Biltmore, the country’s largest private home, hosted its first Christmas party in 1895, and the festivities keep getting bigger, attracting thousands of visitors each year. The centerpiece of Biltmore’s Christmas celebration is the elaborately decorated, 35-foot tall Fraser fir in the Banquet Hall. This is in addition to more than 50 other trees throughout the estate, each intricately decorated, including the massive 55-foot Norway spruce on the front lawn. Biltmore’s staff, led by floral displays manager Cathy Barnhardt, uses natural material in their garlands, wreaths, and centerpieces, including about 1,000 red and white poinsettias. After George Vanderbilt built his 250-room Asheville home, one of his favorite traditions was entertaining friends and families during the holidays. Through historic documentation, the Biltmore staff knows that he put a live tree in the banquet hall and trimmed it with electric lights, just like they do today. “Knowing that we’re rooted in the actual history of Biltmore is important,” Barnhardt says. Biltmore has been getting its towering Fraser fir trees from Andrews Nursery in Newland since 1975. The company delivers the tree on a wagon pulled by Belgian draft horses and accompanied by Santa Claus. A crew carries the tree into the banquet hall, where workers use ropes to heave it upright and set it straight. “Once it’s in place and standing we all take a deep breath and there’s a big round of applause,” Barnhardt says.
What to do: Explore George Vanderbilt’s 8,000-acre estate in all its holiday grandeur during Christmas at Biltmore Daytime Celebrations, through Jan. 12. Admission ($59 for adults, $29.50 16 and under) includes a guided tour and complimentary tasting at the estate’s winery. During Candlelight Christmas Evenings (through Jan. 4, excluding Dec. 24, 25), local choirs and small musical ensembles perform seasonal music.
Where to eat: There are several restaurants on the estate grounds, including the elegant Dining Room, which specializes in fresh regional cuisine, as well as the more casual Deerpark Restaurant, which is located in a historic barn and serves Southern family–style dishes. And bustling downtown Asheville is an epicurean’s delight, with dozens of restaurants, from vegetarian and Southern to gourmet four-star cuisine.
Where to stay: The Inn on Biltmore Estate offers lodging with a restaurant, a spa, and panoramic mountain views. If you’re looking to splurge, try the Cottage on Biltmore Estate, a private two-bedroom, two-bath historic cottage. www.biltmore.com
History in Wine Country Located only about an hour north of Lake Norman, the quaint and historic town of Rockford is an ideal place to unwind and enjoy the simple pleasures of the holidays—and imbibe lots of wine. Founded in 1790, Rockford is situated along the Yadkin River in Surry County and surrounded by the Yadkin Valley, which is home to dozens of wineries. One of the favorite holiday traditions in Rockford is when community members and visitors gather to hear music in the 1914 Methodist Church, where the acoustics are unparalleled. “A small group can sound big,” says Hannah Holyfield, president of the Rockford Preservation Society. The society started in 1972 to preserve the remaining structures in this small village. Rockford was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, and the Methodist Church is one of four buildings open to the public. Every year on the first Thursday and Friday of December, the church holds Candlelight Christmas in Rockford. Gena Poovey, professor of music at Limestone College in Gaffney, S.C., started the event 23 years ago. She returns every year to lead the music with her classically trained voice. The music lineup changes every year, but it often includes choral groups from Surry Community College and area high schools, and bluegrass and gospel groups. At the end of the night, guests receive hot cider and cookies. The surrounding Yadkin Valley now has about 35 wineries. This time of year, 10 of them come together for the Deck the Halls program. Participants purchase tickets at one of the wineries and then show the tickets at the other locations for a tasting, custom ornament, keepsake glass, and recipe. Special events, such as live music and food-and-wine pairings, take place throughout the season.
What to do: Candlelight Christmas in Rockford, Dec. 5-6, 7:30 p.m. www.rememberrockford.com; 336-374-3825. Deck the Halls Winery Program, which runs through early January. www.surrywineries.com. And be sure to visit the Rockford General Store, which first opened in 1890 and remains largely unchanged—with uneven wooden floors, glass jars of candy, and old photos of Rockford.
Where to eat: Twenty One & Main, located in a historic building in downtown Elkin, serves fresh, Southern-inspired dishes in a casual atmosphere. Harvest Grill is a bistro-style restaurant on the grounds of Shelton Vineyards in Dobson. www.twentyoneandmain.com; www.sheltonvineyards.com/harvest-grill
Where to stay: Hannah and Doug Holyfield run the Rockford Inn Bed & Breakfast, a restored 1840 farmhouse. The inn has three guest rooms with private baths. The Holyfields prepare breakfast every morning. www.rockfordbedandbreakfast.com; 800-561-6652.
