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Driving The Mountains of Asheville

My friend, who doesn't like to leave New York, let me persuade him to come along with me to North Carolina. I'm even allowed, on condition of anonymity, to quote him, so I'll call him the Ironic Fellow Traveler—or IFT. He and I have flown into Greensboro instead of Asheville because it was cheaper and, besides, I like to drive.

I've been anticipating the moment, during this westward trek along I-40 between the two North Carolina towns, when the Blue Ridge peeps over the horizon. IFT has been punching the FM scanner and making faces, but when I alert him, he sits up and takes notice. "No kidding, it really is blue," he says. We're reliving what coastal planters of the antebellum period experienced when they began beating the summer heat by fleeing upland to the village of Asheville, turning it into a resort. Rubber keeps hitting the road, and by this point I've gotten used to the rented Stratus's various differences from my own car's controls, so I allow myself a deep breath of fragrant air, relax, and let the mountain aura take over.

Out-of-the-way corners in unaffluent states don't usually figure as cultural crossroads, yet Asheville and its environs had an artistic heyday, partly because of tourism itself. Something native to the place accounted for it as well, though; a vague, lyrical yearning hovers over western North Carolina's mountain ranges so that the dreamy melancholy and outsized ambitions of the Appalachian Tar Heels make a kind of indigenous sense. In the 1880's, Northerners who liked to hunt began coming to this outback, and one of them chose Asheville as the place to site his fantasy castle. It's still, at 250 rooms, the largest private residence ever built in America.

We're standing on the front steps of Biltmore Estate, fighting off our incredulity that a vast pile modeled on the Renaissance châteaux of the Loire Valley was conjured up in this Carolina setting. Instead of speaking French, the locals ambling along next to us have pure land-of-cotton twangs; though one of them, I notice, could pass for a Hell's Angel, with his mullet, knee-busted jeans, onyx shades, black T-shirt, and writhing tattoos. He and his more conventional-looking wife and daughter move into the front entrance just ahead of us—our reality check during the visit to wonderland.

George Washington Vanderbilt, grandson of the Commodore, was also determined that old times would not be forgotten, but in his case they were mainly European old times. Studious and refined, he wanted to reside in the architecture of feudalism, but on native ground. Gender barred him from acquiring a title by marriage, so instead he joined destinies with Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, a descendant of New York's first governor. Together they could afford the upkeep for a 125,000-acre demesne larger than some European principalities. Architect Richard Morris Hunt was engaged to design the château, and Frederick Law Olmsted landscaped it. A stately home has to have a park, and Biltmore's is the most beautiful I've seen. The view from the loggia is stupendous, partly because of the careful blend of forest and meadowland below and partly because of the peaks beyond. "Next to the mountains, the house looks dinky," IFT decides. "The Loire châteaux have less to compete with."

Hunt placed a replica of the famous spiral staircase at Blois on the left side of the entrance. On the right he put the domed Winter Garden, whose elaborate wood groining and plants are attractive,but anachronistic for the Renaissance. Biltmore Estate is a monument to eclecticism, equipped with rooms in French or English period styles, with baths up to date for 1895. Still, robber barons were goodat shopping for heirlooms in Europe, and apart from its period furniture, the house boasts works by Dürer, Whistler, Sargent, and Renoir. And it contains a library of 10,000 leather-bound books, hundreds of etchings, porcelains, sculptures, tapestries, and carpets. "The super-rich are different from you and me," says the IFT. "Their houses become museums." The déjà vu we're experiencing derives from Henry James's novels. In fact, he visited Biltmore in 1905, referring to it as "a castle of enchantment," without, you may guess, really approving. My friend, who's an expert on the Brown Decades, explains why oligarchs of the late 19th century wanted to annex Europe's impoverished aristocracy: "It sounds better when you're introduced as a countess instead of a baking soda heiress." I suppose so.

The Vanderbilts' only daughter married a British Cecil, and her grandson is the present CEO of the Biltmore Company, which looks to be doing quite well. Admission to the grounds costs a stiff $39, and other means of netting tourist dollars are in place. There are gift shops, places to lunch on the estate, a winery flogging the local vintage, and the new Inn on Biltmore Estate,where we're staying. We drive up and debate whether to use valet parking or schlep and save a buck. But not belonging to the noblesse obliges one, so the attendant gets his fee. With turrets and slate roofs reminiscent of Biltmore, the inn is well sited for a view of the mountains and the distant château. The lobby is adjoined by a faux library (the books glumly aware that no one will read them), where afternoon tea is served. The cheapest version is $21.95, but, again, we spring for it. Sun is setting, tea is elegant, light is golden—and so are we.

We have dinner in a pleasant dining room, where the new American cuisine is decent but pricey, considering the non-metropolitan location. Ditto for the rooms, about which the IFT says, "If this were the Beau-Rivage in Geneva or the Hassler Villa in Rome, no problem—but here?" Henry James, during the American tour that brought him to Biltmore, saw our hotel culture as one of the most striking phenomena he encountered. The American-grand hotel experience, now globalized, has become a kind of amateur theater, whose rituals are designed to showcase our affluence and sophistication. But it's also a shakedown, one that successful establishments have to disguise in order to preserve the silken ambience top feeders expect. Biltmore manages pretty well, helping you forget that isolation from alternatives tightens its expensive grip on you.

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