My first visit to the Brandywine Valley, a region of great historical significance that stretches from Wilmington, Delaware, up towards Philadelphia, I was doing what most people do when they are forced to drive I-95 for any length between New York and Washington, DC—trying get it over with as fast as possible.
It was one of those early summer days, however, when the weather is just that good—good enough to put you in a better mood than you’d would typically expect to find yourself while driving down one of the most heavily traveled (and heavily tolled) stretches of American interstate highway. It was a day for the scenic route. A day to see this mythical land that inspired the Wyeths to paint and the du Ponts to invent Teflon.
A day to see the quaint stone homes, the pastoral fields, grand estates and gardens that go on forever. To see the scores of artisans hard at work, blowing glass or painting en plein air, or whatever it is they do. While we’re at it, let’s have plenty of horses, charming pubs and white picket fences. Gimme. I’m on a timeframe here.
First impressions: The years have not been kind to the Brandywine. At least not to its main thoroughfares. The same aesthetic mini-Armageddons visited upon exurbs across America are well in evidence here. There are the needlessly-vast shopping centers, shimmering gas stations with too many pumps, chain restaurants with $20 entrees and sticky tables. Because I had somewhere to be and this was all making me sad, I gave up and got back on the highway. It seemed as if the Brandywine Valley—at least the one captured by N.C. Wyeth (and later, twisted into something bleak and slightly mysterious by son Andrew)—was gone.
It wasn’t until years later that I had the opportunity to understand how wrong I was. In the unique position of needing to drive from the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania to the Delaware shoreline, my travels once again brought me to the Brandywine. If you know the Northeast, you’re aware—Lancaster to most places isn’t exactly a major trade route; there aren’t too many straight shots. Luckily, I had time, and my map (remember those?) showed that if I drove to Coatesville and then made a right, continuing on Route 82 down to into Wilmington, I would be traveling on a Scenic Route.
Oh really, my inner monologue sneered, as I twisted my way through the distressed, post-industrial town of Coatesville. Like many small, very old cities in America’s Northeast, Coatesville comes as somewhat of a shock after a meander through the relatively lovely countryside. A few minutes and a climb up a hill, however, and it’s as if all of that had never happened. Suddenly, I’m in some of the most scenic countryside we’ve got left in the crowded Boston-Washington corridor. This is horse country. This, I thought, is the Brandywine Valley.
In this valley there are farms, the picket fences of your dreams, crumbling walls you stop to Instagram. There is that magical stone residential architecture—often dating to the 1700s—that makes Southeastern Pennsylvania so irresistible to many of us unfortunate enough to live elsewhere.
Even though Route 82 seems to take forever to wind though the old village of Unionville and into the appealing town of Kennett Square (Nearly half of America’s mushrooms are grown right around here, if you didn’t know) and down into the quiet woodlands that mark the approach to the Delaware state line, this is the sort of drive you hate to see end. Luckily, you’re just getting started—see below for tons more great places to go and things to see in the Brandywine Valley.
Another memorable drive
Route 82 from the old village of Montchanin (now a pretty cool hotel) as far as Doe Run is a great start, but don’t miss Route 100 from the Montchanin north to Chadds Ford, where you can continue the fun along beautiful Creek Road on up to Route 52 before heading into the compact and pleasant town of West Chester. Attractions include: farms, fences, walls, ancient trees, horses, and remarkable stone structures.
Great country taverns aren’t the kind of thing you can take for granted anymore. If you just do one, make it The Whip, just off 82, south of Coatesville. This is not just an English-style pub. It’s better. There’s cider and lager on tap, quiz night and footy on the telly. Bonus: a full menu of classed-up pub faves—anyone craving bangers and mash should know they’ve a real friend in this place (1383 N. Chatham Rd., Coatesville). Near the West Chester, the historic Four Dogs Tavern is as rustic as The Whip is smart (1300 W. Strasburg Road, West Chester).
Most of the galleries at the Brandywine River Museum will drive anyone but the biggest art lover up the wall. Not so that of Andrew Wyeth, whose somewhat unsettling paintings, mostly set in winter, are the perfect antidote to the annoyingly pastoral landscapes downstairs (100 Creek Road, Chadds Ford).
If you want to see old mansions, this is the region for you. But none is quite as fun as the abandoned Gibraltar estate in Wilmington. Home of one of the du Pont women (and her husband) with gardens designed by Marion Cruger Coffin, the property is currently under the care of Preservation Delaware. The gardens – every inch magnificent – are being looked after, and the house itself doesn’t look so bad for all the years of abandonment. There’s rarely anyone here (1405 Greenhill Avenue, Wilmington).
Part point of local pride and part secret shame, the rather bizarre Booth’s Corner Farmers Market is only open two days a week (Fridays and Saturdays). But what a punch it packs. Inside the sprawling complex, located in a semi-rural backwater near the state line, you’ll find a hybrid of flea market and food court and a wealth of people watching. There’s food aplenty, but most people are there for the roast beef sandwiches at mainstay Chamberlain’s (Route 491 at 261, Marcus Hook).
Land of eternal spring
Once a du Pont family concern, Longwood Gardens is now one of the country’s most visited gardens, a year-round joy thanks to its wealth of indoor conservatory space. (Route 1, Kennett Square).
The answer is scrapple. The question was?
No idea why, but for some reason, scrapple (all the pig parts they couldn’t use elsewhere ground up with cornmeal, pressed into a loaf, fried) never made it big outside of the Mid-Atlantic region. Neither did creamed chipped beef. What a shame. Try both for breakfast at top-notch diner Hank’s Place in Chadds Ford. Andrew Wyeth lives up the road and often stops in (1625 Creek Road, Chadds Ford).
Booking a trip? If you’re looking for cheap airfares to the region (Philadelphia is closest, but most major Northeast airports are within an easy drive), start your search at CheapFlights, or compare multiple sites at once with BookingBuddy. Don’t forget that bundling your flight and hotel together can save you a lot of money; give it a try at either Orbitz or Expedia—both are great places to start a simple airfare search, too. If you’re just after the best Brandywine Valley hotel deals, start your search at Hotels.com or Priceline, where you can save up to 60 percent on any given night by taking advantage of their Express Deals feature. (This simple tool has probably saved us—no joke—thousands of dollars over the years.) Don’t forget, you can also cross-reference a ton of hotel user reviews with the best rates available from more than 200 web sites at TripAdvisor. If you need a rental car, begin your search by swinging wide to get a sense of the market—a site like Booking Buddy lets you check pretty much every site worth knowing in just a couple of clicks.