It’s a crisp 26-degree day, and the puddles scarring our off-road trail have iced over. The Range Rover’s tires crack and crunch through them like holiday ribbon candy, but as instructor Greg Nikolas eggs me on, I roll gently through the muck, despite my historical hatred for ribbon candy.
What do I care? I have someone else’s SUV, a cupholder with eggnog-flavored coffee, and a cozy room waiting for me when we’re done traversing the trails on the grounds of the Biltmore House.
There are many ways to see Biltmore, the spectacular estate in Asheville, North Carolina , home to Vanderbilts a century ago and still the country’s largest private home. In the summer you can tour through art fairs and magnificent outdoor concerts, or wait for fall and the magnificent colors that set the surrounding hills ablaze.
Or you can choose a bracing winter trip into the heart of the Biltmore grounds courtesy the Land Rover Experience Driving School, capped by an evening at the house, which every winter is draped in every piece of imaginable Christmas finery, practically wrapped in red velvet bows and crystal-clear ornaments, and bedecked with enough Christmas trees to shame the National Mall.
Land Rover's Biltmore school is one of three.
A home for the holidays
Asheville is a happy hippy little town, full of funky shops, halfbackers (retirees who tired of Florida and made their way halfway back to the Northeast), and students itching for classes to end and skiing at nearby Boone to begin.
Biltmore stands in majestic contrast. In any European country it’d be called a castle. In Laos it’d be a skyscraper. But to locals and other North Carolinians it’s “the house,” one of the prime tourist attractions in the entire state.
The story of its origin is simple: George W. Vanderbilt wanted a country home. So after purchasing 8000 acres in the town of Asheville, he commissioned architect Richard Morris Hunt (who designed the base of the Statue of Liberty) to pen the house, and hired Frederick Law Olmsted (Central Park architect) to design its gardens. Imagine hiring Rem Koolhaas to style your casita and then having HGTV over to program your yard, and you have the general idea of the massive wealth it required to build the original estate.
And aside from being a huge home and a National Historic Landmark, Biltmore’s one of the hallmarks of early-century technology. The house has some of Edison ’s first light bulbs, indoor plumbing, and telephones, all new inventions when it was built at the turn of the 20th century.
It’s imposing in any season, but in December, Biltmore is transformed into a wonderland of holiday trim and, if you’re lucky, snow and ice. During the Christmas at Biltmore Estate and Candlelight Christmas Evenings, it’s transformed into a fairytale castle with miles of evergreen garland, hundreds of poinsettias, dozens of Christmas trees, and a magnificent 35-foot-tall live Fraser Fir decked with lights, ornaments, and gifts.
TCC's editor learns the finer points of muck.
Home on the Range Rover
“Christmas is the busiest time of year,” says Nikolas, our guide through the mud that will end in a nice bistro dinner and, we pray, much more than the 20-degree cold we’re trudging through. A veteran of Land Rover Experience Driving Schools far and wide, Nikolas runs the third and newest Land Rover school (the others are at the Quail Lodge in Carmel, Calif . , and the Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello, near Montreal ).
The Land Rover school takes a winding path around the estate you’ll never see from the holiday tours. It crosses muddy trails and gravel paths, previous ruts and new ones cut by every class, and the occasional downed trees, the consequences of recent ice storms before we arrived.
Land Rover drivers greet school attendees at the Inn at Biltmore, the 213-room hotel built recently on the estate’s grounds. While it’s no 250-room, billion-dollar insurance claim, it is a four-diamond AAA property and a regular on Conde Nast Traveler’s best-of lists.
When Nikolas greets me, I’m the only student for the day. Each group of three or fewer guests gets their own instructor, who teaches the finer points of cruising the estate’s vineyards, fording its smallish streams and tilting forward safely to watch downhill descents that would make your mother clutch her handbag.
And despite the technological advances that have come to the Range Rovers we know and love, Nikolas and his instructors still teach the basics of off-roading: “As slow as possible, as fast as necessary,” he reminds me as I forget for a moment that slow is your friend. (And even then, Nikolas politely says it’s ‘nicely done.’”)
We spend most of the day treading lightly over the Biltmore grounds, refreshing old off-road knowledge and hoping that gentle karma will visit a house like this one on us someday. Shorter programs are available, though — Land Rover will outfit a person with a driver for an hour for $195, while a Full Day Adventure runs $750. Those prices include snacks, by the way — the Queen’s Land Rover Defender may have steps for her Corgi, but our Range Rover seems to have come standard with a thousand granola bars and fruit.
Great Drives: Christmas at Biltmore
Before you leave
Our Land Rover weekend (really a Tuesday night and the bitterly cold Wednesday) ended with dinner at one of Biltmore’s good on-site restaurants, followed by a candlelight tour of the main house, trees everywhere, some towering more than 20 feet, and a choir singing in the main entry. Before it degraded into grade-school humor about the period-correct but primitive bathrooms, we’d seen the house from top to bottom.
But Biltmore has expanded to include many more attractions beyond its walls. The property includes the Historic Horse Barn, a sort of diorama of mid-1920s farm life. The grounds also offer opportunities for other outdoor activity — if you’re into those fly-fishing, rafting, biking, horse-riding kinds of things. Car and art fans will instead beeline for the nearby entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Southern Folk Art Center for bargains on local artists.
Bring patience, for both the off-roading and the holiday crowds. But don’t forget your forgotten sense of Christmas awe.