The Biltmore Estate:
Where Love Lives Large
The storied Biltmore Estate, once the private getaway of playboy George Vanderbilt II (heir to the Vanderbilt fortune), now stands as one the Southeast's principal draws. One of the few places in the nation that can legitimately claim to offer something for everyone, this sprawling testament to Gilded Age opulence surrounded by the mountains of Western North Carolina is uniquely suited for honeymooners-particularly couples with a penchant for luxury, a love of history and a hankering for the great outdoors.
Today, more than a century after construction was completed on the French-country "chateau" in 1895, the meticulously preserved residence still stands as the largest in the country. Occupier of 8,000 acres, the Biltmore certainly nabs most impressive honors. Hearst Castle may get the love here in Cali, but its fabled Southeastern counterpart generates the buzz down South-and judging by the fl ocks of annual visitors hailing from all corners of the globe, just about everywhere else too.
Comprising the Biltmore Estate is the Biltmore House and Gardens-the former with 250 art and antique-fi lled rooms in two wings, and the latter conceived by 19th-century landscape starchitect Frederick Law Olmstead-and a variety of dining spots and shops. Connected to it is Antler Hill Village & Winery, also featuring mercantile-type stores, but with the addition of a farm, an outdoor adventure center where visitors can arrange more activities than they knew existed, and even more culinary options. Add to this the luxurious but more accessible Inn on Biltmore Estate, a four-star hospitality offshoot with 213 elegantly appointed rooms and nine suites that once served as quarters for guests of the Vanderbilt's. There's also a myriad of recreational opportunities nodding to the Biltmore's culinary heritage, agricultural past, and horticultural legacy. Think wine tasting, cooking classes, Kitchen Garden, wine cellar tours, togo picnics, garden tours, and fresh blooms on offer.
For honeymooners, romance takes shape several ways. First of all, check your pulse if you don't feel immediately swoony the minute you step on the grounds of the massive estate-"massive" being a massive understatement. It's sweeping in a way that the Grand Canyon is; you see it, but you really can't believe it. For my husband (a sappy romantic who helps me gauge the places best suited for other saps), and me, it meant checking in to the Inn at Biltmore for a blissful two-nighter.
In the Biltmore's backyard is artsy Asheville. Chockablock with charming boutiques, bistros, shops and a buzzing arts scene, this quaint hub of Southern culture is more populated these days thanks to The Hunger Games, which was shot in the surrounding mountains of Western North Carolina, but don't let that deter you. Here, a few arguments for a few hours downtown (longer if you got it). A hotbed of local culture, Asheville boasts more than thirty art galleries in its funky downtown alone. As such, studio strolls, gallery hops and art walks are common, and the River Arts District and Folk Art Center both house art collections, exhibits and demos year-round. Equally pulsating is the music scene, which other parts of the uninformed country may well consider "emerging," but locals proudly boast that it has always been thriving. Indeed, here cross-genre acts, from traditional balladeers and mountain musicians to contemporary alternative rockers, perform lively shows attended by equally energetic crowds. Continuing the onslaught of culture are historic attractions, museums and a shockingly large amount of Art Deco architecture (the most concentrated collection in the Southeast). I was also surprised to learn that in addition to claiming the largest American residence in the Biltmore Estate, Asheville also has its oldest: the Smith- McDowell-House Museum.
Two of the most heralded attributes of Asheville are the farm-to-table cuisine and shopping; the first for its fresh Southern flavors (restaurants range from casual to upscale) and locally owned coffee shops (a real find for this devotee of the freshly brewed bean), and the second for absolute uniqueness. Finds here include arts and crafts, Southern antiques and one-of-a-kind trinkets (Asheville could easily be monikered "Home of the Unusual Souvenir").
Bringing everyone together is the great (seriously, great) outdoors-in Asheville this means some of the most beautiful topography in the entire nation. Often referred to as the "playground of the Southeast," the surrounding mountains set the stage for both serene pursuits (nature walks, stargazing, horseback riding) and high-octane adventure (biking, zip lining, water sports). Hiking in these parts is one of the more popular pastimes, and it yields the best opportunity for mind-blowing photo ops. The best scenery is along Blue Ridge Parkway. This stunning 469-mile stretch of road named "America's Most Scenic Drive" lives up to its billing and impresses at every turn (some of them hairpin!).
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If the rating didn't give it away, rooms here are lavish, appointments plentiful, and accolades consistent- the Inn at Biltmore is a Conde Nast Traveler's gold lister from way back. (Hint: if you casually throw out the fact that you're on your honeymoon at check in, voila, you may see Champagne and sweets in your room). Among the amenities of interest to the honeymoon set is the spa, an excessively indulgent hideaway doling out a his and hers "Estate Experience" that relaxed, exfoliated and soothed my husband and me into a near catatonic state of submission. Though not together for our treatments, later, tension gone, we met up for a glass of wine and, fair warning lovers, tried not to fall asleep. (Alas, we were unsuccessful.)
Indulgences extend to dining. There is no shortage of light-bit eateries and confectionary at the Biltmore Estate, but when it comes to fine dining, The Dining Room at the Inn sets an exquisite table. Here, patrons glimpse the dining habits of the Vanderbilt clan (and are incredibly jealous once they do). Fresh ingredients harvested directly from acres of Biltmore Estate farmland are plucked then utilized by the culinary team to create dishes featuring everything from fresh berries to estate-raised cattle. Even the grapes are cultivated for estate-made wine.
Equally filling is the Biltmore's extensive activity list-for honeymooners this runs the gamut depending on your vacation style. My husband is an outdoors hound and I'm a history lover with a bent for gorgeous interiors and gardens. Needless to say, both of us found ourselves in incredibly good stead at the estate. After hitting the outdoor adventure center at Antler Hill Village, where my better half fulfilled his male fantasy of off-roading, he later surprised me with a private carriage ride, clandestinely arranged while I was wine tasting.
Later we took an Architect's Tour of the Biltmore House, which confirmed every notion I had about "living large." Stricken by the stories and the vintage ornaments adorning the grand residence (both earning a big "whoa" in our book), we grappled with the structure's sheer scale over a gourmet picnic from the Bake Shop at Biltmore House, which we shared amid the fragrance and flora of the Spring Garden (think white pines and hemlock among spring's most beautiful blooms). We further marveled at the fact that this was one of only several lush gardens on the property, all worthy of a tour.
Sadly, our tour of the Biltmore Estate came to an inevitable end. But for countless other honeymooners, mark my words: It is an idyllic start to Happily Ever After.
The Road Less TraveledThe mountainous landscape surrounding the Biltmore Estate makes for thrilling outdoor adventure, but none more hair-raising than the Land Rover Experience Driving School, which puts adrenaline junkies behind the wheel of a brand-new Land Rover for off-road excursions through breathtaking backcountry. This factory-backed off-road driving program runs all year long, in all types of weather, on more than 4,000 acres of trails. Highly trained instructors drive this outfit, which takes into account one's piloting abilities-so, no side tilts or traversing complex obstacles if you can't hang. During these nail-biting jaunts, drivers learn to handle ascents and descents and may even give rock crawling a go (not for the faint of heart, but definitely good for honeymooners who will stop at nothing to hang on to one another-for dear life or otherwise). Full-day excursions or shorter 1-2 hour lessons are available.
FOR RATES AND INFORMATION: biltmore.com