The Brandywine Valley National Scenic Byway is a mere 12 miles long, but the winding route is lined with historical, horticultural, and artistic riches that hark back to the days when the country’s industrial magnates committed to creating places of lasting beauty. Stunning at any time of year, these elegant Gilded Age estates and gardens pull out all the decorative stops for the holidays. Located along the border of Delaware and Pennsylvania, the area is a manageable six-hour drive from Boston.
At the 1,000-acre Longwood Gardens (longwoodgardens.org) in Kennett Square, Pa., the holiday display Botanical Splendor transforms the conservatory and outdoor gardens into a winter wonderland, beginning with a Christmas tree composed of hundreds of hardy hens-and-chicks (Sempervivum). Suspended gold globes embellished with preserved botanicals lead into a landscape in the Exhibition Hall featuring living trees made of colorful bromeliads and tropical plants. Add half a million lights, strolling carolers, the sounds of a 62-bell carillon, and crackling firepits for a celebration that marries the best of nature and artifice. The onsite restaurant, 1906, offers a prix-fixe Botanical Splendor menu (including a fabulous mushroom bisque). Try to return to Longwood between mid-April and October to see the justly renowned dancing fountains.
The featured exhibit at Winterthur (winterthur.org), Henry Francis du Pont’s former home, showcases trees inspired by Christmas trees seen at the White House, in conjunction with the exhibition “Jacqueline Kennedy and H. F. du Pont: From Winterthur to the White House.” (In 1961, the first lady appointed Winterthur founder and botanist Henry Francis du Pont to lead her project to restore the White House interiors.) Perhaps the most striking aspect of this 175-room mansion is that it manages to feel more like an elegant country house than a mansion, due in large part to the way the building is nestled into the surrounding landscape. Additional holiday exhibits include a display of vintage standard-gauge toy trains and a large-scale gingerbread version of Winterthur, created by Bredenbeck’s Bakery, whose confections have been featured on the Food Network. Winterthur also houses an astonishing collection of American arts and crafts.
The Nemours Estate (nemoursestate.org), built by Alfred I. duPont for his second wife, Alicia, is renowned for its formal French gardens and chauffeur’s garage housing a display of vintage automobiles. The 77-room mansion, the garage, and select areas of the gardens are dressed up for the holidays, with a Versailles-inspired motif (and a steampunk boiler room on the lower level). Live music performances will be held every weekend, including performances by the Delaware Symphony Orchestra Dec. 3 and 10.
“All Creatures Great and Small” is this year’s holiday theme at Hagley (hagley.org). The site of the gunpowder works founded by E. I. du Pont in 1802 on the banks of the Brandywine River includes restored mills, a workers’ community, and the ancestral home and gardens of the du Pont family. Holiday exhibits celebrate stories of pets, wildlife, and other animals that are part of Hagley’s history, including a display of 19th-century patent models showing how inventors sought innovative ways to make life better for people and animals. Twilight tours offer a rare opportunity to see the historic site after hours.
Should you want a break from holiday sightseeing, you can make a stop at one (or more) of the five wineries and one cidery on the Brandywine Valley Wine Trail.
According to Corey Krejcik, president of the wine trail and general manager of Chaddsford Winery (chaddsford.com), area vineyards tend to grow traditional, Old World-style wines. He encourages visitors to try at least one chardonnay at any local winery. While it’s not the official wine of the region, he says, “All of us have made some dynamite chardonnays over the years.” For the holidays, Chaddsford is offering classic European mulling wines, such as spiced apple and “holiday spirit,” with nutmeg, clove, and spices.
When you’re ready to call it a day, you can rest in Gilded Age comfort at Wilmington’s landmark historic lodging or try the city’s newest boutique hotel. Once the headquarters for the DuPont Company, the Hotel du Pont (hoteldupont.com) is a classic example of Italian Renaissance architecture and decor, with imported European chandeliers, hand-carved wood, and terrazzo floors. The hotel’s Le Cavalier restaurant is a modern French brasserie with a menu influenced by the flavors of North Africa and Provence. For the holidays Le Cavalier will also offer afternoon tea on Fridays.
At the Quoin (thequoinhotel.com), which opened in the city’s historic Security Trust & Safe Deposit Company Building in October, the lines are clean and contemporary, with soothing neutrals balanced by bold botanical prints. There are 24 rooms and suites, a restaurant, lounge, and the city’s first rooftop bar – another good reason, like the fountains at Longwood Gardens, to return to the Brandywine Valley when the temperature climbs.
Ellen Albanese can be reached at email@example.com.