The Magic of Europe Only Five Hours Away
July 2023 Issue
by Elizabeth Skenes Millen
Photos courtesy of The Biltmore Company
It’s obvious we are all ocean people. After all, we live and/or vacation here in the Lowcountry, where salt runs through our veins. However, even ocean people want to escape occasionally, craving a change of scenery.
What if I told you in less than five hours you could feel as though you’ve been transported into the majesty of Europe surrounded by opulence and beauty so great it takes your breath away? I took a trip to Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, last month and that is exactly how I felt. It was exactly what this ocean girl needed—the powerful beauty of the mountains, the nostalgia of days gone by, the formality of excellence, and the fairytale of a faraway land yet I barely crossed over the South Carolina border.
This was my second time visiting Biltmore, and this time I did it alone, which proved to be perfect. I took my time as I toured the home, the gardens, and the Italian Renaissance Alive art exhibit. I immersed my thoughts into what it must have been like to live there, to entertain guests there, to raise children there.
At 175,000 square feet, the Biltmore House, built in 1895, is still the largest home in America. Intrigued with the Vanderbilt family ever since reading The Social Graces by Renée Rosen, I imagined the vision, the creativity, the dream George Vanderbilt must have had when setting out to build his family’s summer retreat amongst the 8,000 acres of gorgeous mountainous terrain he purchased in North Carolina. It is obvious he was a big thinker, surrounding himself with the best, most renown talent to see his vision to fruition. He made his dream a reality we all get to enjoy today—128 years later.
Thousands of people visit Biltmore at Christmastime when the house is decorated to the nines for the holidays. However, I enjoyed seeing the home in late spring when it was simply stunning even without all the merry red and green. I made it a point to notice details—the china and crystal patterns, how the architecture of ceilings are different in almost in every room, the furniture fabrics, the mantles on the 165 fireplaces throughout the house (though I didn’t see them all), the collected and commissioned art, including original Monet’s and Renoir’s, the library (where I wanted to spend the entire day), and the veranda that perfectly framed Mt. Pisgah in the distance. I allowed myself to slip into an era gone by, into wealth few will ever live, into the magic of Biltmore.
Equally as impressive were the gardens surrounding the home, and this is another reason I am pleased to have visited in early June. The rose garden was gloriously in full bloom, bursting with vibrant colors and sweet fragrances. I don’t know how many varieties were represented but they all were gorgeous. The original landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, designed the estate to offer four seasons of beauty, comprised of six formal and informal gardens, a Conservatory, and nature trails connecting to the French Broad River. The gardens span both indoors and out. I gawked at vast orchids larger than I’d ever seen. The conservatory was home to mixtures of foliage, flowers and colors expertly paired to create visual masterpieces. I couldn’t get enough; I nearly became drunk in awe of the beauty.
My final hours on the Estate were spent immersed in the greatest art era known as the Renaissance, marveling at masterpieces brought to larger-than-life screens in their exhibit, Italian Renaissance Alive. This exhibition and journey made its world premiere at Biltmore back in March. The exhibit features the masterworks of some of the greatest artists to ever live, such as DaVinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, and Caravaggio. However, these are not the originals, this is an all-new multi-sensory experience that takes you on a spellbinding journey of art and history and immerses you into Italy. I enjoyed the detailed and educational piece of this experience. I learned more in 45 minutes than I did in an entire semester of Art Appreciation in college. Included in Italian Renaissance Live is a segment on women artists of the Renaissance, which is a wonderful addition. I learned women were not accepted as artists during that era, so little is known about their work, and they never received the credit they deserved. It is nice to see these female artists’ contributions to the Renaissance and understand more about the significance of their work.
If I could go back to Biltmore today, I would pack up my beach chair and head for the hills. I relish the time I spent in the splendor of Biltmore. Today’s staff of 2,400 have stayed true to George Vanderbilt’s vision and expectations, making every single aspect of the Estate world class—the cafes, shops, the winery, all of it.
This is a weekend trip to not miss. If you haven’t been to Biltmore yet, put it on the top of your bucket list. If you have the urge to go to Europe but don’t have that kind of time right now, go to Biltmore. This is a place where you will be whisked away into the magic of a beauty so grand it will ignite your mind and renew your soul.
When You Go
> Visit biltmore.com for more information and tickets
> Things to do while at Biltmore: Home and Garden tour, Winery tour and tasting, Italian Renaissance Alive, Hike, Live Music series, Bike, Shop, Eat, Horseback ride, and so much more! AND, view all the gargoyles—love them!
> Italian Renaissance Live runs through September 30, 2023
> Christmas at Biltmore—November 3, 2023 to January 7, 2024