University City

Bask at 'tropical' biltmore

Biltmore Estate Conservatory

1 Approach Road, Asheville, 800-411-3812.

When tycoon George Vanderbilt was building his Biltmore estate on the outskirts of Asheville in the 1890s, he made sure to include all the conveniences and luxuries popular among the New York social elite. Among the touches given his sprawling mountain estate was a conservatory - an indoor garden where Industrial Age steel/glass/brick technology could defy cold weather and the well-to-do could enjoy exotic flowers and foliage at home.

Biltmore's Conservatory is still there, still open, and a delight on a winter day.

It's down the hill from Biltmore House. While large - 40 feet tall and with an area of 7,500 square feet - it was placed on lower ground to give it shelter from winter winds and to avoid distracting visitors' attention from the Vanderbilt's mansion.

Through the end of March, the thousands of tropical plants in the Conservatory are at peak bloom.

Orchids, which have a room of their own, include cattleya, lady of the night, lady slipper, moth and vanda varieties. There are more than 70 orchids in all.

Other warm-weather treasures blooming in winter range from agave to pineapple.

The Conservatory was built as a statement of luxury, and it remains one.

Because winter is the slow season at Biltmore, checking out the Conservatory now is statement of travel savvy: It's more affordable. The Conservatory is included in basic admission, and through March 31, that's $35 when purchased seven days or more in advance, online or over the phone. Guests 16 and younger are admitted free.

Target audience: Plant lovers and Biltmore fans.

Travel time from Charlotte: Two hours 15 minutes.

Directions: Interstate 85 South to Kings Mountain (Exit 10B), then U.S. 74 Bypass West to Columbus. Take I-26 northwest to I-40 in Asheville; take I-40 East to Exit 50 (about 4 1/2 miles); take U.S. 25 North to Biltmore Estate entrance.