Mrs. Highlander and I have longed to visit the extraordinary Biltmore Estate and made a commitment to take in their annual holiday event, getting the opportunity to not only witness the grandeur of the famed 250-room American Castle, but to also experience the estate as it was first presented to the public on Christmas Eve in 1895.
Biltmore Estates is a three-hour drive from our studio, so we were out the door by 6 a.m. The sun was well above the mountain crest when we arrived in the city of Asheville in Buncombe County, North Carolina. Following the directional signs from Interstate 40, we soon found ourselves before the gatehouse at Biltmore Estate.
We were a few minutes early so I stepped out to stretch my legs, the air was well chilled and crisp, the morning dew glistened on the green grass. Before I could get well stretched a green Explorer pulled up, as I approached the vehicle I was met with a fresh baked morning smile and heard “Hi, I’m Sarah Thomas.” Sarah is a Media Director at Biltmore Estate, we exchanged pleasantries and she invited us to follow her up to the house.
We enter the estate by passing through the 2 1/2 story gate house, better known as the Lodge Gate, we followed Approach Road 3 miles up to the house, winding along the way through a park like setting. The estate today is a mere 8,000-acres, quite downsized from its former 125,000 acres. Most of the land was sold to the Pisgah National Forest for safekeeping. Heading up to the big mystery house, we felt like kids about to peek into a 19th Century Christmas world.
Each year during the holiday season, Biltmore Estate presents the Biltmore House in the same spirit as George Vanderbilt did on that most memorable day, Christmas Eve 1895. It is an old fashioned, festival of lights and decorations set in royal style.
We parked our vehicles and approached the house, Sarah was filling us in as we approach the uh! Castle? When you first see the Biltmore House you are speechless the structure is beyond a simple description, so I will reserve that moment for our next story, “Biltmore Estate…a legacy in stone”.
As we approach the entryway, we encounter two large marble lions guarding the enormous doorway, very surreal, a storybook existence right out of a C.S. Lewis’ literary work, the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with Aslan the lion guarding his precious kingdom. Entering the great doorway we stepped into the Entrance Hall, the first thing you notice is how small in stature you are amid its stone arches.
Sarah informed us that Biltmore Estate holiday decorations are a different holiday theme each year. This year’s theme was derived from the inspirations of children‘s stories and fairy tales.
The theme would have played wonderfully with George Vanderbilt who took special pride in opening his house to family, friends and special guests. It was a tradition for George and his wife Edith Vanderbilt to have their entire staff join them in their holiday celebration, receiving personal joy as they handed gifts to all the staff’s children. This tradition continues today as Biltmore Estate employees reserve the Biltmore House for their own holiday celebration, providing gifts for every child.
The credit for the holiday decorating at the Biltmore House goes to Cathy Barnhardt and her staff. With over 25 years as the floral display manager, Cathy has a great sense of the house’s spirit, and how the house best expresses itself, much like a conductor over a symphony orchestra. Focusing on “fairy tales and children stories”, along with traditional holiday floral display, the staff playfully placed fairies, elves and gnomes, in out of the way places like children at play.
Sarah took us down the history path of Biltmore House, weaving her tales, explaining different holiday decorations of Christmas present and Christmas past, occasionally pointing out this work of art, or those furnishings and rare heirlooms. The interior of the house is spellbinding with too many intricacies to describe, you have to see it yourself to truly understand. Their self guided audio tours are great to help you understand and really appreciate all there is to see and understand.
Moving along we followed the natural flow of the house. The first room immediately captivates the senses. Light showers thru the glass-roofed windows flooding life-illuminating rays into the Winter Garden, a stylish asset to any Victorian era home. White poinsettias follow a circular path in the center of the stone arched room capped in a cathedral ceiling of wooden arches and glass.
We pass through the Billiard Room a favorite room for male guest any season of the year. Entering the Banquet Hall was like stepping into a great European cathedral. The hall’s dimensions were 72 feet tall, 42 feet wide and 70 feet high. The barrel-vaulted ceiling was the only thing standing between the 35-foot Fraser Fir tree and the sky. This was the great Christmas Hall where George and Edith, gathered all the children together to share precious moments and receive their gifts.
In our touring the Biltmore House, we found each room decorated in the holiday spirit, many of the decoration have been handed down for generations. Dozens of Christmas trees fill the house, hundreds of poinsettias set about and miles of evergreen roping. The fireplace mantels and hearths all decorated in anticipation of the arrival of Father Christmas.
Because of the antiquity of the house, we could just imagine what the house was like when George and Edith celebrated Christmas.
