ASHEVILLE, N.C. — If you think you have to fly across the Atlantic to visit a castle, think again.
Tucked between the Blue Ridge Mountains and Great Smoky Mountain National Park is America’s most famous castle — Biltmore House.
Dwarfing Highclere Castle’s (aka Downton Abbey) meager 120,000 square feet, Biltmore is our country’s largest private residence, featuring a jaw-dropping 175,000 square feet.
The 250-room French Renaissance chateau includes 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, a 70,000-gallon heated indoor swimming pool, a bowling alley, a bachelor pad and an enormous library (George Vanderbilt read an average of 81 books a year and had collected 22,000 books during his lifetime).
Vanderbilt, who was a bachelor when he began construction on the mansion, patterned Biltmore after the chateaus he visited in Europe. A collaborative effort between Vanderbilt, architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Biltmore took six years to construct (from 1889 to 1895).
Anderson resident Lydia Johnson, who is a tutor at Ivy Tech Community College and a Starbucks barista, is one of Biltmore’s biggest fans.
“I love the Biltmore! The first time I ever went was for my senior class trip,” she recalled. “The roses were in full bloom, and the rose garden was simply magical!”
Johnson has visited the estate at least 16 times and often travels there with her mother, Marvel, and sister Leah Trent. For the past four years, the three women have attended the annual “Candlelight Christmas” or “Christmas at the Biltmore” events.
“I love that being there gives you a chance to step back in time,” Johnson said. “You get to experience life during the Gilded Age. I keep going back because there is always something new to see, to do and to experience.”
On a recent visit to Biltmore, I experienced Johnson's description firsthand. From the moment you drive onto the property, the attention to even the smallest detail is evident. The 3-mile “approach road” was intentionally designed by landscape architect Olmsted to perfectly blend the forest and the landscape with no hard edges between the two.
“The Approach Road is the first important garden and landscape feature you see on the estate,” said Parker Andes, director of horticulture for the estate. “It gives you a true feel for Olmsted’s skill.”
Builders used a large piece of our Hoosier state — 5,000 tons of Indiana limestone to be exact — to construct Biltmore’s famous façade. Vanderbilt even authorized a 3-mile long railway on his property to aid in the delivery of the limestone in 287 rail cars. (He was, after all, from a family who made its fortune in railroads.)
Once inside the massive mansion, which features three floors plus a basement, you’ll be swept away to experience what life was like for the Vanderbilts, who were considered “American royalty.”
The Biltmore House was a family home for George, his wife, Edith, and their daughter, Cornelia, and they often entertained guests for several days or weeks at a time. The entire third floor is dedicated as a guest retreat.
After touring the first three levels of the home, visitors might be tempted to skip the massive basement. But here is where much of the magic lies. From a “Halloween Room” and a bowling alley to an indoor swimming pool and gymnasium, the basement holds many whimsical surprises in addition to the servants’ domain and several kitchens.
Just outside the house are the stunning gardens designed by Olmsted, which make for the perfect afternoon stroll to delight the senses with beautiful varieties of flowers, bushes and trees.
Johnson suggests several helpful tips for making the most of your time at the Biltmore:
• Buy your tickets online no later than a week in advance. You’ll be able to save $10 per ticket.
• If you can, extend your ticket into the next day. It should be only $10, and you can come back the next day to see anything you missed.
• Do any of the tours that you can. The Rooftop Tour and Upstairs Downstairs tours are phenomenal.
• If you know nothing about the family or about the Biltmore, utilize the audio tour. If it's not included in your ticket price (sometimes it is during special events), pay the price. It is worth it!
Exhibits at Biltmore
One current and one upcoming exhibit will draw visitors from around the country to the Biltmore estate.
From now through Sept. 29, the Biltmore Gardens Conservatory is featuring an exhibit called “Biltmore Gardens Railway.”
The exhibit includes miniature replicas of the mansion and other landmarks on the property made entirely from natural materials gathered from the estate’s grounds. G-scale locomotives and rail cars wind through the scene, adding more charm and whimsy to the exhibit.
“Downton Abbey: The Exhibition” will open at the Biltmore Estate on Nov. 8 for a limited engagement through April 7, 2020.
This interactive exhibit will feature set recreations, costumes and exclusive multimedia elements, providing guests with a chance to step inside the world of the popular PBS show, which ran for six seasons.
Access to both exhibits is included with price of admission to the Biltmore House and Gardens.
For more information, visit www.biltmore.com.