Touring the Biltmore, on horseback and foot

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. - From the back, the Biltmore House appears sleeker and taller than it does from the front. Built into a hillside, the back side is six stories tall, rising majestically from its stone facing to its French Gothic spires, while the front is four stories and boxy.

I raised my camera

"Marjie, Walter thinks this is a salad bar," our guide said. I looked down, and sure enough, Walter was grazing at the side of the trail. I pulled gently but firmly on the reins, the way our guide had instructed. Walter raised his head and trudged forward. I raised my camera again, and the mansion jumped rhythmically in the viewfinder, in sync with Walter's gait.

I was on a different kind of tour of the Biltmore estate in Asheville - on horseback, with three other adults and a guide. Our hour-long ride took us through the eastern white pine forest behind the main house, giving us a view of the mansion that most visitors never see.

About a million people tour the Biltmore estate every year. It's known for its magnificent house, the largest private residence in the United States - a four-acre footprint, 250 rooms - modeled after several 16th century French chateaux, but if you think that's all there is, you're oh so wrong.

The Biltmore estate is a sort of theme park for adults with a taste for art, architecture, history and the outdoors. It has enough painting and sculpture to fill a small art museum, several curated gardens and a huge conservatory, a winery and wine tasting, bike trails, river rafting, fly-fishing school, Land Rover driving school, summer concerts, carriage rides and an equestrian center, plus shops, restaurants and a hotel. People in period costume are the adult equivalent of Disney characters. All the place lacks is a roller coaster.

Adult admission is not too far off from theme park prices either, up to $69, depending on the day, season and whether you buy in advance. The one-hour horseback tour is an additional $55, but it was the highlight of my visit to the estate.

The horseback ride is no substitute for the conventional tour inside the mansion or even of the estate's gardens. We didn't ride anywhere near either. Instead, it gave us a feel for the vastness of the property, the gently rolling terrain.

Back in 1895 when the mansion was completed, George W. Vanderbilt's "country retreat" sprawled across 125,000 acres; today it covers 8,000 acres, bisected by the French Broad River. The house, gardens, winery, shops, restaurants and hotel are on one side. On the other are the vineyard and pasture for sheep and cattle. It is a National Historic Landmark.

I visited the Biltmore in October, when the staff was just starting to set up Christmas decorations and prepare for the holidays, which are the estate's busiest time. A weekday in the fall is not as busy, but as I toured the house, I often found myself in a line, waiting for the knot of people ahead to move on to the next work of art.

A paper program tells visitors which piece of art they're looking at, but the audio tour, at $10 more, tells more about the history of each piece. Most of the art and furnishings were collected by Vanderbilt - grandson of the industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt - as he traveled through Europe and Asia. There are Persian rugs, Chippendale furniture, Ming Dynasty goldfish bowls, 16th century Flemish tapestries, paintings by Renoir, Whistle, Sargent.

From the grand parlor, dining room and library, we wound through the upstairs bedrooms, the kitchen complex (main kitchen, rotisserie, pastry kitchen, pantries), the indoor pool, bowling alley and gym. We learned about cooking on a wood stove, which of the Vanderbilts liked to exercise, where the kitchen help slept.

The leaves were turning, the sky was a brilliant blue, and although nights brought a slight chill, the days were still warm. It was a perfect day for seeing the gardens, which were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, master designer of New York's Central Park. I wandered through an English walled garden with chrysanthemums in flaming colors, an Italian garden with reflecting pools, a rose garden with some of the last blooms of the season, and an enormous conservatory full of tropical plants.

After a late lunch, I drove over to the stables. Three other people were taking the afternoon ride, two middle-aged parents and their med-school daughter. We introduced ourselves and learned that we were all more or less equally inexperienced, which was just as well since the tour is not for riders looking for thrills. It's a slow ride, never accelerating to a trot.

The horses, accustomed to novice riders, follow the lead horse and need little guidance from the guests - unless, like Walter, they have a taste for shrubbery. More experienced riders can bring their own horses and choose from five 10- to 30-mile loops.

We followed a sunlit trail to a clearing on a rise, where we stopped to admire the back of the main house from a distance and Walter grazed. Then we moved into the woods, ducking our heads under low branches, watching squirrels run up tree trunks, catching occasional glimpses of ponds and the river, and learning more about the estate. Much of the time, we were surrounded by woods that hid all signs of development.

These woodlands of pine and hemlock are all that remain of the once-huge property, where trees were grown for their value as timber and a forestry school was established. The forestry school is long gone, and much of the original acreage is now part of the Pisgah National Forest.

Through the trees, we saw a few wild turkeys. A horse-drawn wagon taking visitors on another kind of tour crossed our path. Our guide pointed out a spot where a scene from "The Last of the Mohicans" was filmed and told us about other movies filmed on the property, including "Richie Rich," "Patch Adams" and the Peter Sellers classic, "Being There."

I rode along, comfortable on my slow-moving mount, watching the sun's rays weave through the branches of the tall trees.

When the ride ended, I dismounted and shook off a slight stiffness. It was late afternoon and there was still a part of the Biltmore Estate I had to explore: the winery. Some Biltmore wines are made with grapes grown on the estate, but more use California grapes. I heard a merlot calling my name and followed it to the winery, an appropriate ending to my day in an adult theme park.

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IF YOU GO:

WHERE: 1 Lodge St., Asheville; 800-411-3812 or 828-225-1333; http://www.biltmore.com .

WHEN: Open 365 days. The house is open 9 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., gardens 9 a.m. to dusk, check website for hours of other facilities.

ADMISSION: Adults $49-$69, depending on day and season; get $15 off by purchasing ticket at least seven days in advance. Admission includes a self-guided visit of Biltmore House, access to the gardens and Antler Hill Village, wine-tasting and tour of the winery, and parking.

EXTRAS: A number of guided tours, including an architect's tour of the house and a Segway tour of the grounds, are available for an additional fee. Premium wine tasting costs a little more but is worth it. See website for information on bike rentals, river rafting, horseback tour, concerts, carriage rides and other activities.

TIP: The grounds are expansive, and you'll want to drive from one feature to the next. The main house, for example, is three miles from the entrance.

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Marjie Lambert: mlambert@MiamiHerald.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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