A Centennial Celebration Already one of the most luxurious and decadent resorts in the state, the Omni Grove Park Inn underwent a $25 million renovation as part of its 100th anniversary this year. In addition to giving many of the guest rooms a modern makeover, Edison, a new restaurant and bar, was added, which boasts a spacious cocktail terrace with sweeping mountain views. The resort’s dramatic Great Hall, featuring 24-foot ceilings and two 14-foot stone fireplaces, was also updated. For the holidays, the Great Hall is decorated with towering Christmas trees and gorgeous wreaths. It’s an ideal place to enjoy a cocktail, cozy up to the fire, and soak in the view. Another popular holiday tradition at Grove Park is the National Gingerbread House Competition. Celebrating its 21st anniversary this year, the cooking and culinary design contest features some 200 participants from across the country who show off their elaborately decorated spice cookie houses. The fanciful creations are on display until Jan. 1. www.groveparkinn.com —Sam Boykin—
What to do: While enjoying the cozy holiday surroundings at Grove Park, pamper yourself at the resort’s award-winning spa, a luxurious 43,000-square-foot subterranean retreat. Here, among the cavernous rock walls and tunnels, indulge in a tension-melting massage, take a refreshing swim in one of two waterfall pools, or simply relax at one of the fireside lounges while enjoying your favorite beverage. And while the weather may be cold, you can enjoy indoor tennis courts, a swimming pool, fitness center, and classes as the Sports Complex. There are also several shops and boutiques as the resort, where you can find everything from the latest fashions and jewelry to gifts and outdoor gear.
Where to eat: There are four restaurants at Grove Park, including the new Edison, which features local craft beers and casual Southern comfort food such as chicken and waffles. Other dining options include the elegant, AAA Four-Diamond Horizons Dining Room, which specializes in contemporary American cuisine and offers more than 600 wines.
Where to stay: The Omni Grove Park Inn has 514 guest rooms, including 167 in the Vanderbilt Wing that were recently updated and provide spectacular views of the mountains and courtyard. Other rooms at the resort overlook the spa or golf course, or you can splurge for an expansive suite, including the one where President Barack Obama stayed during his most recent visit.
Moravian Memories When Paula Locklair came to work at Old Salem Museums & Gardens in 1972, Christmas meant Candle Tea and Salem Christmas Day. Two events — that was it. Forty-one years later, Locklair is the vice president of education programming and research, and she and her team oversee about eight different holiday events at the Winston-Salem destination. One of those is still Candle Tea. In its 84th year, Candle Tea takes place in the Single Brothers’ House and is organized by the Women’s Fellowship of Home Moravian Church. Up to 300 church volunteers help with the six-day event. The hosts share the history of Salem, which the Moravians established in 1766, and guide guests through the house where single men in the community worshipped, worked, and lived. Visitors hear songs played on the 1797 Tannenberg organ, drink Moravian coffee, eat sugar cake, and watch beeswax candles being made. Ragan Folan started as president and CEO of Old Salem last year and helped introduce the kid-focused Saturdays with St. Nicholas. The new event combines modern traditions, such as sitting on Santa’s lap for a picture, with Moravian standbys, such as sugar cake and Christmas carols. Although preservation work has been ongoing at Old Salem for decades, Locklair and her team continue to research and learn more about the Moravians and their lives here in the 18th and 19th centuries. “It’s just such a wonderful place with such an incredibly deep history,” Locklair says. “No two days are ever the same.”
What to do: Candle Tea, Dec. 5, 6, 12, and 13, 1 p.m.-8:30 p.m.; December 7 and 14, 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Saturdays with St. Nicholas, Nov. 30, Dec. 7, 14, and 21, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. www.oldsalem.org/holiday; 336-721-7300.
Where to eat: The Tavern in Old Salem is a family operated restaurant located in an 1816 building in the heart of Old Salem. Waiters wear historical Moravian clothing and serve Moravian-inspired dishes, such as chicken pie. www.thetaverninoldsalem.ws.
Where to stay: The Historic Brookstown Inn is conveniently located between Old Salem and downtown Winston-Salem. The spacious guest rooms have exposed brick and high ceilings. Guests receive complimentary wine and cheese in the evening, cookies and milk at night, and breakfast in the morning. www.brookstowninn.com; 336-725-1120.