Wilmington Area is Enchanting Anytime of Year
By Karen Rubin
One Christmas, we found ourselves in one of the most magical places in America in which to wrap ourselves in the awesome spell of the holiday: the Brandywine Valley.
Other destinations that we have enjoyed because of the way history comes to life (like Plymouth and Salem in Massachusetts) tend to focus on a particular phase of history, such as the first colonial settlement or the Puritan era. Here in the Brandywine, which sprawls out from Wilmington, Delaware, we found something we never expected: virtually the whole history of America, its cultural, social and economic development, laid out before us amidst the rolling hills of the Piedmont.
It probably comes as no surprise that the Brandywine, brimming with some of the most incredible mansions, collections and museums in such a concentrated area in the country, is a magnet for adults. What is surprising is how fabulous the Brandywine is for families with children. This is a marvelous place to spoon-feed art, history, culture to children in a way that will enchant and engage for a lifetime, and where grandparents can share their first-hand experiences with their grandchildren and forge lasting memories.
There must be something intoxicating about the Brandywine, a region that straddles Delaware and Pennsylvania. That could explain how it spawned two of the most famous family dynasties in the country, the du Ponts of the Industrial world and the Wyeths of the Art world; in both cases, the family “business” produced scions and in-laws who chose to remain in both the business and the Brandywine.
They left an astonishing legacy -in the du Pont case, spanning 200 years–that enriches us in incalculable ways. You do not just visit museums and collections, exhibits and gardens, or merely view photographs and paintings. You have the feeling of being witness to the ages, as a guest into one of the du Pont’s homes, or the Wyeth’s studio. You don’t just see the extraordinary collection of Henry Francis du Pont at his remarkable Winterthur (he was one of the first to appreciate and collect Americana), or Pierre S. du Pont at his Longwood Gardens house; you see the home as the family lived in it, complete with family photos, portraits, toys. There is a context to what you see (without stuffiness or pretension), and wonderful surprises everywhere, such as at Winterthur where there is an Enchanted Garden that will absolutely delight children.
The Wilmington/Brandywine area, we came to realize, is inextricably linked to the du Ponts and the company which still bears the family name. Even the Hotel du Pont, as grand as when it opened in 1913, has the unique distinction of being a hotel within the corporate world headquarters building (though guests would not even realize it). For families visiting, though, you have the feeling of staying with the family, surrounded by paintings by Brandywine artists.
The Brandywine is genteel, elegant and gracious, affording an extraordinarily high quality guest experience. It is a destination that has appeal regardless of the season, since just about all the major attractions are open year-round, adjust their programs for the season, and in most cases, have indoor as well as outdoor components (the du Ponts had an incredible love of nature as well as art). Probably because so much of the land was part of vast estates which have been set aside by their benefactors for the public, you really have the sense of going back in time. You draw a sense of tranquility from the peacefulness of the landscape. The Brandywine comes to life in spring and veritably hums in summer, gets peaceful in fall and festive in winter.
Each Christmas, I find myself thinking back to a magical visit we took to the Brandywine during the holidays. The attractions are alluring year-round, but are particularly enchanting during the winter holidays.
Winterthur Museum & Gardens is a world-class attraction to rival the best homes and collections of Europe. Winterthur is the American country estate of Henry Francis du Pont, among the first to appreciate and collect American antiques. Beginning in the 1920s, he became such an avid collector, he expanded the house, originally built in 1839 over and over again just to accommodate his growing collection, until it reached nine stories and 175 rooms. Today, the collection, which includes American antique furniture going back to the 1700s and a 1790 portrait of George Washington by John Trumball (said to have belonged to Martha) numbers some 85,000 objects.
Such an enormous facility might be daunting to a visitor, but Winterthur, now managed by a special Foundation, offers six different 45-minute, personalized “Winterthur Experience” tours ($5 extra), each focused on a different subject, in addition to various two to three-hour specialized “Focus” tours ($15). At Christmas, many come year after year to enjoy the Yuletide Tour, which presents the rooms as the du Ponts would have had them decorated and also shows the evolution of the American tradition of Christmas (families coming with their children in their holiday best were excited about having “Breakfast with Santa”). The experience of visiting is more like being given a tour of someone’s home than a museum.
After visiting the collection, you can tour an adjacent two-story Gallery where there are fascinating interactive and hands-on exhibits of American decorative arts (and clever cue cards, “Fashionable between 1790-1815″).
