The Perfect Girlfriends' Getaway

Gorgeous Gardens and Family Heritage
A girlfriends' getaway to Greater Wilmington, DE
By Tracy Antonioli
 

Hagley Museum, Garden & LibraryAs I brushed the hair out of my eyes with the back of my hand, leaving a muddy smear across my forehead, I gave one last glance at the thistles invading my herb garden and rose to my feet. Upon returning inside I discovered three missed calls, all from my friend Michelle. We'd been talking about getting together and I was certain she was calling to solidify these plans.

At first, I resisted. "I'd love to do a girls' weekend, Michelle. I really would, but my garden is beyond repair. I need next weekend to get my yard in shape."

But, Michelle has always been very persuasive. The next weekend I found myself in her passenger seat, headed down the highway, destination greater Wilmington, Delaware to explore some of the gorgeous gardens included in the 11-stop BRANDYWINE TREASURE TRAIL PASSPORT. Our first stop would be the HAGLEY MUSEUM AND LIBRARY.

"Museum and library?" I asked, unsure, as I looked longingly out of the window at the beautiful spring day.

"Oh, you'll see when we get there," Michelle replied.

The Hagley Museum and Library is far more than your average museum. The sprawling grounds include the original powder mill built by E. I. du Pont in 1802, the ancestral estate, as well as acres of gardens and footpaths. We stopped at the French garden first, and observed how du Pont integrated both decorative and edible plants into the layout.

"I love how this is both practical and beautiful," I said. "These trellises support fruit trees and vines while adding architectural interest and the rows of tulips add a burst of spring color. It's gorgeous!"

After the garden, we explored the industrial side of the estate-the powder mill, the machine shop, and the steam engine house. In each, we observed how the du Pont family harnessed the power of the Brandywine River for industry. In the powder mill and machine shop, water wheels were used as power sources, and in the steam engine house we learned how steam was used in much the same way to power locomotives.

While I was reveling in the history of the estate, Michelle was enjoying the grounds with her photographer's eye. "These buildings are beautiful," Michelle said, crouching down again to get the perfect shot. "I love all this stone and wood. They're stunning."

"The stone came from a quarry on site," I informed her. "All the building material for the powder yards came from that quarry. Pretty clever to source everything right on site."

Nemours Mansion and GardensAfter lunch, we continued our day at NEMOURS MANSION, a 47,000 square foot historic mansion surrounded by 300 acres of manicured gardens. It was built by Alfred du Pont, grandson of E. I. du Pont, and completed in 1910 to impress his second wife, Alicia and is a testament to the growing prestige of the family. We checked out the mansion itself first, joining a docent-led tour. The interior of Nemours is stunning; it seemed like every single surface was carved and gilded, from the ornate tiled floors to the intricate crown molding and dazzling ceiling medallions dripping with crystal chandeliers.

After the tour, we wandered through the gardens. "I can't imagine living somewhere this regal," Michelle mused, while pausing to ponder the beautiful gold-gilded statue, the centerpiece of the grounds. "It all seems too magnificent to be lived in."

"But it was a home," I explained, reading from my visitors brochure. "In fact, later in his life, Alfred I. du Pont brought all of his nieces and nephews here to enjoy the grounds. After all, what is the point of beauty like this if you don't share it?"

The next morning we were up early to head back out into the beautiful Brandywine Valley. Feeling rather upbeat after a day in the sunshine, I slid into the car beside Michelle and asked the plan for the day.

"Today is a day of contrasts," Michelle replied. I looked at her, puzzled, and she continued. "Let's see if you can figure out what I mean."

We drove north and arrived at LONGWOOD GARDENS just as it was opening for the day. "This place is huge!" I exclaimed, looking left and then right and then left again. "Where do we begin?"

Longwood GardensAs we meandered down the flower garden path, I marveled at the garden's symmetry. Even the wisteria, tumbling down from a pergola, seemed to be artfully arranged by a knowing hand. Every turn yielded a new landscape as we progressed towards the lake and, finally, on toward the water garden.

"Pierre S. du Pont was E. I. du Pont's grandson, and he loved to travel. His gardens were inspired by the gardens of the world," Michelle told me. "In fact, he was inspired to build these fountains after seeing them at the Philadelphia and Chicago World's Fairs".

"Look who's suddenly interested in history!" I teased.

Our final stop was WINTERTHUR, yet another historic du Pont property, this one built in the 1800s but now most closely associated with Pierre's cousin Henry Francis du Pont. Winterthur was Henry's beloved childhood home and he managed it for most of his adult life. But the lush gardens at Winterthur were different than Longwood's, and I began to understand the meaning behind Michelle's theme for the day. Winterthur was stunningly beautiful, but in a very different way from the majesty and symmetry of Longwood Gardens. Winterthur looked natural. Flowers bloomed under canopies of trees; an entire hill was a carpet of tiny blue flowers, growing there as if by accident.

As we toured the expansive estate on a meandering, narrated tram tour, I learned that there were no accidents of beauty at Winterthur. In fact, the grounds had been purposely planned to look natural but also remain beautiful throughout the year.

H. F. du Pont, we learned, had studied horticulture at Harvard. He designed the grounds to be natural looking; the estate was to be both beautiful and practical, containing gardens as well as land for livestock. The house and the grounds were ever evolving throughout du Pont's life; his work was never done.

Winterthur Museum"I think I have an idea for my garden," I realized out loud. "I want it to be both beautiful and useful, like the French gardens at Hagley and like the estate here at Winterthur. And I want an entertaining area-nothing huge, just a space I can use to share the gardens with my friends and family, like Alfred du Pont did at Nemours."

"And, like Pierre du Pont, you were inspired by your travels," Michelle said, winking.

"I know." I replied. "That's why you brought me on this trip, isn't it?"

"Yes," Michelle smiled. "Do you feel inspired?"

"Absolutely."

Explore the BRANDYWINE TREASURE TRAIL on your own getaway.