Skip to main content
Rooms and Blooms

Rooms and Blooms

Historical homes and gorgeous gardens beckon groups
Story by
postedMarch 16, 2018
Counted among the most popular sites for both individual and group travelers are historical homes and landmark gardens. It seems we can’t get enough of seeing where and how the rich and famous lived, and as for the gardens—well, what could be more beautiful in any season?

For tour operators and their house- and garden-loving clients, here are some of the top destinations in North America.

Homes fit for an aristocrat, a president, a titan and a king

Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina has often been called “America’s castle,” and with 250 rooms it’s easy to see why.

The French Renaissance chateau was the vision of George W. Vanderbilt and is the perfect repository for the Vanderbilt family’s collection of priceless art and antiques.

The estate is set within 8,000 acres of landscaped grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park in New York City.

While Biltmore has always been popular with groups, tour operators will have something special to offer clients this year. An exhibition of glass sculptures by noted glass designer Dale Chihuly will be on display from May 17 to Oct. 7.

Sculptures will be exhibited in the house’s Winter Garden and throughout the grounds. Visitors will also have a chance to see Chihuly pieces illuminated during evening experiences every Thursday through Sunday.

Chihuly’s Water Drops, at Biltmore Estate May 17 to Oct. 7
Chihuly’s Water Drops, at Biltmore Estate May 17 to Oct. 7 (Photo by Chihuly Studio)

The Hermitage: Home of President Andrew Jackson in Nashville is one of the most-visited presidential homes in America. The Greek Revival mansion and historical site tell the story of the seventh U.S. president and his wife Rachel during some of the fledgling nation’s most turbulent times.

Through a series of exhibits and displays, visitors learn the history of both Jackson and the house where he lived on and off from 1804 until his death in 1845.

In mid-March every year, to mark the anniversary of Jackson’s birth, The Hermitage holds a number of special events. This year’s range from an Evening with the First Ladies (Martha Washington, Abigail Adams and Dolly Madison will join Rachel) to a workshop designed to teach decorative arts that were popular during the Jackson era.

“Tour operators love bringing their clients to The Hermitage because of our flexibility,” says Jason Nelson, vice president of marketing and sales. “Unlike many attractions, we can custom-fit their visit with a number of different activities: ghost tours, scavenger hunts—and even a dueling program.”

In addition to being a slice of American history, this 1,140-acre estate seemingly has an array of options for any group.

The Hermitage may have evolved from a simple log cabin into a grand plantation home, but Hearst Castle was intended as a palatial dwelling from the first stone laid.

It took 28 years to complete the home of newspaper magnate and art collector William Randolph Hearst in its stunning setting on California’s central coast. Impressive Spanish-style architecture and lush grounds are complemented by more than 20,000 works of art from around the world.

The estate, open seven days a week year-round (excluding Christmas and New Year’s Day), appeals to groups who are interested in learning about art—from classical antiquity to art deco—or to those who just want to revel in the glamour days of Hearst and his Hollywood friends.

Extra benefits for groups include free dedicated motorcoach parking and box lunches with advance notice.

While a former president, a newspaper tycoon and an American aristocrat attract numerous visitors to their homes, they can’t match America’s only king: the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.

Elvis Presley’s mansion, Graceland, in Memphis is the second most-visited house in the United States—behind only the White House—and a testament to the enduring popularity of the man whose soulful voice and swiveling hips redefined musical entertainment.

The white baby-grand piano, recently reacquired by Graceland, is the first significant change to the mansion since it opened for tours in 1982. (Photo by Graceland)

“Some half-million visitors from around the world come to Graceland annually because of the impact Elvis had, not only on music, but on society as well,” explains Mark Riddell, director of public relations, who calls Elvis “the coolest boss I’ve ever had.”

The mansion represents the King’s personal and family side, while an entertainment and exhibit complex focuses on his career and the impact he had on other celebrities and on society in general.

The entertainment complex’s 200,000 square-foot expansion, completed last year, offers 14 new exhibits, a 20,000 square-foot museum dedicated to Elvis’ career, and a 464-seat theater.

Perks for tour operators include special rates for more than 15 visitors, one complimentary ticket for each 20 tickets purchased, free off-street motorcoach parking and group dining options. Operators may also want to book their clients into the 430-room Guest House at Graceland, a AAA Four Diamond resort hotel located just steps from the mansion.

