Food Feature: Candlelit majesty

Revive your holiday spirit with Christmas tours of the Biltmore Estate

George Vanderbilt, grandson of railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, opened the doors of his magnificent Biltmore Estate to family and friends for the first time on Christmas Eve, 1895. The tradition he started that evening continues as the estate, which is now open to the public, hosts annual candlelight tours of the property.
Our first view of the Biltmore came as our bus cleared the line of trees that serve as a natural gate to the home's stadium-sized front yard. The house, illuminated by accent lights, is so large that its roofs and spires disappeared into the night like rings of smoke above a campfire. With more than 250 rooms, Biltmore House is the largest private residence in the United States.
Inside we were greeted by the mingling smells of cinnamon and pine. A choir was assembled in the sunroom, filling the massive stone hallways with echoing Christmas standards.
The family Christmas tree, which stood in the adjoining Grand Ballroom, was an unbelievable 75-feet tall. Eight 10-foot pine trees surrounded the tree while large wrapped boxes — big enough to hold bicycles or toy castles — hung from its branches. The dining table, big enough to seat 64 people, was dwarfed by the giant tree — as was the sleigh sitting next to it, filled with apples and oranges for the dinner guests. Gigantic organ pipes running up the south wall hummed with warm Christmas melodies.
The tour covers an exhausting 85 rooms on three floors. At least an hour-and-a-half and a good pair of shoes is needed to see the house properly — and comfortably. Going up and down flights of stairs and in and out of massive bedrooms and ballrooms, I had one constant thought — those Vanderbilts must have been in great shape.
The hallways to the common areas had drapes of evergreen hanging at their entrances. String quartets and classical guitarists played in the ballrooms, their music wafting through the house, becoming as much a part of the environment as the exquisitely decorated trees that appeared in every room.
The third floor has a series of rooms dedicated to artists. My favorite was the Raphael room, which held an impressive array of lifelike etchings from the Italian Renaissance artist.
Our tour concluded in the basement, where hundreds of people were employed to keep the house operating smoothly. Bakeries, laundry, a sports room and furnaces were all here, as was a gingerbread reproduction of Biltmore House, so big it called for 20 pounds of sugar in its recipe.
After our tour, we stopped at Beanstreets, a coffee shop in Asheville's beautiful downtown. The city is experiencing a tremendous growth spurt, just as Atlanta did. We drank our coffee and thought about what sprawl has done to Atlanta. We hoped the city would do its best to preserve itself, so it could be a place like the Biltmore, where beauty, tradition and higher values prevail for future generations to enjoy.
The Biltmore House is open to the public from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. April-Dec. and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Jan.-March. The candlelight tours are part of a special Christmas promotion, running through Jan. 2. $10-$39. 1 Lodge St., Asheville, NC. 800-624-1575.

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