Heading north from our last stop in Greenville, South Carolina, we added another new state to our travels: North Carolina. Asheville, an eclectic town in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, had long been on our list of places to visit.
We planned to do a lot of hiking during our week in Asheville. After all, the Blue Ridge Parkway is in Asheville’s backyard, and we had a list of hikes we wanted to tackle that our friends MonaLiza and Steve had enjoyed several years ago. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out too well. The third week in April, access to most trails was blocked by snow. And the trails that the visitor center recommended were bleak.
As it turns out, the mountains in the East are made up mostly of deciduous trees. Which is why it is so beautiful in the fall. In early spring, not so much. We’re accustomed to the West, where the coniferous forests are green year-round. Hiking the trails near Asheville, our views were of barren, stick-covered mountains.
After a day of hiking, we admitted we really weren’t having all that much fun. So we turned our attention to Asheville, which offered more than enough to keep us occupied for a few days.
The Biltmore Estate
On the outskirts of Asheville lies the Biltmore, probably the closest thing we have to a castle in this country. Built at the height of the Gilded Age, the fairytale mansion was the dream of George Washington Vanderbilt II (the grandson of industrialist and philanthropist Cornelius Vanderbilt). Apparently, he burned through most of his inheritance manifesting his vision.
With 135,000 square feet of living space, 250 rooms, 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, and a bowling alley, it’s the largest private home in America. In comparison, Hearst Castle, which we visited last year in California, is a paltry 68,500 square feet.
Visiting the Biltmore is expensive, at between $55-$65 a ticket. But our RV park offered us two-day passes for the price of a one-day ticket. Somehow, that made it seem like a bargain. (If you go, check around for similar deals.)
We were really glad we sprung for the tickets. We spent most of one day exploring the beautiful gardens of the estate and the miles of trails, enjoying the riot of blooming flowers, shrubs, and trees.
The splendid gardens at Biltmore were designed by Vanderbilt’s friend Frederick Law Olmstead, the father of American landscape architecture best known for his role in creating Central Park. Olmstead regarded the Biltmore as his last great project.
Describing Olmstead’s work, a contemporary said, “He paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest-covered hills; with mountainsides and ocean views….” It’s a perfect description.
To build his French Renaissance style chateau, George hired his friend Richard Morris Hunt, the leading architect of the late 19th century. It took six years, 1,000 workers, and more than 11 million bricks. On Christmas Eve 1895, Vanderbilt threw a grand housewarming party for friends and family. He was 33 years old and a bachelor.
Just a few years later, George married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser. From all accounts, they were kind, well-liked, socially progressive and generous. The mansion is a visual feast, filled with furnishings gathered in their extensive European and Asian travels, along with an impressive art collection.
For an additional $10, we could have rented an audio tour of the mansion. But I don’t like audio tours—I much prefer wandering at my own pace. We discovered well-informed guides in each room, all eager to share the history of the mansion and anecdotes of the Vanderbilts. I asked questions to my heart’s content. (I think the guides are bored if no one asks questions.)
The Biltmore always has special exhibits. During our visit, costumes were on display from the film “Titanic.” The Vanderbilts were scheduled to sail on the Titanic’s doomed maiden voyage in April 1912 and changed their minds just days before.
In 1914, they weren’t so fortunate. George, only 52, died from complications of an appendectomy. In 1930, the family opened the Biltmore to tourists during the height of the Depression. The altruistic explanation is that they wanted to help bring tourism to the area, but they also needed the money from the one dollar entrance fee to preserve the estate.
The Biltmore is still owned by George Vanderbilt’s descendants, and they’ve expanded the estate to include lodging, restaurants, and a winery. Interestingly, George and Edith’s only child—Cornelia—didn’t stick around to help. In 1924, she married a British diplomat in a grand ceremony at the Biltmore, had two sons, and shortly thereafter, dyed her hair bright pink and moved to Paris, never to return. Had she lived about a century later, she could have just moved to Asheville and found plenty of bohemians.
Asheville reminded us a lot of our hometown of Ashland, Oregon. Drum circles, organic local food scene, craft breweries (Asheville has us beat there by a long shot), hippies (60’s vintage and newer), and a generally free-spirited vibe. We had fun.
Food And Brew In Asheville
The local food and brewery scene in Asheville is some of the best we’ve found anywhere in our travels. We loved the polenta crust pizza at All Soul’s Pizza; grits with seared scallops at The Market Place Restaurant; and beer flights at Brahmari Brewing. There’s so much more—it was really hard to choose.
About the RV Park
We stayed just a few miles outside of Asheville at Mama Gertie’s Hideaway Campground, a delightful little park. It’s peaceful and pretty, with excellent management and amenities (good wifi and Verizon, immaculate laundry and bathhouse). We were happy with our pull-through site in the lower tier, but for a premium price, you can book a site on the top tier overlooking the mountains with your own deck and swing. If you stay six nights, the seventh is free.