Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Tourist Guide to Western North Carolina


1. Asheville
Western North Carolina is topographically the most diverse part of the state and therefore offers one of the richest travel experiences. Asheville, some 125 miles from Charlotte, is the area's gateway.
Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, at the confluence of the French Broad and Swannanoa Rivers, it had been settled in 1794 by John Barton, who had originally named it "Morristown" after Robert Morris, a financier of the American Revolution, but it had been later changed to honor Governor Samuel Ashe. With the 1880 arrival of the Western North Carolina Railroad, it had developed as a livestock and tobacco market, and is today the economic and recreational center for western North Carolina and a tourism base for the area's Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cherokee Indian culture.
Second only to Miami in art deco architecture, Asheville offers several interesting sights.
The Basilica of St. Lawrence, for example-jointly developed by Spanish architect Rafael Gustavia and Richard Sharp Smith-is a Spanish Renaissance design in brick and tile with a self-supporting dome and Catalan-style vaulting. It had been completed in 1908.
The early life of Thomas Wolfe, Asheville's famous novelist, can be gleaned from a tour of the 29-room Queen Anne-style house in which he had grown up. It is now a designated state historic site.
Nucleus of the arts, Asheville is the cultivation point of painters, sculptures, and potters, who perfect their crafts in the Riverside Arts District.
Asheville's-and all of North Carolina's-most famous and most visited sight, however, is Biltmore Estate. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt and landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted (of New York's Central Park fame), the 255-room, French Renaissance chateau, having required a five-year construction period during the height of the Gilded Age and some 1,000 workers, had been the result of George Washington Vanderbilt's trips to the area in the early-1880s and his decision to have a summer residence, reminiscent of the chateaux's lining France's Loire Valley, built there. It is today the US's largest private residence and is still partly used for that purpose by Vanderbilt descendants.
The Vanderbilts, one of the country's wealthiest and most prominent families headed by Cornelius Vanderbilt, had amassed their wealth through railroads, corporations, and philanthropic activities. Passing the torch to the second generation, headed by William Henry Vanderbilt, he had been able to perpetuate his success, while William Henry himself had fathered the third generation, having four sons. George Washington Vanderbilt, one of them, had been the least active in developing the family's business.
Opening Biltmore House on Christmas Eve in 1895, he had engaged in scientific farming, stock breeding, and forestry, and brought his bride, Edith Stuyvessant Dresser, there, three years later. His only daughter, Cornelia, had been born in the house in 1900, and thirty years later, it had been opened to the public.
The massive house, accessible by both escorted and unescorted tours, offers a glimpse into this century-old, opulent lifestyle. The entrance hall, portal to this era, had been the same access point used by the Vanderbilts and their guests and leads round the glass-roofed winter garden. Perhaps the most grandiose room on the ground floor is the banquet hall. Stretching seven stories to the wooden ceiling, it features huge tables, three massive fireplaces, Flemish tapestries from the 1500s, and a 1916 Skinner pipe organ mounted on its own loft. It had been the location of the estate's parties, galas, and affairs.
The private sitting and bedrooms of George and Edith Vanderbilt are located on the second floor, although, of particular note, is the Louis XV bedroom, location of Cornelia's birth and the subsequent birth of her own two sons.
Most of the servants' bedrooms are located on the fourth floor.
The house's basement, location of additional servant bedrooms, features several kitchens and pantries and the recreational facilities, inclusive of a gymnasium, a 70,000-gallon indoor swimming pool, and one of the country's first private residence bowling alleys.
Sitting on 8,000 acres of land, Biltmore Estate features several other facilities of interest.
Fronted by a grass esplanade inspired by the gardens of the 17th-century Chateau de Vaux-le-Viconte in Melun, France, it features Italian, shrub, walled, spring, and azalea gardens, and a full conservatory.
Self-guided tours of the Biltmore Winery can be made, followed by a visit to the extensive wine and delicacy gift shop, while the nearby River Bend Farm, once the center of the estate's farming community, is comprised of a barn, a farmyard, and the Kitchen Garden, where its "field-to-table" program items are grown, before being used in the dishes served in all of its restaurants. Aside from this produce and its wines, the dairy division of Biltmore produces its own ice cream.
Adjacent to the Biltmore Estate entrance is historic Biltmore Village. Also co-designed by building architect Richard M. Hunt and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and constructed between 1897 and 1905, it had been intended as a picturesque residential prelude to Biltmore Estate itself with a fan-shaped layout leading to the church, the railroad depot, and the estate's entrance, its focal points. Its cottages had first been occupied in 1900.

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