A road trip through the Brandywine Valley offers a taste of American aristocracy. In the former country mansions of the ultrarich, travelers glimpse the early 20th-century extravagant lifestyle of a fascinating New World royalty. The du Ponts, one of the wealthiest American families, built estates graced by lovely gardens and filled with world-class art. E. I. du Pont, the first family member to leave France, came to America in 1800 and planted miniature fruit trees and other plants on a bluff overlooking the Brandywine River. His industrial innovations in making gunpowder resulted in a patent and a very prosperous business. Succeeding generations inherited his business and gardening genes, expanding into plastics and consumer products and creating extraordinary botanical collections.
In the Brandywine Valley, Routes 100 and 52 loop through scenic château country where the present-day residents resolutely protect the pastoral views. The narrow, twisting roads that trace the river force slow progress through lanes shaded by overarching branches of tulip trees and oaks. Wildflowers, not billboards, line roadsides. The 12-mile (19-kilometer) stretch of the Brandywine Valley from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, southeast to Wilmington, Delaware, may seem brief, but it takes a few days to truly enjoy.
Begin at Longwood Gardens
From the Philadelphia airport, take I-95S to 322W to U.S. 1. In 45 minutes, you arrive at Longwood Gardens, about three miles (five kilometers) northeast of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Pierre du Pont, who reshaped the family company for the 20th century, found spare time to personally design Longwood Gardens (www.longwoodgardens.org). The property includes forest rambles and walks in Italianate gardens. The conservatory, with 4.5 acres (1.8 hectares) under glass, nurtures 5,500 kinds of plants, including a room of orchids. In the 1930s, Pierre created fountains that still leap and sway with an evening light and music show.
The Inn at Montchanin Village
Leaving Longwood, head for U.S. Rte. 52/Kennett Pike, the National Scenic Byway that meanders through the heart of the Brandywine Valley, providing glimpses of country estates hidden in the trees. After 7 miles (11 kilometers), turn left on Kirk Road. Check in at the big gray barn at the Inn at Montchanin Village (www.montchanin.com). Eleven structures, some stucco-and-frame, were built between 1799 and 1910; they once housed workers of the DuPont Black Powder Mills. Now 28 rooms pamper guests with four-poster beds, gas fireplaces, and private gardens filled with lilies.
Learn all about where the du Pont story began at the stately Hagley Museum (www.hagley.lib.de.us), less than a mile away from Montchanin. Take Rte. 100 south and turn left on Rte. 141 to the spot where E. I. du Pont built his gunpowder mill. After seeing DuPont innovations from nylon stockings to NASCAR race cars in the museum, you may wander on your own or tour in a bus with a guide to see the small stone buildings of this early American industry. Eleutherian Mills, the first du Pont home in America, sits on the cliff above the powder works. The three-story Georgian home reflects family life through memorabilia of five generations of du Ponts. Its barn shelters old vehicles, including the 1928 roadster manufactured by E. Paul du Pont. Employees' homes and a schoolhouse provide a view of 19th-century life.
Nemours Mansion & Gardens
Back on Rte. 141, take a 3-mile (4.8-kilometer) jaunt to the new visitors center for Nemours Mansion & Gardens. Alfred I. du Pont, the great-grandson of E. I., built the 70-plus room Nemours in 1910. The Louis XVI style of architecture and Versailles-like gardens emphasize the family's French roots.
Head north on Rte. 52 to the nearby Winterthur (www.winterthur.org)—the country estate so big that it has its own post office address (Winterthur, Del.). It takes a full day to take in the wonders of this 982-acre (397-hectare) family residence that Henry du Pont turned into a museum. Architectural details, borrowed from historic houses that he dismantled, surround the premier collection of American furniture and decor. A trained horticulturist, Henry also designed the gardens surrounding the mansion, choosing the location of each bulb in the hillside known as March Bank.
Brandywine River Museum
Continue on to the Brandywine River Museum on U.S. 1 in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, (www.brandywinemuseum.org). The museum sits in the midst of the Brandywine Conservancy, straight north on Rte. 100, just ten minutes from Montchanin. The museum occupies three floors in a 19th-century brick gristmill surrounded by wildflowers. The collection of American art features works of the Wyeths, who lived and painted in homes and studios nearby. N. C. Wyeth's illustrations for classics like Treasure Island join works by his son Andrew and grandson James.
Mt. Cuba Center
To stave off the pressure of development, Lammot du Pont Copeland and his wife created a hilltop island of nature that surrounds their former home. You can get to Mt. Cuba Center (www.mtcubacenter.org) via a tangle of country roads that wind through woods, but it might be best to take the easy way and go south to Rte. 141, then northwest to 3120 Barley Mill Road. Knowledgeable guides introduce guests to Mt. Cuba's woodsy preserve by reservation only (call ahead). From Mt. Cuba, leave Barley Mill Road and pick up Rte. 141, jog north to Rte. 52, and then head southeast into Wilmington.
In this pleasant small city, the largest city in Delaware and home of the DuPont company, stroll along the riverfront and give your credit card a workout—tax-free—at the Shipyard Shops. An overnight at the Hotel du Pont (www.hoteldupont.com), at 11th and Market Streets, features the best of everything, from the Bösendorfer piano in the lobby to a collection of original paintings by regional artists including N. C. and Andrew Wyeth. The hotel's over-the-top amenities include a Broadway-size theater that features touring shows.
The views of the Brandywine Valley can be picturesque year-round, though the gardens at Longwood and Winterthur are at their best in the warmer months. Check the weather in Chadds Ford at www.weather.com/weather/local/19317. Attractions are located in a relatively compact area, but a GPS is recommended for navigating your way along the narrow lanes leading to them.
—Text by Vera Marie Badertscher, adapted from National Geographic Traveler