Henry Francis du Pont was equally avid about gardens, and the 966-acre country estate encompasses rolling hills, streams, meadows, forests and gardens which visitors can stroll. Families will take particular delight in the Enchanted Woods; children can romp through a Tulip Tree House, the Faerie Cottage, the Troll Bridge, the Story Stones, S-s-serpentine path, and the Acorn tea room.
There are special events for families throughout the year, such as Family Craft weekend workshops; Frolic with Easter Bunny, and Terrific Tuesdays in July and August, geared for children 4-8; and one that will absolutely delight children, “Breakfast with Santa” event at Christmas time, when the entire place is decked out for the holidays.
The Gardens & Galleries Pass, which affords self-guided exploration (the guided tours are extra), provides for two consecutive days admission (you should allocate at least three hours to visit on the first day, and you may want to return the next day to give more time to the galleries and gardens) and a tram visit around the estate. ($15/adults, $13/seniors; Mon-Sat., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun. noon to 5 p.m., Rte. 52, Winterthur, DE 19735, 800-448-3883, www.winterthur.org).
Magical Longwood Gardens
There are many magnificent gardens in the world, but Longwood Gardens affords a singular experience. There are 1,050 acres of manicured gardens, with nearly four acres “under glass” of an architecturally exquisite Conservatory. In addition, you can visit the Peirce-du Pont House, originally built in 1730; it served as the home of Pierre S. du Pont and offers an exhibit that proves enlightening about the property, the family and life at the estate.
One of the many highlights at Longwood Gardens and a true delight (indeed, children often recall it as a favorite childhood memory) is “Dancing Fountains” choreographed with colored lights and music in what Mr. du Pont had designed as an outdoor theater, where there are summer concerts and plays in addition to the fountain displays.
At Christmas, Longwood Gardens is absolutely magical. Thousands of poinsettias accented with amaryllis, narcissus, begonias, cyclamen, tulips and many other flowers flourish inside the heated Conservatory. The signature Christmas tree is adorned with elegant red and ivory ornaments and shimmering white lights. Outside, more than 420,000 twinkling lights and sparkling fountains create a magical aura. Evening performances add another dimension to Longwood’s holiday celebration.
The Gardens are open year-round, every day of the year (even Christmas Day), with special events and of course seasonal floral displays. The gardens are open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (6 p.m. April-Oct; and open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings in summer and nightly during the Christmas Display). Longwood Gardens is on U.S. Rte 1, Kennett Square, PA, 610-388-1000, www.longwoodgardens.org.
Hagley’s Living History Museum
As so many of the attractions we had been visiting in the Wilmington/Brandywine Area, Hagley Museum turns out to be so much more than a museum, with so many different levels of exploration. Located along the Brandywine River on the site of the first du Pont black powder works, Hagley provides a unique view of American life at home and at work in the 19th century.
Spanning 235 acres, the museum offers not only a visit (and live demonstrations by interpreters in period dress) of the mill works and a 19th century machine shop, but the Blacksmith Hill workers’ community and the first du Pont family home and garden, Eleutherian Mills, dating from 1803. (In one of the rooms is a wooden toy, Noah’s Ark, from the 1700s which that the family carried with them from France when they emigrated to the United States, at the suggestion of Thomas Jefferson).
Interpreters in period dress demonstrate the technology of the Industrial Revolution using period elements such as a steam engine that takes up an entire one-room building; children can see gunpowder that has just been milled exploded in front of them to demonstrate the quality control that made the du Ponts so successful. Adults and children alike will revel in the many different layers and levels of fascination.
There are special events scheduled throughout the year oriented to children (like an Invention Convention on Martin Luther King weekend). At Christmas, the home is decorated for the holiday as if you were a guest coming to dinner with the family.
Plan on spending at least three hours, but it is easy to spend the better part of a day, if you want to wander the trails. Hagley Museum is located on Route 141 in Wilmington, less than 15 minutes from the Hotel du Pont (302-658-24090, www.hagley.org).
Artful Brandywine River Museum
Brandywine River Museum, showcasing the artists of this region, particularly the three generations of the Wyeth Family, is ideal for multigenerational families. We were delighted by the variety of programs for families that are offered throughout the year, including weekend and summer workshops for children and fabulous family festivities at Christmastime (a room-size display of vintage model trains decorated for the holidays is a major lure, as well as artfully decorated Christmas trees (www.brandywine.org).