Everything’s coming up roses (and tulips)

Who doesn’t love a great garden? According to Scott Brodsky, president of Country Heritage Tours: no one. Brodsky, who has taken groups to blooming paradises from Butchart Gardens near Victoria, British Columbia, to Middleton Place and Gardens in Charleston, South Carolina, says, “Including gardens on our trips is a wonderful way of incorporating the beauty and history of a region while providing a relaxing attraction that is universally appealing.”

Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island exemplifies the garden at its floral best. With 55 spectacular acres, it is a fairyland of color and design. From the Sunken Garden and its rock mound and fountain to the Japanese Garden with its Himalayan blue poppies and scarlet Japanese maples, Butchart is a feast for the senses and will provide your group with a lifetime’s worth of colorful photo memories.

Summer is an especially beautiful time to visit the gardens, with a number of special activities on tap from June 15 to September 15. Your group can take turns riding on one of the 30 hand-carved animals on the Rose Carousel or relax on a 45-minute boat tour exploring the history and wildlife of Tod Inlet and the waters of Brentwood Bay. If your tour includes an evening visit, there are nightly illuminations that give a magical glow to the shrubs, trees and flowers.

Finally, on Saturday nights from July through Labor Day weekend, groups can experience what has been called one of the finest fireworks shows in North America—a pyrotechnic display choreographed to music.

Portland, Oregon, is known as the City of Roses, and nothing says it quite as officially as the Portland Rose Festival held late May/early June, when the showy blooms are at their showiest. (This year’s event runs from May 25 to June 9). The 16-day festival features a range of rose-related activities, from a rose show to a Grand Floral Float showcase.

Portland Rose
Portland Rose Parade (Photo by Portland Rose Festival Foundation)

Sandwiched in between are crowd-pleasers such as a waterfront City Fair and a Dragon Boat Race.

If your group prefers tulips to roses, you will have to take them to Holland— Holland, Michigan, that is. In early May (5–13 this year), that city’s Tulip Time Festival is in full swing … and full bloom.

Millions of colorful bulbs blossom along six miles of tulip lanes throughout the city, giving groups an understanding of why this has been called the “best flower festival in the U.S.” by USA Today and “one of America’s best spring flower festivals” by Fodor’s Travel.

This year will be the 89th for the festival, and while tulips are, of course, the stars of the show, they have plenty of co-stars in the form of traditional Dutch food and dancing, a Dutch market, fireworks and headline performances by the Beach Boys, the Texas Tenors and the Liverpool Legends.

The event offers a full array of services for tour planners, such as special group discounts, itinerary assistance, one-stop shopping for tickets and group meals.

Perhaps no houses and gardens in America have as much history as do those at Colonial Williamsburg. Spanning four centuries and boasting more than 40 sites, the southeastern Virginia city is the world’s largest living history museum.

Tour operators can choose from a number of targeted experiences for their clients. Military history buffs can see the country’s largest collection of 18th-century British military firearms, foodies can follow their passion in Colonial kitchens and taverns, fashionistas can walk a red carpet of 18th-century fashion and style, and those with a flair for decorating can admire some of America’s first interior designs.

There are also tours geared to the African-American experience, revolutionaries and political junkies, families and, of course, those whose green thumbs just ache for a dig in the dirt. (Yes, your clients can actually get their hands dirty in the Colonial garden, which is filled with vegetables, heirloom roses and herbs.)

Winette Jeffery, manager of educational outreach and partnerships, explains Colonial Williamsburg’s appeal to groups.

“Experiences here give visitors a rare chance to absorb the daily joys, trials and passions of people living in the days leading up to the American Revolution,” she says.

Jeffery says that interpreters provide customized and immersive experiences that tell the country’s unique story to both adult and student groups.

“With opportunities for authentic Colonial meals at a tavern and candlelit performances, Colonial Williamsburg’s 300 acres offer a setting unrivaled as a destination,” she says. “It truly makes for a one-of-a-kind trip for groups of all ages.”

Contact info

To learn more about the NTA members described above, visit the websites or email the NTA contacts listed below:

The Hermitage | Jason Nelson

Hearst Castle | Jim Allen

Biltmore Estate | Leslie Brewer

Country Heritage Tours | Scott Brodsky

Graceland | Shirley Conner

Butchart Gardens | Josh Bickerton

Portland Rose Festival | Carol Ross

Tulip Time Festival | Hannah Rogers

Colonial Williamsburg | Winette Jeffery

Top photo: Tulips at Biltmore Estate
Photo by The Biltmore Company