Chateau in the Carolinas: Visiting Biltmore Estate

At Biltmore House, riders enjoy an historic estate and miles of scenic mountain trails year-round.
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At Biltmore House, riders enjoy an historic estate and miles of scenic mountain trails year-round.

At the mention of the name Vanderbilt, horsemen immediately think of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt Jr., owner of Discovery, breeder of Native Dancer and President of Pimlico. But there's another Vanderbilt whose legacy is most appreciated by horsemen in western North Carolina.

Alfred's uncle, George Washington Vanderbilt, died in 1914, but his grandsons, George and William Cecil, preserved his Asheville estate, Biltmore House. The massive French chateau is the area's greatest tourist attraction, but far from the sights and sounds of the visitors, in the deep forests of hemlock reclaimed by George Vanderbilt nearly a century ago, trail riders are having the time of their lives.

More than 100 miles of carriage trails lace the fields and forests of Vanderbilt's 8,000-acre estate. An elaborate Equestrian Center offers boarding facilities for visiting horses, a wide selection of estate-owned horses for hire, and an indoor arena for bad-weather days. For more than 30 years, competitive trail rides have been held here, and in 1994 Biltmore was the venue for its first American Endurance Ride Conference-sanctioned 100-mile ride.

In the late 1800s, when Vanderbilt was buying up stripped and overgrazed land, he probably did not envision a use for his house and land beyond the pleasure of his family and guests. No doubt he would approve what his heirs have done.

George Washington Vanderbilt, brother of Cornelius Vanderbilt II (father of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt Jr.) had no interest in Thoroughbreds and did not share his father's passion for pacers. But he loved to ride. In 1888, eschewing the Northeastern estates of his relatives, Vanderbilt began buying property for a European-style country estate in Asheville, North Carolina, a popular resort area even then.

On Christmas in 1895, Biltmore House opened its doors for a family celebration. The French chateau, modeled after those in the Loire Valley and built of Indiana limestone, had 250 rooms and unheard-of luxuries--central heating, mechanical refrigeration, indoor bathrooms and electric lights and appliances.

The name came from "Bildt," the Dutch village where the Vanderbilt family originated, and "more," the Old English word for rolling hills.

Surrounding the house and formal gardens were 125,000 acres which Vanderbilt diligently reforested and laced with carriage and riding trails. A stable for carriage and riding horses was connected to the house, and at least two other horse stables were built on the property. Horses were still used for transportation in Vanderbilt's day, but riding, hunting and coaching were also important aspects of the entertainment at Biltmore. Twenty-five horses were kept in the stable next to the house and a staff of 15 to 25 grooms were housed in rooms on the second and third floors.

The stable was massive, its design matching the house, and Vanderbilt spared no expense in its furbishing. The main level, with a separate area for housing carriages, was walled in glazed tiled, with finely crafted wooden partitions, high ceilings and cement floors covered in coconut matting. Today the stable area maintains much of its original character, but it is a shopping arcade and caf where diners are seated in converted horse stalls.

One of Vanderbilts' guests' favorite activities was a 17-mile ride along Shut-In Trail to Buckspring Lodge, Vanderbilt's seven-bedroom hunting lodge. Another ride was Teahouse Loop, where guests would enjoy afternoon tea before riding back to the mansion. The Pisgah Inn, on the Blueridge Parkway, now stands on the old Buckspring Lodge site, but trail riders often pass smaller hunt camps used by Vanderbilt and his guests.

The master of Biltmore enjoyed his home for a mere 17 years. He dodged disaster in 1912, when he booked passage on the S.S. Titanic, then canceled at the last minute. Two years later he inexplicably died following a successful appendectomy in Washington, D.C. His widow, Mrs. Edith Vanderbilt sold much of the property to the United States Forest Service to form the nucleus of the Pisgah National Forest.

The house was opened to the public in 1930 in an effort to boost local tourism, then closed during World War II. The National Gallery in Washington, D.C. sent many of the nation's art treasures to Biltmore for safekeeping. The house has been open to the public since 1945, and in 1995 celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of its completion.

Vanderbilt's grandson, William Cecil, has managed the estate as a profitable business. One of his many innovations was the addition of a 90,000-square-foot state-of-the-art winery, which is houses in a converted dairy barn designed by Hunt, the same architect who designed the house. The winery outshines California's wineries as the most visited in the nation.

Wine-tastings are free with admission to the estate, and the lively Bistro restaurant next to the winery provides an opportunity to pair estate wines with meats and vegetables grown on the estate.

The house, designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, is maintained to perfection, displaying treasures Vanderbilt collected in years of travel abroad. There are paintings by Renoir, Sargent, Whistler, Pellegrini and Boldini; furniture by Sheraton and Chippendale; Chinese goldfish bowls from the Ming Dynasty; and a chess set belonging to Napoleon.

The building itself is a masterpiece of engineering, with a massive steam furnace and extensive electrical panels to light and heat the mansion's four acres of floor space. All the modern amenities of the time were incorporated into Biltmore House, including an indoor swimming pool, bowling alley and gymnasium. Surrounding the mansion are acres of gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture in America.

A visit to Biltmore House and the gardens is reason enough to make the trip to Asheville; if you take your horse along, it becomes a unique riding holiday. Almost any route you choose--there are five different ten- to 30-mile loops--will rise 3,000 feet through forests of hemlock, poplars and oak and offer scenic overlooks of Biltmore House and the surrounding countryside. In the summer, mature trees provide a cool canopy, and many trails crisscross streams or follow the sandy fringe of the French Broad River. In the fall, the mixed hardwoods put on a dramatic color show for riders. And in the winter there's the possibility of a snowy ride.

On horseback, viewing the Biltmore House from a distant trail, it's easy to imagine the clock has spun back a century and you're a Vanderbilt guest returning to a sumptuous meal and a luxurious room. In March 2001, that became possible (after a fashion) when the Inn on Biltmore Estate opened its doors. The 213-room hotel offers views of the mountains and Biltmore House, and comforts worthy of the estate.

For information on Biltmore House tours, lodging at the Inn or riding opportunities, call 800-411-3812 or visit www.biltmore.com.