gives nature the respect it deserves.  For Frederick Law Olmsted, the same man who designed Central Park and the US Capitol complex, nature is a canvas.

Biltmore has been owned by the Vanderbilt family since its construction in the 1890s.  George Vanderbilt loved to travel, and modeled his home after the grand estates he visited in Europe.  In fact, grand really is the word that comes to mind when you tour this breathtaking place.  Holden Caulfield would say that is the queen mother of phony words - grand - but trust me, that’s the right word.  Elegance and luxury are pronounced in every room, whether it’s from the 16th century tapestries hanging in the drawing rooms, the chandeliers and three fireplaces of the dining hall, or the tropical plant conservatory.  Oh, and the library!  Sigh.  It is the stuff of dreams, complete with a roaring fireplace, Sistine Chapel-like ceiling fresco, plush velvet reading cushions, huge windows overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains, and spiral staircase leading down from the first floor so that guests could pad their way down at night to grab a book to bring back to their rooms.  My fingers itched to thumb through the impressive leather volumes lining the shelves of this Beauty and the Beast fantasy.

The best part about this house, though, is that it was also a home.  George and Edith Vanderbilt and their daughter Cornelia may have hosted lavish costume balls and ten course dinners, but they also conversed regularly with the farming families who had homes on the estate, swam in the front yard fountain, and allowed their St. Bernard, Cedric, to have free roam of the first floor of their mansion.  You can feel that the rooms held not just pomp and circumstance, but also devotion and love.

Those opening piano notes of Downton Abbey - you know the ones! - echoed in my head the minute I set foot in this house.  As we toured the servants quarters, our guide explained how the hierarchy of staff was very much the same as in England at the time.  The Butler was in charge of the footmen and other male servants, and the Head Housekeeper reigned over the maids as well as met with the lady of the house to discuss menus, guest accommodations, etc.  Servants had their own stairways and hallways with discreet doors, dumbwaiters and bells to allow them to quickly and efficiently see to the every need of the family and guests.  I can only imagine the secrets these old stones hold, the stories that echo through these long corridors.  I can envision whispered intrigue in stairwells, arrogant bachelors in the billiards room, floury-aproned cooks in the kitchens.  

It feels privileged to be able to spend the day at such a place.  My husband and I visited for the weekend to celebrate my birthday, and it was memorable.  Not only can you tour the house and gardens, but the 8,000 acre estate has two hotels, a village of shops and restaurants, an equestrian center, biking trails, and beauty everywhere you look.  The restaurants are farm-to-table, as the estate still raises animals, grows its own produce, and makes its own wine.  I bit into lemon and butter glazed trout one night that tasted like the sparkling mountain creek it was caught from hours before.  

I sound like I’m getting paid to sell this place, but I promise I am not.  I am writing about it because I was so pleasantly surprised at how fully I was transported during this visit.  The fact that we enjoyed a kid-free weekend contributed, I’m sure, to my feeling like a pampered guest of the Vanderbilts, but I also think it was because the current management of the property endeavors so thoroughly to honor the spirit of hospitality of its founding family.  I would recommend going during the warmer months to take advantage of the blooms, which were of course dormant at this time in January.  So if you’re looking to immerse yourself in another time and place, follow the closing advice of our dear Mr. Carson, and do go, because...

The business of life is the acquisition of memories.                                                                                                                      - Mr. Carson, Downton Abbey                                                                                                                                                             

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