ASHEVILLE, N.C -- What was once the private getaway of horticulturist and heir to the Vanderbilt fortune, playboy George Vanderbilt II is now the off-road playground known as Land Rover's Experience Driving School. A French countryside-inspired 250-room castle when completed in 1895, the Biltmore Estate is the largest house ever built in the United States.

Nestled in the breathtaking Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, the Land Rover driving school gives guests a lesson in off-road driving from behind the wheel of brand-new Land Rover SUVs, including the LR3 and Range Rover Sport. Perhaps the best part about the school is that you don't have to worry about scratching or damaging your own SUV, nor do you have to actually own one to participate.

The Land Rover Experience Driving School opened in June 2004, but it was not Land Rover's first foray into driving schools. In fact, the automaker was (and still is) the only manufacturer to offer a factory-backed off-road driving program that is open to the public year-round. Land Rover's first driving school opened in 1997 and is located at the Fairmont Le Château Montebello outside of Montreal, Canada. It is roughly 54 miles from the Ferrari Driving School, which is 90 miles north of Montreal.

According to Greg Nikolas, the lead instructor at the American driving school, the program was developed by Land Rover to educate current owners, potential buyers and the general public about the safe operation of vehicles in an off-road environment. The school emphasizes the environmentally friendly tenets of "Tread Lightly!" -- a non-profit organization dedicated to the safe, environmentally responsible use of off-road vehicles. Instructors ensure that students minimize damage to the land by keeping their speed to a crawl and by varying the trails they use.

All of Land Rover's instructors are highly trained in off-road driving. Some, like Nikolas, have specialized military backgrounds, while others are experienced in racing and mechanics. What's unique to the driving school is that the instructors tailor each session to the individual student. For example, if you are an experienced off-roader, you might choose to focus on one particular area of advanced off-road training such as winching, side-tilts or vehicle recovery. But if it's your first time hitting the mud, you can rest assured that your instructors and vehicles make off-roading easier than navigating the (sub)urban jungle.

Though the school's mission has remained the same over the years, the program itself has changed. As the vehicles change and offer new and more advanced technology, like Hill Descent Control, Traction Control, adjustable suspensions and Terrain Response, the Land Rovers are able to venture into more challenging territories.

"Each time you visit the estate and go off-road, you are sure to encounter something new," Nikolas said of the school's roughly 4,000 acres of trails.

The Land Rover Experience Driving School is also a relative bargain compared to other manufacturer-backed driving schools. A full day, including a gourmet lunch and up to three drivers, is just $750 per vehicle. Compare that to the Ferrari driving school in Montreal, which costs about $8,200 for two-and-a-half days. Hummer's H2 driving school costs about $3,575 for the same amount of time.

Land Rover's school is also family-friendly: The daily cost-per-vehicle includes any friends or family members you bring along. Forget the constant nagging associated with most family road trips. Your kids will not be asking, "Are we there yet?" but rather, "Can we shoot for the bigger mud puddle?"

If a whole day is too long, you might opt for a one-hour lesson at $195 per vehicle or a two-hour lesson at $295 per vehicle for up to three drivers. You can also choose to take a two- or four-hour off-road trail experience, which ranges between $295 and $495 per vehicle.

Before you actually get behind the wheel of an $80,000 Range Rover, your instructor will give you a basic overview of off-roading and the vehicle that you'll be driving. Approach, departure and break-over angles are discussed in relation to the Land Rover's front bumper, rear bumper and undercarriage. For the most part, the Land Rover Experience Driving School emphasizes hands-on learning. And after about 10 minutes of the lectures, we jumped into the Range Rover and headed for the trails.

The instructors take students to their specially designed off-road course on the Biltmore Estate, which has basic obstacles like steep ascents and descents, side-tilts and rock crawling. Side-tilts are the most thrilling of all the exercises, throwing one tire into the air as the vehicle teeters on the edge of a sharp hill while you try to pick the correct line to negotiate the obstacle. If there is one moment your heart will stop, it is during this exercise.

When you have completed your day of off-roading, it's time to head back to the estate's headquarters, where you'll receive a framed plaque certifying that you have completed the Land Rover Experience Driving School. In addition to great memories and knowledge of some impressive off-roading skills, you'll have a handsome wall-mounted plaque to prove that you had one of the most adventurous vacations of your life, not to mention the bragging rights.

But your vacation is not over yet. Perhaps you'll enjoy some of the Estate-raised cattle in the truly exquisite dining room at the luxurious Inn on Biltmore Estate. Chef Rick Boyer, who received his training under the legendary Chef Alex Stratta, teams up with Daniel Boulud-trained maitre d' Hakan Acduman to provide guests with a glimpse into the dining experiences of the Vanderbilts. You can easily spend two or even three hours savoring the dynamic flavors that Chef Boyer creates, fostered by an intimate environment.

After a jolting day of fighting ruts and holes, you can rest your weary bones at the luxurious accommodations of the Inn, where prices range from $149 to $449 a night, depending on the season.

"If Mr. Vanderbilt was still alive today, he would have loved the opportunity to show off his estate in a Land Rover," said Biltmore Estate public relations supervisor K.C. Cronin.

Whether off-roading, fly-fishing, mountain biking, touring the 250-room home or simply relaxing on the veranda at the Inn on Biltmore Estate, you'll quickly learn to appreciate the lifestyle of the Vanderbilts. An ideal family vacation to the Inn on Biltmore Estate is a must for all off-road enthusiasts and adventure-seekers alike.



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