Everyone longs to be wealthy. Well, every American, that is. People come to this country to “chase the American dream,” “strike it rich,” and “buy one, get one free.” In fact, if you asked folks from all walks of life—as we did—what they longed for, most of them would answer that they want to be so filthy rich, they have servants to complain about the weather for them.
People want to be as wealthy as characters portrayed in such movies as Richie Rich, Being There, and Mr. Destiny. What do these movies have in common? They all used the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, as a location. Why? Because the Biltmore is “America’s largest private home.” That’s 175,000 square feet of conspicuous consumption.
Built in the 1890s, when you could pay a grateful unskilled laborer (think Glenn Beck but with calluses) six dollars a week, George Washington Vanderbilt spent many, many, many thousands to build his mansion in the middle of a mountainous rainforest. And yes, it’s very nice. It’s not just the many bedrooms and amenities; it’s the little touches of opulence, like the painted ceilings, the immense library, and the dining room for hundreds of your closest friends.
The house for you and hundreds of your closest friends.
The house and its estate (another 8,000 acres of mostly pristine land, designed by the guy—Frederick Law Olmstead—who landscaped New York’s Central Park) comprise a gated community all by itself. But this is one gated community you can buy your way into, even if the charge is just a rental fee. For 60 dollars (or about 20 dollars less than the full-price entrance fee to a popular amusement park in Orlando, Florida), you can buy a day pass to tour the house and grounds. There are no rides, unless you count the tiny elevator for those who can’t manage the wide staircase, and there are few interactive presentations, unless you count pushing your way through gawking tourists.
Like Disney World, however, Biltmore Estate hires smiling, helpful people to herd the crowds through, answer questions, and solve problems. Try as you might, you can’t break their façade of cheerful countenance. We should know; we tried. Instead of angry retorts, all we got were polite rebuffs:
“No sir; that tapestry is not for sale.”
“I do not know if Cornelia Vanderbilt slept in the nude.”
“Excuse me, sir, the bathroom is that way.”
Here is Mark, trying to get his dog to pee in the gardens, because he couldn’t.
You can almost always get thrown out of a better hotel, but you simply cannot get thrown out of a finer house than this one. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as it sounds. As long as you’re there, you might as well tour the house. Give yourself time—you’ll need a good two hours to get through it. You’ll spill from the house, dazed, into the courtyard of what used to be the stable. Now it houses shops and a restaurant where you’ll feel the urge to overpay for trinkets, clothing, books, and food. Conspicuous consumption is apparently contagious.
Bring cash and lots of it. Bring not one, but two major credit cards. Besides the entrance fee, you’ll pay top dollar to eat at any of the “fine dining experiences” that pose as restaurants. The food’s good, but outside the protected, hallowed grounds of the Biltmore Estate, the city of Asheville has many great restaurants that offer meals at a fraction of the cost.
Lessons Learned: The only thing that’s free within the Biltmore is the winery tour and wine tasting, and both are must-do’s. You want to get your money’s worth, right? But be careful: After a full day pushing through crowds for a glimpse of a hundred-year-old divan, even a Biltmore Estate wine will taste like the Nectar of the Gods. They know this and expect you buy cases of the stuff. Don’t be fooled.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 3
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 2/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Asheville Regional AirportNative Population: 75,000 (Asheville)Normal Attractions (at the Biltmore): The Walled Garden (especially in April during tulip season), the Bass Pond, Antler Hill Village, the Winery, and the hiking and biking trails.Final Point of Interest: Believe it or not, it used to be illegal to jog on the grounds of the Estate. You could walk, skip, jump, bicycle, and horseback ride along the trails, but not jog. Maybe it started in the 1970s, when fashion sense suddenly became terminally ill. They’ve since rescinded the regulation.