The library, George Vanderbilt's favorite room offers a cozy sense of family gatherings. I can imagine loved ones exposed to the warmth and comfort of a roaring fire, reading holiday tales.
Down the hall thru the Tapestry Gallery, the Vanderbilt’s might have heard guests gathered in the Music Room singing Christmas Carols. It made the trip more special to imagine what it was like as happy loving home.
To reach the upper levels at Biltmore House you must ascend the 102 step Grand Staircase, the stone staircase spirals upward disappearing within its own height. Thru the center shaft of the stairwell, a wrought-iron chandelier hangs like a giant black pendulum.
Upstairs we entered the Second Floor Living Hall, the Christmas tree and assorted toys reflect a scene of a traditional Victorian Christmas, a portrait of the Cecil family over looks the scene while a solo violinist played softly in the background. Throughout the Second Floor Living Hall are priceless paintings of the Vanderbilt family generations and two distinguished gentlemen, Richard Morris Hunt and Frederick Law Olmsted who assisted George Vanderbilt in his development of Biltmore Estate.
We wandered through several formal rooms with such titles as Louis XVI, Old English Room, Chippendale Room and Sheraton Room, just 4 of the 34 family and guest bedrooms.
We entered the private living quarters of George and Edith
Vanderbilt. The Vanderbilt's like many prominent couples in Victorian times
had separate bedrooms. Between their two rooms was the Oak Sitting Room,
a room they shared, a private place away from the activities at Biltmore
Mrs. Vanderbilt's Bedroom is oval in shape; George specifically had the room designed as a counterpart to his bedroom. Before he and Edith were married, this bedroom was used his mother Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt. Feminine in design, the room remains as it did in Edith’s day, the fabrics have been restored recently by using the original European manufactures to weave a re-creation from the original pattern.
George Washington Vanderbilt’s bedroom is strong and masculine in design with an Arabian style, rich red upholstery and heavily carved wooden furnishings. George’s bedroom in Biltmore House gave him a commanding view of his property.
With 65 chimney’s sticking out of the roof at Biltmore House, confusion might have arrived during Father Christmas’s visit, although the children’s gifts would arrive safely for the Christmas morning celebration at Biltmore House every year. I can imagine Father Christmas arriving at the Biltmore House quietly in the middle of the night, in a bright red coach covered in strands of holly and garland, drawn by a two teams of snow white horses.
Christmas at Biltmore Estate is a rare journey back in time, the opulence of the Gilded Age taking the idea of a festive holiday season to even greater heights.
Biltmore Estate is the largest private owned residence in America, which makes it the perfect showcase for this expression of Christmas past.
The celebration at the Biltmore House transcends from day into night with the Candlelight Christmas Evenings. Guest may view decorations by candlelight with a backdrop of holiday music preformed by choirs, quartets, and other musicians throughout the house.
Christmas at Biltmore Estate flows out the door of the main house and into the premier 12,000-foot stable complex adjoined to the house. In this courtyard, you will find holiday decorations, and a cafe. Inside the stables are gift shops and a restaurant.
Across the grounds of the estate, we found the Biltmore Estate Winery where more holiday activities were going on with cooking demonstrations and complimentary wine tasting, while carolers and a soloist kept the holiday feeling in tune.
Mrs. Highlander and I invited our daughter, son-in-law and one year old granddaughter to join us that afternoon. We ate at the very popular Bistro located across from the Winery Gift Shop and returned to the Biltmore House to tour the house as a family without having my camera stuck to my eye. This was like icing on the cake having our first grandchild experience her first Christmas at such a noble place.
We toured the winery, browsed the gift shops for a while and found ourselves Christmas shopping, including purchasing Biltmore’s special Christmas Wine and Christmas ornaments depicting the the Biltmore House to add to our collection.
The atmosphere at Biltmore Estate is friendly and causal, once you arrive you find yourself wanting to linger around the estate until the last rays of sunshine peek over the mountain ridge, leisurely enjoying the historical significant of a man and his dream.
Preserving Biltmore Estate for public viewing is a rare gift to a young and power nation. It's a symbol of a golden age of development in both art and industry. It is an experience visitors will always remember, boasting to friends, family and colleagues, “I’ve been there!”
Biltmore Estate is perfect for all ages, the young see it a castle, and the adults see it as a work of art in human development. At Biltmore Estate, you can see thru the eyes of a visionary that saw these mountains as a great possibility.
The Highlander highly recommends Biltmore Estate for a family trip during the holidays or any time of the year.
For more information call Biltmore Estate 1-800-922-0046.