More to Explore
The Brandywine draws its name from the Brandywine River, which provided the power for industry but also incredible peace; it is a pretty, meandering river that seemed to link most of the places we would visit. Indeed, we began each morning jogging from the Hotel du Pont just a few blocks to pleasant path beside the river; the path extends 1.8 miles, ending at Rockford Park where there is a water tower that you can climb on weekends.
From Rockwood Park, it is a 20-minute walk on a Greenway trail from to Bellevue State Park, the estate of William H. du Pont, Jr. which includes tennis courts, tables, a catch-and-release pond stocked with fish, a racetrack that was designed for horses and is now a popular walking/jogging track, exercise tracks and hiking trails and summertime concerts.
You can also cross a Swinging Bridge to the opposite side of the Brandywine River, to the Brandywine Zoo, with Siberian tigers and River otters, (walking distance from the Hotel du Pont).
At Rockwood Mansion Park, located on Washington Street Extension at Shipley Road, there is a Victorian Rural Gothic mansion built in 1851, where you can view 12 restored rooms and have lunch in the Butler’s Pantry, then enjoy the formal gardens and trails that wind through the grounds. (302-761-4340).
The Delaware Museum of Natural History (across the road from Winterthur) houses a world-renowned collection of seashells, dinosaur skeletons, tropical birds, and interactive exhibits (302-658-9111). Families will also enjoy riding a real steam train, the Wilmington & Western Railroad, in continuous operation for more than 120 years (which offers themed rides including Murder Mystery Trains and seasonal Santa Claus Express, 302-998-1930); seeing a play at Delaware Children’s Theater; visiting Fort Christina Park and a full-size recreation of the 17th-century tall ship, Kalmar Nyckel (you can sail on it, too), taking in the Delaware Art Museum’s Pegafoamasaurus Children’s Interactive Gallery; and seeing a performance of the Delaware Children’s Theatre; and the Ashland Nature Center.
Also, the Delaware Toy and Miniature Museum (off Rt. 141) features over 150 dollhouses and shops, antique toys, dolls and over 700 miniature vases from 600 BC (302/427-8697,www.thomas.net/toys);
A short distance away, on the Christina Riverfront, is the Chase Center at the Riverfront which hosts major exhibitions (for tickets, 888-862-ARTS, www.riverfrontwilmington.com).
A river taxi provides transportation among the Riverfront attractions, but also offers a recreational activity on the river: the 40-passenger pontoon boat shuttles passengers along a 30-minute loop from the Shipyard Shops (a distinct shopping experience with famous names where the shipbuilding industry once thrived) to the mouth of the Brandywine River.
Historic New Castle, just south of Wilmington, is a veritable jewel of colonial history and architecture going back to Dutch times (in fact, it was laid out by Peter Stuyvesant in 1651) and which played an important part as a commercial and transportation hub in the earliest days. We were also fascinated to visit the courthouse and learn of the city’s role in the Underground Railroad and establishing important precedents for civil rights. At Christmas, the whole village is decked out for the holiday. (Historic New Castle Visitors Bureau, 800-758-1550, www.Newcastlecity.org).
Also in New Castle: Mike’s Famous Harley-Davidson Museum (I-295 and Route 9 at the Delaware Memorial Bridge) lets you see, hear and touch Harley-Davidson motorcycles (302/791-0330 www.harleydealer.com).
Family Packages & Events
We were very impressed with the amount of special programming and events aimed at engaging children at the major Brandywine attractions. What is more, many of the area hotels offer family packages that bundle in accommodations and attractions admissions include: Best Western Brandywine Valley Inn; Brandywine Suites Hotel (302-656-9300); Courtyard by Marriott Wilmington (302-429-7600); DoubleTree Hotel Wilmington (302-478-6000); Hawthorn Suites Ltd., Hilton Garden Inn Kennett Square and Sheraton Suites Wilmington.
Traveling with your pet? The Quality Inn Skyways offers pet-friendly package (147 North DuPont Highway, New Castle DE 19720, 302-328-6666 or 800-775-7352, firstname.lastname@example.org )
For package and attractions information contact the Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau by calling 800-489-6664, or visit www.VisitWilmingtonDE.com.
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