Brandywine Valley can come as a bit of a shock.
So close to Philadelphia’s bustling urban sprawl — just an hour southwest in good traffic — perches, pretty as a picture, the bucolic Brandywine Valley. Encompassing some 350 square miles of southern Chester County, Pennsylvania, and northern New Castle County, Delaware, the area is “stunningly beautiful,” said Nina Kelly, director of marketing and communications for the Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau. “The open space plays a large part in that, the rolling hills, covered bridges, wineries and equestrian fields. Groups love to drive through the landscape.”
But the scenery, as magnificent as it is, is not all the Brandywine Valley offers groups. This, after all, is where the du Pont family, of industrial fame, built massive estates and gardens renowned the world over, and three generations of Wyeths made art equally illustrious. As visiting groups will quickly discover, the beauty of the Brandywine countryside is entirely matched by the beauty of its fabled attractions.
What Kelly called “arguably one of the world’s great gardens” got its start in 1907, when Pierre du Pont laid out Longwood’s first garden, a 600-foot-long Flower Garden Walk. While it remains one of the attraction’s most popular horticultural displays, Longwood has grown to boast a whopping 1,100 acres. In addition to more formal spaces like the main fountain, topiary and Italian water gardens, features include wide-ranging meadows and woodlands, as well as a 4.5-acre conservatory and even a 10,010-pipe Aeolian organ.
Brand new to Longwood is the reimagined Orchid House, with hundreds of the delicate, graceful plants exhibited in an airy, gallery-type space. It’s part of the $270-million-plus project Longwood Reimagined, which will debut in 2024.
“Longwood Reimagined will add to the conservatory that is already one of the largest in the world,” Kelly said. “They will have a second conservatory that will float on water. It will be amazing.”
The holidays remain one of the most cherished seasons for groups to visit Longwood, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of lights that twinkle throughout the exterior gardens, and the gorgeous Christmas trees, poinsettias and flowers gracing the conservatory. Also a favorite is summer’s Festival of Fountains, featuring America’s largest fountain collection in illuminated performances. Longwood Gardens offers both special rates and guided tours to groups.
Brandywine Museum of Art
Housed in a 19th century brick grist mill nearly as lovely as the creations within it, the Brandywine Museum of Art focuses on exhibiting the work of noted American painters and illustrators like Howard Pyle and Maxfield Parrish. But most impressive is the substantial collection of Wyeth family art. It includes not only masterful realist works from Andrew Wyeth, who painted the iconic “Christina’s World” and is considered one of the country’s greatest artists, but also his son, Jamie, and father, Treasure Island illustrator N.C. Wyeth.
The whole clan lived and worked in the Brandywine Valley — Jamie Wyeth still does — and one of the greatest pleasures available to groups through the museum is the chance to tour Andrew and N.C.’s off-site studios. Studio visits can be booked seasonally April through November, although leaders will also want to be sure to schedule private tours of the museum for their groups. There are a number of different tours available that zero in on themes like general collection highlights, the Wyeths, special exhibitions and more.
Coming in 2024, the Brandywine Museum of Art will host the blockbuster “Jamie Wyeth Unsettled,” celebrating that artist’s wonderfully unique (and sometimes even unnerving) work.
Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library
Like his cousin Pierre, Henry Francis du Pont was gaga for gardens, and one of the sprawling, nearly 1,000-acre Winterthur’s most spectacular showstoppers is the 60-acre naturalistic garden that groups can explore via tram March through December or on foot.
“Henry was an award-winning horticulturist,” Kelly said. “Winterthur has one of the top collections of azaleas in the world, so the early spring in April and May is just stunningly beautiful with layers and layers of colors.”
Meanwhile, tucked away inside the 175-room house, once home to the du Ponts and now a museum, groups will find one of the country’s finest American decorative arts collections. Encompassing almost 90,000 antiques, including goodies ranging from presidential china to Shaker furniture and fine art paintings, it’s arranged much as H.F. du Pont left it. Winterthur also hosts special exhibitions — September 2023 will see the opening of “Ann Lowe: American Couturier,” a look at the fashion designer who created Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress, among many other celebrated gowns.
Winterthur offers discounted rates, customizable tours, guided garden walks and on-site dining options for groups. Leaders might want to plan for groups to spend a whole day there.
Dwarfed though it may be by Winterthur, the 77-room Gilded Age Nemours Estate is a wonder in its own right, boasting 200 acres of French formal grounds and gardens, as well as a garage containing antique vehicles. And, notably, it was actually created from the ground up by Alfred I. du Pont.
“While Winterthur was an estate before Henry du Pont took it over, Nemours was built for Alfred’s wife,” Kelly said. “So, it was completely done from his imagination.”
Modeled on the Versailles mansion Petit Trianon, Nemours (which takes its name from the Gallic town the du Ponts once called home) offers the continent’s finest example of a French formal garden. It wows with a one-acre, 800,000-gallon reflecting pool surrounded by gorgeous statuary, but the house itself, built in 1910, is equally magnificent. Marie Antoinette would feel right at home within its regal splendor, which includes, according to Kelly, “breathtaking art.”
“I was just at Nemours and, for example, there’s a tapestry on the wall from the 16th century,” Kelly continued. “There’s something to appreciate at every turn there.”
Nemours is open seasonally, from April through December, and discounted tickets are available to tour groups.