Theme park for adults: Touring the Biltmore House, on horseback and foot

By Marjie Lambert

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Published: Saturday, Oct. 6 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

A view can be seen of the back of the Biltmore mansion from a horseback tour of the estate in Asheville, North Carolina.

Marjie Lambert/Miami Herald/MCT

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — From the back, the Biltmore House appears sleeker and taller than it does from the front. Built into a hillside, the back side is six stories tall, rising majestically from its stone facing to its French Gothic spires, while the front is four stories and boxy.

I raised my camera.

"Marjie, Walter thinks this is a salad bar," our guide said. I looked down, and sure enough, Walter was grazing at the side of the trail. I pulled gently but firmly on the reins, the way our guide had instructed. Walter raised his head and trudged forward. I raised my camera again, and the mansion jumped rhythmically in the viewfinder, in sync with Walter's gait.

I was on a different kind of tour of the Biltmore estate in Asheville — on horseback, with three other adults and a guide. Our hourlong ride took us through the eastern white pine forest behind the main house, giving us a view of the mansion that most visitors never see.

About a million people tour the Biltmore estate every year. It's known for its magnificent house, the largest private residence in the United States — a four-acre footprint, 250 rooms — modeled after several 16th century French chateaux, but if you think that's all there is, you're oh so wrong.

The Biltmore estate is a sort of theme park for adults with a taste for art, architecture, history and the outdoors. It has enough painting and sculpture to fill a small art museum, several curated gardens and a huge conservatory, a winery and wine tasting, bike trails, river rafting, fly-fishing school, Land Rover driving school, summer concerts, carriage rides and an equestrian center, plus shops, restaurants and a hotel. People in period costume are the adult equivalent of Disney characters. All the place lacks is a roller coaster.

Adult admission is not too far off from theme park prices either, up to $69, depending on the day, season and whether you buy in advance. The one-hour horseback tour is an additional $55, but it was the highlight of my visit to the estate.

The horseback ride is no substitute for the conventional tour inside the mansion or even of the estate's gardens. We didn't ride anywhere near either. Instead, it gave us a feel for the vastness of the property, the gently rolling terrain.

Back in 1895 when the mansion was completed, George W. Vanderbilt's "country retreat" sprawled across 125,000 acres; today it covers 8,000 acres, bisected by the French Broad River. The house, gardens, winery, shops, restaurants and hotel are on one side. On the other are the vineyard and pasture for sheep and cattle. It is a National Historic Landmark.

I visited the Biltmore in October, when the staff was just starting to set up Christmas decorations and prepare for the holidays, which are the estate's busiest time. A weekday in the fall is not as busy, but as I toured the house, I often found myself in a line, waiting for the knot of people ahead to move on to the next work of art.

A paper program tells visitors which piece of art they're looking at, but the audio tour, at $10 more, tells more about the history of each piece. Most of the art and furnishings were collected by Vanderbilt — grandson of the industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt — as he traveled through Europe and Asia. There are Persian rugs, Chippendale furniture, Ming Dynasty goldfish bowls, 16th century Flemish tapestries, paintings by Renoir, Whistle, Sargent.

From the grand parlor, dining room and library, we wound through the upstairs bedrooms, the kitchen complex (main kitchen, rotisserie, pastry kitchen, pantries), the indoor pool, bowling alley and gym. We learned about cooking on a wood stove, which of the Vanderbilts liked to exercise, where the kitchen help slept.

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