For people like me, who, even in sensible adulthood, can't help wondering how the phenomenally rich live, there is a place where the doors of some of America's oldest, greatest estates are open wide. It is the Brandywine Valley in northern Delaware and southeastern Pennsylvania, halfway between New York and Washington, D.C.
The Brandywine region encompasses Pennsylvania towns like West Chester, Chadds Ford and Kennett Square, and Delaware towns in the northern suburbs of Wilmington. Here, in about 50 square miles of rolling hills and rushing streams, early American aristocrats built country retreats surrounded by thousands of acres of gardens and working farms on the scale of Hearst Castle, but far more tasteful.
Around 1800, in the turbulent wake of the French and American revolutions, the Brandywine welcomed a family of well-to-do French immigrants, the Du Ponts, who went on to make billions manufacturing gunpowder and, later, chemicals and synthetics.
Today Brandywine visitors are invited inside mansions like Winterthur, an unparalleled museum just outside Wilmington devoted to American arts and crafts, established by Henry Francis du Pont in 1951. Its collection includes objects made mostly in the eastern U.S. from 1640 to 1860, with none of the Spanish colonial or Mission decorative arts we Westerners know. When I took the museum's highlights tour, the guide asked where I was from and I said California. "You're not a colonial," she replied graciously, "but you are welcome."
At Longwood Gardens, another Du Pont estate just across the Pennsylvania line, the delights of spring were on lavish display when I was there in early April. Delicate blue Siberian squill dappled the greening lawns, daffodils had popped, and every fruit tree and hedgerow was in flower.
It's pleasant to follow the winding country roads past Du Pont driveways and admire the way the valley's perfect pastoral landscapes unfold. Like the English countryside, the area seems inhabited by people with long and well-tended ties to the place. Thoroughbreds gallop across the fields in steeplechase and point-to-point races, and houses are built to last out of gray local fieldstone. Whenever you stop you meet people who look as though they came from old money or at least old stock.
Quaker farmers settled around the river in the late 17th century, attracted to the area by Pennsylvania colonist William Penn. In 1777, the Redcoats dealt Gen. George Washington a defeat at the Battle of Brandywine, leading to the British occupation of Philadelphia and a devastating winter for the colonials at Valley Forge.
After establishing themselves in the environs of Wilmington, the Du Ponts were well placed for the next revolution -- the Industrial -- and Brandywine became a New World barony.
In the 20th century, three generations of another prominent local family, the Wyeths, extolled the subtle attractions of the Brandywine Valley on canvas, leaving behind a museum on the riverbank in Chadds Ford.
These days, development in the form of shopping malls and ritzy subdivisions is eating away at the rural valley, and traffic can be thick in the spring and fall, the main tourist seasons. So it's wise to plan your visit during the week and stay off such main thoroughfares as Routes 1 and 202.
I spent four days in the Brandywine Valley with my sister, Martha, who drove from Washington to join me. Spring, arguably the area's most fetching season, was just getting started; we could see it hovering in a haze of pink and yellow buds on the trees. At Whitewing Farm Bed & Breakfast, on 43 acres adjoining Longwood Gardens, with ducks, geese, swans, a bunny hutch and Belted Galloway cows, the owner, Ed DeSeta, said, "Californians come here for a season fix."
They also come to Whitewing Farm to stay in handsome, comfortable rooms in the carriage house and other beautifully renovated outbuildings. Martha and I slept tight in a twin-bedded chamber with green and white striped wallpaper and a marble-floored bath. Swans slept in the pond just outside the door with their heads tucked into their breasts.
Breakfasts, served in the gathering room up the hill, were fattening feasts of homemade cherry coffeecake, omelets and pecan flapjacks. At dinnertime Ed and his wife, Wanda, directed us to all their favorite eateries, like Simon Pearce, a glass and ceramics workshop with a store and stylish restaurant in the village of Lenape. There we sat at a table overlooking the Brandywine River; my sister enjoyed excellent salmon in leek sauce, and I had horseradish-crusted cod.
We also tried the Pennsbury Inn Bed & Breakfast, up the road in Chadds Ford. It's a homey place, originally built of blue granite fieldstone in 1714 and thought to be the hostelry where Daniel Webster recuperated after a carriage accident on the Baltimore Pike (U.S. 1), which runs by the front door.
The noisy highway was annoying, but we got quiet rooms at the back of the second floor. I stayed in the beautiful Winterthur Suite, with a huge Palladian window overlooking the garden. From there a private hallway gave access to Martha's cozy John Marshall Room.
Cheryl Grono, the proprietor, had more restaurant suggestions for us, like the elegant Dilworthtown Inn nearby, a warren of small, candle-lighted, colonial-style dining rooms with a menu that included such delicacies as shiitake and cremini mushroom soup, Stilton cheese and spinach salad and pan-seared Maryland crab cakes.
We also tried casual eateries like Hank's Place, a local favorite in Chadds Ford that serves a fortifying meatloaf lunch, and Buckley's Tavern in Centreville, on the Delaware side of the valley, where I ordered a delicious concoction called portabello mushroom and eggplant Wellington. (Portabellos, shiitakes, enokis and creminis are menu stars in many area restaurants because the valley is a major producer of exotic mushrooms.)
The abundance of fine restaurants and inns in the little valley reflects the taste and wealth of its inhabitants, including the Du Ponts, of course. Only three family members sit on the board of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., which was founded by Eleuthère Irénée du Pont on the banks of the Brandywine in 1802 and made $28 billion in revenue last year. Other family notables have included public servants like former Delaware governor and 1988 presidential contender Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV; philanthropist Alfred I. du Pont; John Eleuthère du Pont (who, in what his lawyers characterized as a delusional fit, in 1996 shot and killed an Olympic wrestler living on his estate); and gentleman farmers like Henry Francis du Pont -- a mixed bag, in the way any family is. Among them, Henry Francis was a leading light. He turned Winterthur, the estate where he was born in 1880 and died in 1969, into a museum where everyone was welcome to share his delight in decorative American craftsmanship.