Time was, my wife, Gail, and I couldn’t get our toddler son to go anywhere happily. Especially if it involved running errands.
Ewan, now 11, still hates shopping, but he wants to go everywhere else. When we asked him where he’d like to go last year for our summer vacation, he said, “How about Paris?”
Fair enough. We’d taken him in recent years to Italy and Scotland. But for this trip, my wife and I wanted something much closer. And cheaper.
In the end, we settled on the Biltmore Estate and Gardens in Asheville, N.C.
Just a couple of hours by plane from Tampa, the Biltmore promised something for all of us: great local food and wine, a spa, fly fishing, plus river rafting and lots of opportunities for our critter-crazed son to interact with all manner of animals, including horses.
And all in a setting straight out of a “Downton Abbey” episode. Indeed, when we arrived one August morning by rental car at the castle-like house and 8,000-acre former Vanderbilt family estate, my son said, “It’s just like Scotland.” The effect was helped by the cooler weather, of course, a welcome change from the soupy summer heat of the Tampa Bay area. No wonder it seems half of well-to-do South Tampa flees to North Carolina this time of year.
After ditching our bags at our plush room at the Inn on Biltmore — one of two places visitors can stay on the estate — we strolled down a winding path to the winery, where we had lunch at the Bistro.
Pan-roasted local trout and several glasses of Biltmore Blanc de Noir bubbly put me in the proper state of mind for a short walk to the outdoor center, where I met Duston, who would be my fly-fishing guide for the next few hours at a nearby man-made pond. In our regal wooden row boat, Duston offered tips on casting and aiming my fly while pointing out local wildlife, such as a large hawk soaring overhead. By the time we gently beached the boat, I’d hooked and released a dozen or so plump bluegills and largemouth bass.
Back at the Inn, Ewan and Gail told me, between bites from heaping scoops of absurdly good vanilla ice cream made at the Biltmore Creamery, about all the animals they petted and fed at the estate farm. Come evening, we were happily tuckered out from umpteen dips in the outdoor pool and hot tub. Ewan unwound over video games with kids from other visiting families in the downstairs game room, while Gail and I lounged nearby on the huge porch and gazed at the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Next morning, fueled with room service coffee and fresh pastries, we caught a short ride in a Biltmore van to a spot upstream on the French Broad River, which meanders through the estate. Here we met with Casey, our river-rafting guide, and a married couple from Chicago who also were staying at the inn. As the five of us floated lazily down the river, Casey, an affable native North Carolinian who teaches elementary school physical education, regaled us with stories about the Biltmore estate and family.
A mile or so before trip’s end, Casey encouraged any of us who wanted to take a dip in the water to do so. Without hesitation, Ewan jumped overboard, plunging into the cool water and bobbing nearby. A moment later, Casey joined him in the river. “You’re the first person all summer to take me up on the offer,” Casey said with a laugh. “Now I finally had an excuse to do it myself.”
Back on shore, Casey told us about Kevin, a chicken who had escaped his coop and now lived near the raft takeout ramp. After a brief and unsuccessful search for the rogue rooster, we headed back to the inn for another round of vanilla ice creams before another dip in the hot tub.
With Ewan’s and my fixes for fun taken care of, it was Gail’s turn. Which first meant a visit to the historic Biltmore house and gardens.
With more than 250 rooms and lavish grounds that boast a garden with as many varieties of roses as there are rooms, it made even the most outlandish Tampa-area mansions seem downright ramshackle. Even Ewan, no fan of tapestries and topiaries, enjoyed the castle-like quality of the house, and eccentric amenities such as an indoor pool in the basement and bowling alley.
As we strolled afterward through the maze-like gardens, Gail and I agreed that this place must have seen its share of wild parties.
Back at the inn, Gail headed for the spa, for what she later dreamily described as the best reflexology massage treatment she’d ever had.
By our second evening, cocktails on the big porch already had become a new favorite ritual. Ewan, with another new-found video-game pal, agreed.
Dinner that night was in the Dining Room restaurant, overlooking the mountains.
Ewan pronounced his filet mignon the “best steak ever.” Gail’s halibut and my bison Milanese were lovely. Ewan positively gulped the watermelon soup served in thimble-size cups. But it was the wine, a bottle of Biltmore Reserve Chardonnay, made from locally grown grapes, that was the real surprise. Gail and I were almost embarrassed to agree we had no idea such good wine could come from the Tar Heel State.
After scoops of lemon and mint sorbet, we splurged on an in-room movie before bed.
On the way to the Asheville Regional Airport the next morning, we couldn’t help but look for fugitive fowl Kevin. No luck. But we agreed that we’d have to come back to Biltmore, maybe when the leaves were changing colors one fall.
“And next time, Dad, you’re jumping in the river with me,” Ewan said.