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My wife and I enjoyed our first visit to Biltmore Estate today, but as I was driving away, I was struck by two things.

House2First, it occurred to me that George Vanderbilt, the millionaire heir celebrated over and over in the Biltmore tours for building Biltmore, really didn’t do very much, except build Biltmore.

That may seem like a lot, but when you compare him to his grandfather, the shipping and railroad tycoon who built the Vanderbilt empire from nothing, and his delightfully mutton-chopped father, who after inheriting the empire, doubled it in just eight years, George was not a success.

George Vanderbilt – who reportedly had no interest in the family’s business empire, simply inherited a fortune, and then spent years sinking it all into building the largest home in the United States.

Given, that home is obviously spectacular, and Vanderbilt’s collections of cultural, artistic, and historical artifacts which fill the place are second-to-none. But the fact that we know about anything at all about Biltmore today says more about the tenacity, efforts, and business acumen of his descendants than it says about those of Vanderbilt himself.

This fact really surprised me.

7265774_114447356931Secondly, I was struck that I – as an average American – live a life that a turn-of-the-century person like Vanderbilt couldn’t have dreamt or imagined, even with his millions, his family name, and his impressive European chateau in North Carolina.

For example, I travel the globe cheaply and comfortably in a day, while a similar voyage would have been much more arduous for Vanderbilt, and would have taken him a much longer time by land and by sea. Vanderbilt may have had an impressive library, but I have every published book in the world at my disposal with the click of a button. I can communicate with anyone in the world in an instant, while it would have taken Vanderbilt days or weeks by post or perhaps by telephone to a few people. I drive my own horseless carriage at high rates of speed while enjoying the wonders of air conditioning and listening to any music I wish. I’ve seen pictures and video of men on the moon, of spacecraft reaching every planet in our solar system, and high resolution images of galaxies light years away. 

To bring it back to Earth, in 1914, George Vanderbilt, one of the richest men of his generation with immediate access to the best medicine of his time, died in New York due to complications from appendi-freakin-citis. And right now, somewhere in a small hospital in middle America, an E.R. surgeon is performing an emergency appendectomy on a person with no money, and that person will likely walk away from the surgery.  

We have vaccines for polio, measles, whooping cough, tuberculosis, cholera, yellow fever, rubella, hepatitis, and influenza – all diseases for which Vanderbilt’s money could not buy a cure.

Which makes me ask the question: what will things be like in another hundred years? Here’s hoping for more amazing breakthroughs, technological advances, and another hundred years of us not eradicating ourselves as a species.

All that being said, we enjoyed our visit to Biltmore, and I’ve come up with ten tips for visiting the place.

Thimblerig’s Ten Tips for Visiting Biltmore

1) Biltmore is crazy popular in Asheville in the summer, so visit on a weekday if you are able. But the place is very well organized, so even though we arrived at 11:00, we didn’t have too many lines.

2) Why would anyone bother with valet parking? To feel like a Vanderbilt? Folks, the shuttle service is free and easy, and if you’re really feeling healthy, the walk from the parking lot to the house is less than 10 minutes.

3) Bring a picnic lunch. We had a nice simple lunch we brought with us on a bench during our walk to the lake.  It was fun, and it saved us money compared to the pricey Biltmore eateries (think airport prices on the property).

4) While Biltmore is literally crawling with extremely well-informed guides, the general ticket doesn’t get you any sort of guided tour. Rather, you can pay $10 for a little cell-phone-like audio tour. I would highly recommend this, but would suggest you bring your own earbuds, as the headphones are curiously rationed, and normal earbuds will fit. Trust me – you don’t want to walk around the whole mansion holding the cell phone thing up to your ear. But do the audio tour. It’s worth the $10.

5) Travelling with a child? Leave the big stroller at home and bring the umbrella stroller and a backpack. Lots and lots of stairs everywhere at Biltmore – in the house and in the gardens – and you’ll end up carrying the stroller up lots of those stairs. Much of Biltmore is not wheel-friendly (keep this in mind for wheelchairs, too).

6) If you are travelling with a small child, do the gardens first so that they get plenty tired out.  Our two year old blessedly slept nearly the entire time we were touring the house because we wore him out first in the gardens.

7) Bring a few bottles of water with you. I didn’t see many water fountains, and we got pretty thirsty.

8) Buy your tickets a week ahead from the website, and save $10 a ticket. And if you go this summer, kids under 16 are free. Many B&Bs and hotels have special deals as well, so check with your accommodations before buying from the website.

Wine-tasting9) Stop off at the winery on your way out, as a few sample glasses of wine are a spectacular way to end a long day of seeing how the better half lived compared to your grandparents. It’s also fun to watch people sampling wine, as some of them look like they may have attended wine school in France, and beside them is the guy just gulping down free wine.

10) And if you are travelling with small children, and you spent all day dragging them through several floors of a turn-of-the-century mansion, you owe them at least a half hour at the little petting farm at Antler Hill. The kids can pet chickens and feed goats, which our two year old loved better than Disney. You must stop there.

All in all, a trip to Biltmore is something you should do if you have any interest in American history, and especially if you curious about the way a very small segment of the population lived at the turn of the century. It’s a bit pricey to enter, but it’s money well-spent.

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