We parked the car and walked a short distance to the gate to see this. Mind you, I've seen lots of photographs, but it did not prepare me for the in-person experience.
George Vanderbilt employed Richard Morris Hunt (architect) and Frederick Law Olmstead (landscape architect) to make his dreams of a french chateau in the North Carolina countryside come true.
As you can imagine, the house is overwhelming in every way. But I was more overwhelmed by Olmstead's work in the placement and execution of the surrounding landscape. You drive in to the estate on a winding, narrow woodland path. Several miles of roadway bordered with huge rhododendrons, and even some bamboo. He designed the approach so that you would not see the house. And you do not see the house until you reach the gate. Then, "Oh, my." There it is.
It struck me how thankful I was to be able to see this place. I would never had been a guest of the Vanderbilts. But there I was, walking on the grounds, touring the gardens, making my way all through the house!
Our first tour began at 10:30 - the Behind-the-Scenes tour. We met at the carriage gate to go in the "side" door. Our guide (and all the guides told us this) said we would see things not on the house door, and that we would be taking over 200 steps during the hour, and that he had a radio in case we needed assistance. I began to wonder if anyone had ever been lost on one of these tours...
We saw the north side of the house, the bachelor wing (single men and women traveling alone stayed at opposite ends of the home), the basement with boilers (they had central heat) and electrical systems (what an operation!), refrigeration systems (they had ice, too!) Mrs. Vanderbilt's bathroom and closet (the storage!), the servant stairwell (the only stairwell that connects every floor of the house), the elevator and the extra libraries. It was a great look at how the house functioned. Biltmore was the most technologically advanced home of the day.
We had an hour to kill before our next tour at 12:30, so we hit the former stables which are now shops, restaurants and bathrooms. The weather was beautifully mild - you would have never imagined it was the middle of February - and we drank coffee outside before we hit the shops. There was a gift shop, a book store, a toy store, a candy store, a bakery and an ice cream shop (closed for the winter).
The gift shop had everything from chi-chi decorative items ("Take Biltmore home!") and porcelain, to shot glasses with the mansion on the front. I'm not kidding. I wanted to ask the clerk if these were reproductions of shot glasses that George and Edith used with guests - or maybe they were just the everyday shot glasses! So here's Biltmore in all its glory, juxtaposed with Biltmore shot glasses, key chains and cocktail napkins. Well, even the Vanderbilts need to pay the bills.
Our next tour (The Rooftop Tour) met inside the front door at the big table. But they're all big tables! Thankfully, signs and helpful people are all over the place. This may have been our favorite. We saw more behind-the-scenes stuff like servants' rooms and hallways, but going outside on the roof was fantastic! Bending, turning, twisting and ducking our way around tiny stairways and outside railings - it was exciting. We walked along the roofline, behind the stone bannisters that held the gargoyles - to be able to see all that up close was astounding. I mean, there we were, next to the copper flashing, way up high!
It was 1:30, and we had 90 minutes before our last tour - The guided House Tour. The Biltmore folks actually tried to talk me into the audio tour instead of the guided tour - they said it was better! It didn't seem to make sense to take a family vacation only to stick earphones on - how is that a shared experience? The three of us, going our own separate ways, listening in our own private world? No. I wanted a person who loved what they were doing to take us around the house. I wanted us to look at the same things at the same time, to ask questions and enjoy everything together. Is that so unusual?
We had lunch in the Stable Cafe (where once were Vanderbilt horses are now hungry tourists) and dined on ridiculously expensive hamburgers. A pet peeve of mine that whether you're in a movie theater or Disneyland, captive audiences and sightseers pay crazy prices for the most mundane food. $15 hamburgers? $3 sodas? It usually puts me in a bad mood, but I was having too much fun to let a $15 hamburger ruin my day.
At 3:00, we met in the hallway by the "big table" (I knew, this time) to meet our guide. We saw all the public rooms and then some. One of my favorite places - the kitchen (or kitchens plural if you're at Biltmore) - was on the house tour! Vegetable pantries, storage, canning, a pastry kitchen, a rotisserie kitchen, the main kitchen - I wish I could have seen and experienced more of this. The place was limitless - I could work in these kitchens now, and the house opened in 1895!
By the end of the house tour, I was beginning to hallucinate and lose feeling in my legs. But I hadn't seen the conservatory - I love orchids - and I needed to see the plants while I was there. So I crawled down the hill on my hands and knees (just kidding, I was almost ready to have Charlie push me in a wheelchair) through the gardens to the conservatory. Even though the flowers were not in bloom, save for a few pansies and jonquils just beginning to push their way through, the bones of the garden were perfect. I can't wait to go back. The conservatory was impressive - palms everywhere, exotic plants side-by-side with impatiens and geraniums. Unfortunately, there were no guides, except a few plant markers in the big palm trees. I could not identify several orchids, and would have loved the help, but oh well - it was a lovely place. The Garden Shop was closed for the season, which only enhanced my exhausted crankiness.
So now it was time - time to go back UP the steps, UP the hill and down the trail to the car. I didn't think I would make it; I had reached my expiration date. Just earlier that morning, I was practically jogging and singing my way to the house! Now it was 5:00, and I was dragging and snarling my way to the parking lot. Where was my chariot? Where was my gurney? Charlie, sensing possible violent activity, ran ahead to the parking lot to get the car and minimize our walk back. How sweet! His kindness convicted me of my snarkiness and I was re-energized! Well, not really re-energized until I saw the gift shop on the way out.
"I thought you were dead!"
The Gift Shop at the gate house was my favorite. I picked up a few things and felt like a new woman. Charlie wouldn't let me linger, because our dinner reservations were at 7:00, so it was off to the hotel. Snaps to Charlie for getting me through the day without hurting someone - now where's that Motrin?