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

The leaves were turning, the sky was a brilliant blue, and although nights brought a slight chill, the days were still warm. It was a perfect day for seeing the gardens, which were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, master designer of New York's Central Park. I wandered through an English walled garden with chrysanthemums in flaming colors, an Italian garden with reflecting pools, a rose garden with some of the last blooms of the season, and an enormous conservatory full of tropical plants.

After a late lunch, I drove over to the stables. Three other people were taking the afternoon ride, two middle-aged parents and their med-school daughter. We introduced ourselves and learned that we were all more or less equally inexperienced, which was just as well since the tour is not for riders looking for thrills. It's a slow ride, never accelerating to a trot.

The horses, accustomed to novice riders, follow the lead horse and need little guidance from the guests — unless, like Walter, they have a taste for shrubbery. More experienced riders can bring their own horses and choose from five 10- to 30-mile loops.

We followed a sunlit trail to a clearing on a rise, where we stopped to admire the back of the main house from a distance and Walter grazed. Then we moved into the woods, ducking our heads under low branches, watching squirrels run up tree trunks, catching occasional glimpses of ponds and the river, and learning more about the estate. Much of the time, we were surrounded by woods that hid all signs of development.

These woodlands of pine and hemlock are all that remain of the once-huge property, where trees were grown for their value as timber and a forestry school was established. The forestry school is long gone, and much of the original acreage is now part of the Pisgah National Forest.

Through the trees, we saw a few wild turkeys. A horse-drawn wagon taking visitors on another kind of tour crossed our path. Our guide pointed out a spot where a scene from "The Last of the Mohicans" was filmed and told us about other movies filmed on the property, including "Richie Rich," "Patch Adams" and the Peter Sellers classic, "Being There."

I rode along, comfortable on my slow-moving mount, watching the sun's rays weave through the branches of the tall trees.

© The Miami Herald

If you go …

Where: 1 Lodge St., Asheville; 800-411-3812 or 828-225-1333; www.biltmore.com Wen: Open 365 days. The house is open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., gardens 9 a.m. to dusk, check website for hours of other facilities.

Admission: Adults $49-$69, depending on day and season; get $15 off by purchasing ticket at least seven days in advance. Admission includes a self-guided visit of Biltmore House, access to the gardens and Antler Hill Village, tour of the winery and parking.

Extras: A number of guided tours, including an architect's tour of the house and a Segway tour of the grounds, are available for an additional fee. See website for information on bike rentals, river rafting, horseback tour, concerts, carriage rides and other activities.

Tip: The grounds are expansive, and you'll want to drive from one feature to the next. The main house, for example, is three miles from the entrance.

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