It's that time of year. The baby Jesus and the manger. Santa and his elves. Rudolph and Frosty. Christmas is everywhere you go. Ever since I was a kid, I have been a sucker for Christmas lights and decorations. If you like this aspect of Christmas, one of the best places to visit during December is Biltmore House in Asheville, NC. Though I had visited the estate previously, last year I was finally able to experience Candlelight Christmas Evenings.
America's largest home
Biltmore House was built between 1889 and 1895 by George Washington Vanderbilt II, a descendant of railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, . The home, which is still owned by the family, ranks as the largest residence in American history and is part of the larger Biltmore Estate. It was opened to the public in 1930 and has become the major tourist attraction in the Asheville area. While the home is worth touring any time of year - I took the general and architecture tours a few summers ago - Christmas, with stunning holiday decorations adorning the building. is a special time at Biltmore. Evening tours are offered when Christmas lights transform the home into a wonderland.
Tours any time of year are expensive, and after my visit in 2011, I did not anticipate returning for the standard tour. Given the price, the value of a return visit was simply not there for me. However, I have long wanted to take the Christmas candlelight tour. Last year was my first Christmas with my now-fiancée, so a quick weekend getaway in early December was in order. Making the weekend even better, she had never visited the estate so it was great to see her experience Biltmore for the first time.
Reserving a time slot
Candlelight Christmas tours at Biltmore House are self-guided and by time ticket which can be reserved in advance on the Biltmore website. During the Christmas season, tours start as late as 11:00 pm on some days, and ticket prices depend on the time of your tour. Our tickets cost just over $100 each, not cheap by any stretch, but included the following benefits:
Shuttle bus from the parking lot to the house
Next day or same day access to gardens and Antler Hill Village
Biltmore Estate Winery and wine tasting
We visited the first weekend of December with a 9:00 pm time slot, which we were able to reserve just over a week in advance.
Arrival and home entry
Since our tickets were delivered by mail, we could have proceeded directly to the estate gate without stopping at the visitor center. However, we stopped briefly and got our first taste of the richness of the Christmas decor we would soon be seeing. After a few minutes there, we headed to the main entrance gate and presented our tickets.
We drove up the very dark approach road for approximately two miles. The complete lack of lighting, aside from the moon, was almost eerie. We reached the parking areas before we could even see the home. Once parked, we caught one of the very frequent shuttles. The shuttle ride is only a few minutes and we soon turned the corner and got our first glimpse of the large Norway spruce glowing from thousands of Christmas lights with the home looming in the background. It was a pretty dramatic sight!
The shuttle dropped us off, literally, at the front door. We arrived before check-in opened for our time slot so we spent a few minutes taking pictures of the front facade of the mansion. We then ventured over to the shops and cafes located in the old carriage house and stable.
Shopping and dining options at the house
Though Asheville is in the temperate South, the city is in the Smoky Mountains and December temps can be quite brisk for those more accustomed to mild Decembers. Fortunately, the outdoor seating area in the café was warmed with heat lamps, so we relaxed with with coffee and one of the many sweet treats available for purchase. There are other dining options available including the Stable Café but we had eaten dinner before our arrival so dessert was plenty. We also browsed through several shops and picked up an ornament to commemorate both our trip and our first Christmas together. A few minutes before 9:00 pm, we headed back to the check-in podium, eager to begin our tour of Biltmore House.
Touring the House
Once we checked in, we were directed to the main entrance. The tour is self-guided which essentially means following the rope line through the home. The decorations made rich and ornate and understatement. Over-the-top would have been a more apt description, but in a building as over-the-top as Biltmore, it worked. Each room was packed with holiday greenery and lights. Musicians performed Christmas music at various points along the tour. The biggest disappointment - though completely understandable for safety reasons - was that the candlelight came from electronic candles. Words can only give a partial impression so I will let the photos speak for themselves.
Visiting the Grounds and Antler Hill Village & Winery
As mentioned, the Candlelight Christmas Evenings ticket permits you to visit the estate grounds, Antler Hill Village and Biltmore Estate Winery the day of or the day after your candlelight tour. We took advantage of this and returned Sunday morning to explore the outdoor parts of Biltmore. The estate was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who created New York City's Central Park and the grounds of the U.S. Capitol building. A prominent feature was a landscaped "grand garden" close to the home. The up-close views of the home as well as the Pisgah National Forest from the surrounding terraces were beautiful. I am not a huge flower and plant person, but I did enjoy strolling through the garden. I imagine these are stunning in the spring while everything is in bloom. I would definitely recommend spending some time outside the home when you visit Biltmore.
Antler Hill Village and Biltmore Estate Winery
After we finished exploring the gardens, we returned to our car and headed to our final stop, the Antler Hill Village and Biltmore Estate Winery. The property is so vast, these were two miles away. Antler Hill Village is a collection of shops and restaurants and is the location of Biltmore's own winery. There is also an exhibit on the history of the estate and a petting "farm" for the kids...and for me! We had a big breakfast in Asheville earlier in the morning so we did not eat, but we visited the winery and tasting room as well as browsed the shops. I don't drink so I can't tell you anything about the wine or the tasting experience, but my then-girlfriend tried several different wines and seemed to enjoy the experience. I would not put Antler Hill or the winery on the "must see" list when visiting Biltmore, but if you have time, it's worth checking out.
Though the price was quite steep, visiting Biltmore Estate at Christmas was a great experience. I don't know if it is something I would repeat at $100 per person, but it is most definitely worth the relatively short drive from Atlanta, especially if you love Christmas. Combine the estate with Asheville and the nearby Smoky Mountains and you will have a great weekend getaway in western North Carolina!