Biltmore House, Asheville, North Carolina

By Annette Gallagher Weisman

On Christmas Eve 1895, George W. Vanderbilt opened his new Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, to family and friends. Charmed by the countryside surrounding Asheville, he’d spent six years building what he thought of as a country retreat. It’s easy to imagine his guests’ awe as they arrived at this stunning replica of a French Renaissance chateau. The grand manor is still in the family, but in 1930 the Vanderbilts began allowing public tours. And there’s a heck of a lot to see.

The 175,000-square-foot Biltmore is just over three times the size of the White House. And that’s not including the surrounding 8,000 acres it sits on, which also covers part of North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest. Despite its size, Biltmore feels more like a home than a museum. The audio guide my husband and I rented enhanced our personal tour of the 250-room, Richard Morris Hunt-designed manse, giving us detailed descriptions of each room and its contents, including Chippendale furniture, 16th century tapestries, and masterpieces by Renoir and Whistler, all selected during Mr. Vanderbilt’s world travels.

Here’s my advice: Don’t be overwhelmed by the hugeness of the estate. If you only have limited time, focus on your interests, whether antiques, horticulture, or wildlife. We strolled through the exquisite walled garden, landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted (of Central Park fame), part of 75 lovingly tended acres. We also visited the winery, where you can taste some of the 35 varieties of wine produced there; the working farm and stables; and dined in five restaurants located on the grounds. If you like to shop, you can pick up everything from decorative accessories to sophisticated apparel. We couldn’t resist the Biltmore wines and handmade chocolates.

The sensible thing to do is stay on the grounds at The Inn on Biltmore Estate, which opened in 2001. Sitting in a rocker on the veranda gazing at the Blue Ridge Mountains is an ideal way to decompress. Well worth a side trip is the charming town of Asheville, known for its arts, crafts, and galleries. Mountain Made, at The Grove Arcade, features items made by local artisans, and the nearby Asheville North Carolina Home Crafts is full of yarn, quilts, hats and other gifts to bring home. Maybe you’ll be inspired to build your own weekend retreat–or at the very least, spruce up your guest room.