Asheville in December: Gingerbread showpieces, yuletide luxe and the mystical Serafina
For years, my family’s holiday celebrations have included a trip to the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville to see the National Gingerbread House Competition entries. This year, we have a new reason to hit Asheville at Christmas. Biltmore is also the home to Serafina, the character in a popular young adult novel series by Asheville author Robert Beatty. I was fortunate enough to experience Biltmore last December, and next, I’m bringing my husband and kids.
Who is Serafina?
My 9-year-old and several of her friends are Serafina fans, and until recently, I wasn’t aware that this New York Times bestselling series was set in our backyard, at a time just after the wealthy Vanderbilt family completed the Biltmore mansion in 1895. Serafina is a magical, cat-like girl. Not knowing her family history at first, she was adopted and lives in the downstairs servants’ quarters and befriends one of the Vanderbilt family’s children. Together, the girl and boy set out on adventures through the magical estate lands, which at the time, would have included what is currently the Pisgah National Forest.
Beatty has brought Serafina alive through a trilogy of adventures. Thus far, Beatty has released one book per year, beginning with “Serafina and the Black Cloak”in 2015, “Serafina and the Twisted Staff” in 2016 and “Seraphina and the Splintered Heart”earlier this year. While considered a story for children in middle grades, the books receive positive reviews from adult men and women too. If you like Harry Potter, there is a good chance you may enjoy Serafina's story too. Beatty cites J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”as a childhood favorite on his Goodreads.com biography.
You can get a sense of the Biltmore property and the story from the book trailers on Beatty’s website at http://robert-beatty.com/serafina-book-trailer/. The trailers can also be found on youtube.
Upon arrival, visitors are greeted with a display of several Christmas trees arranged on the lawn of the majestic home, including a 55-foot tall Norway spruce. In the evening, 45,000 lights glitter on the outdoor tree with another 30,000 lights plus hundreds of candles inside. The first room, the Conservatory or Winter Garden, features live Christmas music with poinsettias and evergreen garlands among the palms that occupy the space year-round. Of the elaborate decorations in every room, and one of the most memorable is the massive Christmas tree occupying the Banquet Hall. Last year, I thought he 35-foot Fraser fir tree seemed nearly as wide as it was tall. This year, the decorations will be inspired by Vanderbilt family stories of Christmas.
While most are mesmerized with the upstairs, one friend told me her child only cares about seeing the servants’ quarters — Serafina’s home. I have a feeling she may change her mind after the family visits, but “Downton Abbey” fans will also appreciate seeing both lifestyles of the time. And even if the servants’ life isn’t your fancy, don’t skip the downstairs, or you’ll miss the indoor swimming pool, bowling alley, and unique “Halloween” room.
For an additional fee, a guided audio tour will explain the 16th century tapestries and tell family stories, like how the Vanderbilts protected world famous masterpieces removed from the National Gallery of Art for safe-keeping during World War II.
The mansion itself is only part of the experience. Walk the grounds down to the greenhouse for poinsettias arranged among the amazing tropical plants. On my last visit, I found an orchid flower the size of my hand!
Admission also includes the Antler Hill Village area, a replication of the Biltmore’s dairy with farm and animals and blacksmith demonstrations.
Omni Grove Park Inn & National Gingerbread Competition
If you’ve never been to the Grove Park Inn, there’s no shortage of luxury there either. The lobby is called the Great Hall for good reason. The cavernous room is flanked by two enormous stone fireplaces. If you’re lucky, you might score a rocking chair in front of the roaring fire, but they’re in high demand. Hot chocolate is for sale, and you can also get a glass of wine. The outdoor terrace offers a fantastic view of the mountains in the distance.
The gingerbread display includes hundreds of showpieces from artists around the country. These sugary artworks are so unique, they’ve been featured on many television specials. Some houses take a twist the traditional style by allowing a peek into elaborately decorated interiors and stained-glass sugar windows. Some pieces seem to test gravity, like last year’s winning house. Another memorable piece from last year was just a tiny house, which appeared to be built by two oversized gingerbread cookie “people” dressed as bakers. Many entries aren’t houses at all. Last year, one piece was fashioned after a carnival swing in motion. We’ve seen Santa figures, sleighs, animals, a clock tower, exotic palaces, trees, poinsettias and a whole fairytale village.
Although the Omni Grove Park doesn’t charge admission to see the display, there is a fee for parking. A special accommodations package includes a breakfast buffet and a gingerbread cookie.
Although the Grove Park Inn has an indoor pool, it is only accessible to adult spa customers – no kids allowed. If you opt for a girls’ getaway instead of a family trip, you can enjoy the stone grotto effect of the pool after a massage treatment – rated one of the top spa experiences according to Conde Nast Traveler. Wash off those oils in the shower with specialty Biltmore aromatherapy products. Actually, we found one shower didn’t cut the oils that were massaged into my scalp.
The second shower got me squeaky clean – not a bad thing if you suffer from dry skin in winter months. A spot by a spa fireplace is a little easier to snag than in the Great Hall, and instead of a rocker, you get a comfier chair.
Planning Your Trip
This a great time for my family to visit because children under age 9 are free at Biltmore with a paying adult. The oldest of my three kids is 9, so this trip will be a bargain compared to future family trips there. Ages 10-16 pay half the adult rate. Buying tickets a week in advance knocks $10 off the hefty $75 daytime adult admission price. The candlelight tour rate is $85.
For day-trippers, don’t try to do both at once. Both properties are massive and require lots of walking to get the full experience. Either choose one and come back, or spend the night. Bargain hunters can look for packages on the Asheville Tourism website.
The Omni asks that those who are not staying overnight on the property visit after 3 p.m. on Sunday afternoon.
If you can’t go until after the New Year, Biltmore’s decorations are in place until Jan. 7, and the Gingerbread Competition remains on display until Jan. 4.