Though barely a stone's throw from the metropolitan hub of Philadelphia and not far from Baltimore, the Brandywine River Valley, which stretches from Chester County, PA, south to Wilmington, DE, is a cornucopia of museums and lush gardens. It is the ideal spot for escaping winter's cabin fever and reveling in the newborn delights of spring. A landscape that is today just barely rural, this valley is still home to rolling green hillsides, quaint and clustered villages, and some of the grandest homes in the Mid-Atlantic.
The scenery of the Brandywine has been immortalized by the late American painter Andrew Wyeth, who passed away in January 2009 at age 91. Before his death, Wyeth was arguably the best-known living artist in the United States. The simplicity of his paintings of rural neighbors, dogs, and desolate farmscapes made people take note. They seemed to be drawn to the seeming ordinariness of the subject, then to the calculated play of light and shadow, and, perhaps, ultimately, to the emotions of regret, nostalgia, whimsical brooding, and gentle satisfaction.
Wyeth's hometown of Chadds Ford, PA, retains many of the trappings of the late artist's works—a number of which can be viewed at the Brandywine River Museum (Rte. 1, 610-388-2700, brandywinemuseum.org). The museum, which also features the work of his father, N.C. Wyeth, and son, Jamie Wyeth, is housed in a 19th century grist mill converted into a three-story art gallery and occupies a serene spot along the slowly rolling Brandywine River.
If you're lucky, you may find yourself at the museum on a day when Wyeth's granddaughter, Victoria, is giving tours. Owner of a broad smile beneath a thatch of bright blond hair, she is, in some ways, the spitting image of her grandfather. Describing one of his most popular paintings, Master Bedroom, which captures dogs sleeping peacefully on a bed in a small square of light, she tells her rapt audience why her grandfather painted so many canines: "It's because people like dogs, he told me!"
Only a few minutes west of Chadds Ford is Longwood Gardens (Rte. 1, 610-388-1000, longwoodgardens.org), the former estate of Pierre du Pont. He purchased the property in 1906, and, over the course of the next four decades, indulged in his passion for horticulture, establishing acres of formal gardens on the estate as well as an expansive conservatory. Today, the property is its own nonprofit organization, but du Pont's influence remains apparent. The charming stone chime tower with its hourly pealing is surrounded by a profusion of vegetation and a cascading man-made waterfall, while the conservatory provides access to blooms year-round.
It is also home to a children's garden with low, narrow, and curling passageways, and kid-level water features. Children will also enjoy the three tree houses.
Across the state line in Delaware in the community of Montchanin is yet another sprawling former du Pont estate turned public garden and museum. Winterthur Museum & Country Estate (Rte. 52, 800-448-3883, winterthur.org, reopens March 9) is the former home of Henry Francis du Pont, an avid collector of American antiques, who opened his sprawling European-style residence as a museum in 1951. The galleries of Winterthur exhibit some of the museum's 85,000-item collection of mostly American antiques, dating from 1640 to 1860. But the draw here is the home's 175 period rooms.
Du Pont's idea was to create spaces reflecting specific styles in American history, using his vast collection of furniture, paintings, textiles, glass, and porcelain to furnish them. In one wing of the house, he installed a two-story curving staircase, reflective of a 20th century neoclassical style. Even the mansion's crown molding and door trim are historic, showcasing the decorative scrollwork of the first half of the 19th century.
Other rooms display an array of eye-catching objects, including a stunning, handcrafted Queen Anne-style desk of striped maple; Oriental-themed, hand-painted wallpaper; a collection of silver tankards made by Paul Revere; and a pair of delicate silver sugar tongs. It is almost too much for the eye to take in.
The estate has 1,000 acres of grounds with many of the gardens reflecting du Pont's careful interest in horticulture. The March Bank, for example, covers an entire hillside and is planted only with early spring bulbs. Others, like Magnolia Bend, rely on the simple beauty of trees to frame the landscape. Here, the pink and white blossoms of the tulip magnolia create a canopy of color in spring. The Enchanted Woods, Winterthur's children's garden, is a treat no matter what time of year, featuring a kid-sized, thatched-roof-and-stone cottage with rustic, hand-carved wood furniture for the little ones.
