Day Trips: Biltmore lights up for the holidays

Indoors and on the grounds, Asheville’s Biltmore Estate glows for the holiday season.
Indoors and on the grounds, Asheville’s Biltmore Estate glows for the holiday season. Biltmore Estate

There’s a school of thought that any house looks better in bleak December when it is decorated for the holidays. And up in Asheville that theory is put to the test at Biltmore House, the residence of one of the wealthiest American families of the late 1800s.

The challenge for the design crew at the attraction is to decorate the mansion and grounds in a manner that will top the previous year, but in a way that George Washington Vanderbilt would give his 1895 stamp of approval.

That was the Christmas the tycoon and art collector first opened his new, 250-room Buncombe County chateau to his family and friends for the holidays.

His descendants still own the estate, billed as the largest privately owned residence in the nation. And Christmas-at-Biltmore definitely has an impact on annual attendance, netting more than 300,000 visitors for the holiday season.

It’s staged through Jan. 10 this year, on the heels of its successful “Dressing Downton” exhibit (which closed Memorial Day) and in advance of “Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns and Film,” a costume exhibit that opens in February.

A key part of Christmas at Biltmore is, obviously, putting the mansion on an authentically grand holiday footing; the theme this year is “A Gilded Age Christmas.” Rooms are lavishly decorated for the season, with major rooms taking center stage. The Banquet Hall, for instance, is decorated with Edison-style white lights and holds a 34-foot Fraser fir decorated with 500 ornaments. The Winter Garden is in its element this season: The in-mansion conservatory sports white poinsettias and textured green plants.

This is the only season at Biltmore when the chateau is open for evening tours; these Candlelight Christmas Evenings, which continue through Jan. 2, are staged to show off ornaments, candle lighting and lit fireplaces. Musicians and choirs perform; reservations are required.

On the lawn in front of the main entrance, a 55-foot Norway spruce is strung with 45,000 tiny white lights and surrounded by hundreds of luminaria.

By day or night, there are more holiday flourishes on the grounds, too. Some are free; others require additional cost and/or reservations.

The conservatory is showing its annual poinsettia and tropical plants display; nearby at A Gardener’s Place, two seminars about holiday decorating are offered. Dec. 17-19, The Inn on Biltmore Estate is hosting the annual Gingerbread House teas.

In the Antler Hill Village area, the estate’s winery is offering complimentary wine tastings; keep an eye out in the village for roving carolers and for Santa Claus. Evenings, there’s live music in Cedric’s Tavern. Dec. 23-25, there’s a village bonfire with live music and s’mores kits. Antler Hill Village is also where you’ll find the property’s new, 209-room Village Hotel, which opens Dec. 1; check for package deals there that include Christmas at Biltmore admission.

Want to go?

Day-visit hours at Biltmore House are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; admission is $50-$75; $25-$37.50 for ages 10-16. Candlelight Christmas Evenings (by reservation only; not included in daytime admission) begin at 5:30 p.m. Admission is $70-$85; $35-$42.50 for ages 10-16. Details/reservations:

Biltmore Estate is a little over two hours from Charlotte. Take I-85 South to U.S. 321 (in Gastonia). Follow U.S. 321 North to I-40 (near Hickory) and I-40 West to Asheville. At Exit 50-B, take U.S. 25 North. Watch for Biltmore Estate signs.