THE BILTMORE EXPERIENCE — August 2007
a very special report by Holly
We started our journey to Biltmore on Friday, August 17; we finally got the kids loaded and on the road by 9:30 a.m. (excellent by our standards). We wanted to take our time and give ourselves lots of breaks. We were ready for lunch at around 11:30 a.m., so we stopped at the Mt. Vernon Kentucky exit and ate at the Rockcastle Steakhouse. This place has been around since the 50s or 60s, probably, and the dÃ©cor is the same as it was when I was a kid and we would stop there on our way to Lake Cumberland. The restaurant sits up on a hill that overlooks I-75 Southbound; we ate in the overlook room and enjoyed the view. It was particularly fun for me to be eating with my kids at a restaurant that I first went to as a kid myself. One of those circle of life thingsâ€¦
Once back on the road, Ed decided that we should check in with the rest of the crew and see where everyone was. At that point, Ted and Tracy and Chuck and Kristy were about an hour behind us, with Drew, Wendy and Ron not far behind. Dave and Robin, we knew, were coming later in the day, and we figured Rose and Keith were not far off from the rest. All agreed to get in touch upon their arrival in Asheville.
The trip through the mountains was beautiful, but seemed a little long to us, since the kids were getting a bit antsy. Finally, though, we arrived in Asheville and proceeded to the Biltmore Estate main gate. Ed, myself, and the kids were staying at the Inn on the Biltmore Estate, a gift to me for my 40th birthday. We stopped at the security checkpoint and got our parking pass for the weekend, then went on toward the inn.
The Biltmore Estate is 8, 000 acres, and itâ€™s about 5-7 miles from the main gate to the Inn, so there is a definite separation from the rest of the world. We drove past fields and forest, over streams and pathways, until we reached the Inn. The Inn provides the only accommodations on the Estate, and the architecture echoes the house itself in a modern sense. We rarely stay in such fancy digs, so of course we were a little unprepared for the wonderful treatment we received, from valet to concierge. The service there is outstanding.
Ed and I had decided to book a junior suite to give us and the kids a little more room; at least, thatâ€™s what I thought. Unbeknownst to me, Ed had upgraded our room… to the best suite in the Inn, the William B. Cecil suite. It was in the turret of the Inn, on the sixth floor. Windows everywhere make sure that the room is full of light during all of the daytime hours. Upon crossing the threshold of the suite, one walks down a hallway into the living area, complete with couch and two easy chairs, plus TV and bookshelf; a slight turn brings one to a dining table that seats eight. There is a kitchenette as well. The master bedroom and bath were as spacious and well-appointed as the rest of the suite. Plus, a welcome basket containing two bottles of Biltmore Estate wine and various cocktail snacks awaited us on the desk. For my birthday, Ed had decided that I should live like a queen for a day or so, and that is certainly how I felt. It was amazing.
That evening, those of us already in town had decided to have dinner in the Dining Room at the Inn, so I met up with Wendy, Drew, Ron, Ted, Tracy, Rose, Keith, Kristy and Chuck downstairs at the restaurant. Actually, Ed had run into Wendy, Drew and Ron in the lobby, so they came up to the suite for awhile, then we went down to meet the others. (Iâ€™ll leave it to Drew to describe the dinnerâ€”he can surely do it more justice than I — but the food and service were both impeccable.) The Biltmore Estate is a working farm, and they try to raise a lot of the food on the estate that is ultimately used in the restaurants on the estate. Tomatoes were in season when we were there, so fresh tomatoes featured in several of the dishes on the menu. The one little blip to the dinner was that a fire alarm was triggered in the building and we did need to step out on the patio — just as our entrees arrived. But the staff covered the dishes for us, and mine was still warm when we returned after just a few minutes outdoors. At the end of the meal, I was surprised with a chocolate gateau with â€œHappy Birthdayâ€ written on the plate in chocolate. Chuck, who had celebrated his birthday on August 15th, received this dessert as well, and I sent the same dessert up to Ed, who had stayed back with the kids (they ordered room service and went to the pool). After dinner, our party moved to the suite; the kids were in bed, so everyone stayed and shared some further bottles of wine before adjourning for the evening.
The next morning we (the aforementioned, plus Dave and Robin) met at the Biltmore House itself for the tour. Yes, it was a very warm day and the house is not air-conditioned, but large fans were placed strategically throughout and the tour was by no means unbearable (particularly as we were touring early). The Biltmore House shows living on a grand scale; the house contains 250 rooms. About 40 or so are open for the tour. It took us about 2.5 hours to complete the tour; most of us opted for the audio tour, which gives far more information than just the brochure provided.
I canâ€™t speak for the others, of course, but I adore the House. It is, of course, extravagant and opulent, but at the same time I get such a sense that this place was actually lived in. So many times, when I tour historic houses, I get the feeling that Iâ€™m in a museum, but with the Biltmore, I feel very much that the family is just away and Iâ€™m checking out their house while theyâ€™re gone. Maybe itâ€™s because the house is still in the family; George Vanderbilt (the man for whom the house was built) only had one child, daughter Cornelia, and her son William Cecil is the CEO of the Biltmore Company today. Also, those who restored the house to ready it for touring were meticulous in using the original furnishings or creating as exact of duplicates as they could, so the house really looks like it did when George Vanderbilt lived there.
Some of my favorite rooms in the house include the library (think the Beastâ€™s library from Disneyâ€™s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, only on a slightly smaller scale), the loggia where the mountain breezes are at their best, the South Tower bedroom (I like to think that that is where I would have stayed, had I been a guest there) and the third floor living area. Another nice thing about Biltmore is the look you get at the working areas of the house: the servant bedrooms, the kitchens, the laundry, the pantries, etc. I really got a sense of what it took to keep a place like that running.
After the tour, we went to the Bistro restaurant for lunch. The Bistro is part of the winery complex; the former dairy barns have been converted into a working winery. Again, the food was superb. Again, lots of tomatoes. After lunch, we took the self-guided winery tour; this was my one disappointment of the trip. The self-guided tour really doesnâ€™t tell much about the workings of the winery. They do offer a guided tour, however, and I think that it would be much more informative. A free wine tasting is included in the estate admission; while some of our group opted to go for it, I decided to go back to the suite and rest a bit. Ed had again taken charge of the kids for the day; he took them for a bike ride on the estate and then to the estate petting farm, where the got to meet horses and goats and collect eggs. When they returned to the suite, Colin took a nap while Piper and I went to the pool.
That evening we met up with everyone in downtown Asheville at a funky BBQ joint called Ed Boudreauxâ€™s Bayou BBQ. It was great fun. The place features 14 different BBQ sauces, and there are plenty of things on the menu for non-BBQ lovers as well. Our server was fun and laid back, and totally capable of dealing with our large group. Ronâ€™s friend Dave, who lives elsewhere in North Carolina, met up with us there for dinner, and I must say that he fit in with us perfectly (he finally paid Drew back the $50 borrowed a year or more previously. Joker that he is, Dave paid Drew back in Schrute Bucks). It was a pleasure to meet him and feast with him. Once again, a birthday dessert came my way: homemade bread pudding. We also received brownies for the table. Another wonderful time was had by all (including, this time, Ed and the kids).
That dinner was the conclusion of the group festivities. I truly had an unforgettable 40th birthday experience, and I am beyond delight that so many of my dear friends went to all the trouble and expense of sharing it with me. I am so blessed to have all of them in my lives. And total props to my amazing husband, who got the ball rolling by sending out the invitations to this road trip in February, so that everyone had time to plan. Canâ€™t wait to see what he comes up with in ten years for the fiftieth!