South of Winterthur, on the banks of the Brandywine, is the Hagley Museum and Library (Rte. 141, 302-658-2400, hagley.org), which is where the story of the du Pont family—aristocrats who fled the uncertainty of France after the Revolution—begins. Eleutherian Mills, a Georgian-style mansion, is the first du Pont family home in America. It was built by E. I. du Pont, the founder of what is today known as DuPont, the chemical company initially established as a gunpowder manufacturer. Started in 1802, the enterprise grew to dominate the explosives industry in the United States. By the 1920s, DuPont was fully engaged in developing new products, from nylon stockings to rayon.
The real find on the grounds of the Hagley Museum is the Powder Yard. This restored collection of mills and storehouses provides insight into the 19th century processes of gunpowder production with demonstrations of steam-engine operations as well as the workings of the mill's machine shop.
One can also visit the family home while at Hagley. The tour is decidedly lackluster, as the guides are accustomed to giving talks to school groups more than to adult visitors, but the mansion and grounds are still worth exploring. In the barn is a massive, original Conestoga wagon, as well as a handful of automobiles by DuPont Motors.
The Brandywine Valley is also known for its numerous (if pricey) antique shops. Worth checking out is Brandywine View Antiques (Rte. 1, Chadds Ford, 610-388-6060,brandywineview.com), which has three stories of items from antique potty-chairs to carousel horses. The store has wraparound porches loaded with iron bedframes, antique patio furniture, and rocking chairs. Not far away, the Pennsbury Chadds Ford Antique Mall (610-388-1620) is vast and deserves an hour or so of exploration, offering the wares of about 80 dealers, as well as an extensive collection of signed Andrew Wyeth and Jamie Wyeth prints.
On Route 52, just north of Longwood Gardens, is Baldwin's Book Barn (610-696-0816, bookbarn.com), which has five floors of used books inside an old stone barn. Just when you think you've seen everything, you come around a corner, encounter a set of narrow steps, and find yourself in yet another nook loaded with dusty volumes. Baldwin's has books on every subject matter you can imagine as well as some friendly resident cats, who might be found lounging on the shelves and tables.
There are other gems to discover in the Brandywine area, including the region's many wineries (bvwinetrail.com). Chaddsford Winery (610-388-6221, chaddsford.com) on Route 1 has wine tastings daily. Among the most popular varietals are the 2008 Spring Wine, a light and fruity sweet wine, and the 2007 Proprietors Reserve White. Other sites include theBrandywine Battlefield (Rte. 1, 610-459-3342, ushistory.org/brandywine), Nemours Mansion & Gardens in Wilmington (Rte. 141, 302-651-6912, nemoursmansion.org), and QVC Studio Park in West Chester, PA, (qvctours.com).
Getting There: The Brandywine Valley is about an hour and a half from Baltimore. The most direct route is to take I-95 north to Wilmington and then Rte. 202 north to Chadds Ford, PA, making a left on Route 1 to reach many of the attractions. If you want to skip the traffic around Newark and Wilmington, take the exit off I-95 at Rte. 272 north toward Nottingham. At Nottingham, pick up Route 1 east to Chadds Ford.
Where to Eat: Simon Pearce (Rte. 52, West Chester, 610-793-0949, simonpearce.com) is a fine place for an elegant dinner. The restaurant—which is connected to the glass gallery, where artisans demonstrate their craft—off- ers riverfront seating in a multilevel dining room. Start off your meal with the divine (and filling!) Vermont cheddar soup before choosing entrees like bourbon-glazed pork belly and Pennsylvania lake trout. The restaurant also offers $39 prix fixe, three-course dinner nights. A more casual spot is Talula's Table (102 W. State St., 610-444-8255, talulastable.com) in Kennett Square, PA, the "Mushroom Capital of the World." The market is a great place to grab lunch. There are a variety of soups, gourmet meals, dozens of artisan cheeses, pastries, and desserts, like chocolate torte.
Where to Stay: The Brandywine River Valley has an array of historic bed and breakfasts and inns. We like the Fairville Inn Bed & Breakfast in Chadds Ford (Rte. 52, 610-388-5900,fairvilleinn.com), which is close to area attractions. It has a lovely afternoon tea with cheese, crackers, fruit, and cookies. The Carriage House rooms behind the main inn will keep you away from street noise (rates start at $165). The Pennsbury Inn Bed and Breakfast, also in Chadds Ford (610-388-1435, pennsburyinn.com), is a country house with beautifully decorated rooms on eight acres of landscaped grounds, only a few minutes from Longwood Gardens (rates start at $149).