Studio Brunstrum
Biltmore Mansion

Travel Guide: Asheville, NC

December 18, 2019

Our go-to travel guide for Asheville, North Carolina: The Biltmore, Omni Grove Park Inn Gingerbread competition and more!

This year, the kids and I spent Thanksgiving in North Carolina with long-time family friends, the Zwarts. A long weekend filled with amazing food, great wine, fantastic company, competitive board games and even some water-skiing – Thanksgiving on the lake might be my new favorite tradition!

Even better, we decided to take a day trip down to Asheville, North Carolina for the Christmas Candlelight Ceremony at the Biltmore on Black Friday. Thanks to our planner extraordinaire, Lori, we were up and on the road by 6:45AM to hit our first stop of the day:

The Downton Abbey Exhibit at the Biltmore:
The immersive exhibition gives an in-depth look behind the TV series, from filming tricks, to character descriptions, locations used throughout the show, and real-life connections to the time period (around the same time the Biltmore was being built). In a different portion of the estate, another Downton Abbey exhibit focuses solely on the fashion throughout the show and the movie; it’s one of a few locations throughout the US to have the actual garments worn when filming! The details – the delicate beadwork, feathers, and lace used throughout were breathtaking. A longtime fan of the show, I loved seeing how they filmed certain elements of the series – especially the kitchen scenes!

Omni Grove Park Inn Gingerbread Competition:
After the morning exhibit, we drove to the Omni Grove Park Inn for the National Gingerbread Contest and some lunch. The historic hotel itself was a work of art; the original portion of the hotel, built over a century ago, has a stunning, sloped red-rock roof, while the original stonework on the main building gives the hotel of cozy, cottage-like feel. Situated atop Sunset mountain, the breathtaking views looking out on the Blue Ridge Mountains are what make this hotel truly special. After lunch, we explored the Gingerbread competition entries – oh my! What began as a small community celebration in 1992, has since blossomed into a national competition that’s covered by Good Morning America and the Food Network and has also contributed over $430,000.00 to non-profit charities in North Carolina. All age groups are welcome, with different prizes being awarded within each age sub-group. The only rules? The entire submission must be edible! Some of the entries were quite unbelievable – hundreds of hours of work must have gone into the houses! I’m inspired for our family gingerbread-house competition this year – I even took notes! Check out some of my favorite “houses” below:

The Biltmore Christmas Candlelight Tour:
Back to the Biltmore just in time for the sunset, we got to take a brief walk around the 8,000 acre grounds before dark. We then started our 1.5 hour, self-guided tour of the Biltmore – decorated in all its Christmas glory! As the largest home in America, the 250-room French chateau is considered the largest undertaking in residential architecture. Officially opening on Christmas Eve of 1895, the home took 6 years to build, containing over four acres of floor space, which includes 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces. The brainchild of George Vanderbilt, grandson of industrial titan Cornelius Vanderbilt, George lived in the home with his wife and daughter until his untimely death in 1914 (age 51). Biltmore Estate was finally opened to the public in 1930, due to economic downturn during the Great Depression. Today, the sprawling estate is home to the Biltmore Estate Wine Company, the Inn on Biltmore Estate, Antler Hill Village, the Village Hotel, a few Vanderbilt private residences, and just over one million visitors a year!

My favorite facts from the tour:

• Biltmore was home to the first indoor swimming pool of the time period, taking 72 hours to fill before use! With no filtration systems or pool chemicals available at the time, the pool had to be emptied within three days of being filled, for fear of becoming a giant “chemical experiment”.
• All of the babies born in the Biltmore Estate were born in the third floor, Louis XV suite. Why? As one of the grandest rooms in the home, the velvet bedding and window treatments were considered a royal birthright. The room is also home to a private balcony and stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and sprawling gardens of the estate – which was key as childbirth recovery during this time period often meant new-mothers were confined to the birthing suite for a few weeks.
• The Biltmore was the first home in America to have indoor plumbing!
• During WWII, one of the main rooms on the first floor was blocked off, secretly housing priceless works from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
• Like most grand estates of the era, the home stayed running thanks to the help of over 100 live-in servants. While it is common that the estate’s employees would be housed in the basement, George Vanderbilt wanted the staff to enjoy the property and views as well. Built on a sloping hill, even the basement rooms have magnificent views of the grounds, so that workers stuck in the kitchen and laundry rooms all day got to experience its beauty.

The architecture and interiors of the home were absolutely stunning – I could take the tour another three times as there was so much to take in! We will definitely be back in the spring or summer to explore more of the grounds. Equally as interesting – the history of one of the most prominent families in America. George (the Vanderbilt who created Biltmore) was the grandchild of “the Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt – a business magnet who amassed his wealth from railroads and shipping. Upon his death, he left the majority of his fortune to his eldest son – what was then $95,000,000 (valued at $2,100,000,000.00 today). This son actually DOUBLED the family fortune within ten years, creating the largest fortune in the world during that time period. Left to George, the family fortune was spent on estates like Biltmore and homes of similar elegance or worth on Park Avenue in New York. Within a few years, the family had spent nearly all of the fortune; during the first Vanderbilt family reunion in 1973, 120 descendants gathered at Vanderbilt University and not one of them was a millionaire…

Referred to as the “Fall of the House of Vanderbilt”, their story underlines the importance of the non-material things in our lives, reminding us to be grateful for cherished family and friends rather than possessions this holiday season.

Susan Brunstrum
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