Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Asheville, NC and the Biltmore Estate

If you are within a 6 hour drive of Asheville, NC plan on making your way to the enchanting, small city for a night or two-- for so many reasons, it's well worth it.

I'll start with the most well known draw...

 In just six years, between 1889 and 1895, George Vanderbilt  oversaw the building of the Biltmore, his French chateau style home amongst the rolling hills and forest of rural North Carolina. What strikes many visitors, is that because the Biltmore site was out in the middle of BFE, roads, factories and workers had to be built and brought in before construction on the house itself could begin.

The result is nothing short of amazing. It remains the largest privately owned home in the United States-- the Vanderbilt family emphasizes that the Biltmore is indeed a 'home'.

Living in Europe for so many years, we dragged our children to countless castles, UNESCO World Heritage sites and historic properties; Biltmore rivals them all. It is truly spectacular. The interior spaces are vast and sometimes opulent, but they are balanced by the more homey decor of the family rooms. The guide book points out that children were born, raised and played here-- and one gets a sense of that.

The grounds are extensive; a remarkable place to go on a rambling walk. In the warmer months, the manicured gardens are sumptuously colorful.

Aside from the house, there is the newly opened Antler Hill Village; a place to shop, eat, visit a black smith or tour the winery (I was surprised to learn that the Biltmore's winery is the most visited in the States).

Ticket prices to get into the Biltmore house, garden and grounds are steep. According to the time of year, they range in the low season (months after Christmas) $29 to after April 2, up to $59. If you are thinking that you would ever be able to visit again in the same year, buying the annual pass seems to be a good value; we paid $150 for our family of six to have unlimited access for 12 months (children under 16 are free with an annual pass holder).

Although tickets are expensive, I do think they are worth it, with one complaint: I didn't find enough information about the history, architecture or the Vanderbilt family included in the guidebook (free) or even the audio tour ($10 per person). They offer several guided tours that give more in-depth information, but at $17 per person for a tour, that felt like a bit of a rip-off.

We had dinner in Antler Hill Village at The Bistro. It was very good. We shared a pork terrine with pickled okra and toast points as appetizer, then I had a Parmesan, smoked artichoke and sun dried tomato risotto, while my husband had the lamb special (featuring meat reared on the estate). We both had a glass of wine from the winery and our bill came to $70-- had we not had wine, our bill would have been just $55. The food was very good (although I liked the risotto better than the lamb) and we both felt that this was good value for money.

We stayed at the Inn at the Biltmore-- an outstanding property. It is a solid 4 star, probably missing its fifth star only because of what it lacks in some amenities, not ambiance or decor. The public spaces are grand, but decorated with warm fabrics, wallpapers and furnishings that make it comfortable, like you are staying in a very, very wealthy friend's home. The setting is gorgeous (again-- those fabulous foothills) and the atmosphere polished.
My only complaint about the Inn was the spa-- it was very small (nice, just small) and expensive ($205 for an 80 minute massage) and it offered none of the thermal rooms, saunas or steam baths that are de rigueur now in finer resort spas. Also, the pool: Outdoor only (closed in the winter) and fairly small.

On to Asheville: beloved by hippies and foodies alike, as well as artists and outdoorsmen. It is a charming small city, not so much for the architecture, which in places is a bit dated, but for it's 'vibe'. Asheville is a place that people seek out. You'll meet people from all over the country who specifically came to live in Asheville -- they want to be there. This gives the city a sincerely positive feel.

Restaurants abound from homestyle, southern specialties to classic French, to some seriously good vegetarian. We had lunch at Laughing Seed CafĂ©, a place that is consistently ranked as one of the top restaurants in Asheville, in spite of, or maybe because of, the fact that it is vegetarian. Although a carnivore, I can go veg pretty easily, but my my husband is convinced that he needs meat (!) to make a meal complete. That's what make Laughing Seed so good; even the most ardent meat eaters find something to enjoy. I had the falafel and Jeff had the polenta over salad-- Both were truly inspiring plates.

Asheville is a fabulous, laid-back long weekend destination. As a parent I can say that it is especially fun without children.

There are a million cool shops in Asheville, but two of my favorites are:
Mast General Store
Tops for Shoes

If you've been to Asheville and/or Biltmore-- please share some of your favorite places to visit/shop/eat/stay!


Mindy said...

My husband and I went to Asheville in the fall for a little getaway (without the children) and loved it! I loved Tupelo Honey Cafe, and we had a lovely lunch outside overlooking Asheville at the Grove Park Inn. We stayed at a little B&B in Black Mountain. We'll definitely be back!

JennyB said...

Mindy-- What did you have at Tupelo Honey? We went there last visit to Asheville because we had heard so many good things about it. After a 1 hour wait (which I expected). I was underwhelmed by the food. It was good but not GREAT. Also, the hostess was incredibly rude-- really strange.
Thanks for sharing the name of that B&B-- will definitely check it out!