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Enjoy Biltmore Amid Fall’s Mountain Scenery | By Frances Hasty

Thousands of visitors will be traveling to the mountains of North Carolina to enjoy Mother Nature’s colorful autumn show, and many of them will include a stop at one of America’s most impressive man-made attractions, George W. Vanderbilt’s Biltmore House.

Framed by the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Biltmore occupies a site that 25-year-old Vanderbilt discovered on a visit to the area in the late 1880s. He chose this setting near Asheville for his 250-room French Renaissance chateau, and hired his friend architect Richard Morris Hunt to build it.

At what undoubtedly was a lavish occasion, Vanderbilt unveiled his home to friends and family for the first time on Christmas Eve 1895. Three years later, he was joined by his bride, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser. The Vanderbilt’s only child, Cornelia, was born in Biltmore House. It continues to be America’s largest private residence and has been named a National Historic Landmark.

Still owned by the family, the house is open daily to visitors, who see it much the way it was when the Vanderbilts lived there. Described as an intellectual and fluent in several languages, George (grandson of industrialist Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt) traveled with architect, Hunt, throughout Europe and the Orient to purchase furnishings for the house. Among the hundreds of noteworthy pieces displayed are a chess set and gaming table that belonged to Napoleon, in the Salon; Chinese goldfish bowls from the Ming Dynasty, in the Library; 16th-century Flemish tapestries, in the Banquet Hall and Tapestry Gallery; and 50 Persian and Oriental rugs, covering the marble and oak floors. The walls hold works by Renoir, Sargent, Whistler and Boldini.

After viewing the massive living areas on the main floor, guests can take the grand staircase to the second and third floors to see the parlors and bedrooms where the Vanderbilts and their guests slept in lavish style (all 34 bedrooms were joined by bathrooms with elaborate indoor plumbing).

In 2005, the fourth floor was opened to visitors. Here are found the servants quarters and an observatory that gave Vanderbilt and his guests a sweeping view of the countryside and an up-close look at the gargoyles, chimneys and other architectural features of the home’s exterior.

The tour winds back down a staircase to end in the basement for a look at an indoor pool and dressing rooms, gymnasium, and bowling alley. Here also are kitchens, walk-in refrigerators, pantries, laundry and drying rooms, plus more quarters for the servants. Biltmore had full electricity and was centrally heated when completed and was considered one of the most technologically advanced structures ever built. It had some of Edison’s first light bulbs, a fire-alarm system, two elevators, and that new invention, the telephone.

The house tour is long and there are many steps to climb so it’s wise to wear comfortable shoes and perhaps take a break before going to the upper floors. Small children may become tired.

As the seasons change, so do the gardens. The gardens and grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, considered the father of landscaping in America. With the first frost, the summer annuals and roses in the four-acre Walled Garden will give way to chrysanthemums and other fall flowers. In the winter months, the conservatory houses colorful tropical plants including poinsettias, orchids, lilies, cacti and bougainvillea.

At 8,000 acres now, the Biltmore property offers a number of attractions in addition to the mansion.

Riverbend Farm, once the hub of agricultural operations, now features crafters, music, displays of original farm equipment and a farmyard filled with chickens, lambs, calves and other animals.

Biltmore Estate Winery is housed in a former dairy barn. Here guests can sample some of the winery’s prize-winning selections.

Three restaurants are on the grounds. Deerpark Restaurant is located on the former dairy operation. The Bistro is adjacent to the winery. Beside the mansion is a café in the former stables, and guests are seated in renovated horse stalls. Gift shops are also found in this area.

In 2001, the Inn on Biltmore Estate opened. A four-diamond facility, it has 213 rooms and includes a restaurant and banquet rooms.

For the more active visitor, Biltmore offers river float trips, horseback riding, fishing packages, carriage rides, and cycling. In 2004 it added the Land Rover Experience Driving School, giving adventurous guests the chance to improve off-road driving skills with trained driving instructors.

Throughout the year, Biltmore offers seasonal programs.

In progress now through Oct. 28 is the Harvest Celebration with events at River Bend Farm and the Winery. Activities include music, Appalachian-style dancing, culinary demonstrations, wine tastings, gardening and decorating seminars, demonstrations by artisans, folk tales and farm-life displays.

Christmas at Biltmore begins Nov. 3 and will run through Jan. 1, 2008. Elaborate Victorian decorations fill the mansion, reflecting the 1895 celebration. Candlelight Christmas Evenings are available by reservation only. The winery will offer tours, cooking demonstrations and complimentary wine tastings throughout the holidays.

For information on prices, special tours, and Christmas tours, you can visit online at www.biltmore.com.