Beaches, spas, mountains, lakes and resorts are classic images of summer vacation. But mushrooms and stone walls? In the Brandywine Valley, a swath of rolling hills, lush pastures and quaint towns straddling the Delaware-Pennsylvania border just north of the quiet city of Wilmington, Del., mushrooms and stone walls are what summer is all about. The valley, home to recent Kentucky Derby winners Barbaro and Smarty Jones, remains one of the mid-Atlantic region’s yet-to-be-discovered treasures, outside of the equine community, that is. The area, made up of the small towns of Kennett Square, West Chester, Chadds Ford and Downingtown, was once best known for harvesting mushrooms, and its long history can be seen in the meandering stone walls that dot the hills. Today, a relaxed, cozy, covered-bridge feel has been preserved, with plenty to offer both families and couples looking for a quiet retreat and natural beauty. And it’s only a 21/2 -hour drive from New York City. “It’s so relaxing here,” says Vanessa Ng, 26, a New York City ballet dancer on a weekend vacation. “You couldn’t possibly see everything in a weekend. I’m going to have to come back.
” THE DU PONT PRESENCE Many of the top attractions in the Brandywine Valley are connected to the magnanimous Du Pont family, founders of the chemical company and longtime residents of the area. They first made their fortune selling gunpowder at the turn of the 19th century, and as their wealth grew so did their presence. Over the years, many of the sprawling Du Pont estates have been opened and reborn as museums and gardens. The most stunning of the Du Pont estates is Longwood Gardens, the former farm of Pierre S. Du Pont, which he bought to save its collection of historic trees. It boasts more than 1,050 acres of woodlands, meadows and impressive horticultural projects. Wander around the Italian Water and Topiary Garden or any of the 20 outdoor gardens for breathtaking displays of fountains, flora and fauna. Longwood Gardens is also famous for its fireworks display choreographed to music and illuminated fountains. If you don’t get enough flower power at Longwood, visit two other Du Pont estates across the state line. The Winterthur Gardens and Mount Cuba Center in Delaware are also in the Brandywine Valley. Winterthur offers 60 acres of gardens, antiques and a fairy-tale garden called Enchanted Woods, while the 630-acre Mount Cuba Center lets visitors explore impeccably manicured gardens. For those who appreciate a steady hand and a delicate pen, a trip to the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford is a must. The museum, tucked along the banks of the Brandywine Creek, maintains the largest and most comprehensive collection of works by N.
C., Andrew and Jamie Wyeth – three generations of esteemed American illustrators who gained much of their inspiration from the surrounding area. Along with the impressive Wyeth collection, the museum is itself a beautiful work of art. The lobby, complete with original wooden beams, has a rounded Guggenheim feel as it spirals up three glass-enclosed stories. Yet another surprise is the six family-run vineyards that can be found in the Brandywine Valley. Va La Family Farmed Wines in Avondale is the perfect spot to taste unique blends of Italian and French varietals in a friendly atmosphere. The microvineyard, until recently a functional Italian farm, is also an art gallery and hosts jazz performances and a barbecue chef on the grounds. Anthony Vietri, Va La’s owner, encourages wine tasters to try local cheeses and food products like jalapeño mushrooms while tasting any of the eight delicious types of wine. “We’re a small vineyard with special lots of wine that are specifically designed to pair with food,” says Vietri. “We only advertise by word of mouth, but we get visitors from as far away as New York and Virginia.
” If you’re looking to make a day out of wine tasting, pick up a Brandywine Valley Wine Trail map from Va La (www.
com). The trail includes six wineries, all within a 30-minute drive of one another. OVERNIGHT IN THE VALLEY The Brandywine Valley’s many small towns offer a wide range of accommodations. For a romantic weekend, couples will think they’re in bed-and-breakfast heaven, with dozens to choose from. The Stebbins-Swayne House, right off the main drag in Kennett Square, is a perfect example. Built in 1842, this well-kept B&B is a historic landmark and has three beautifully designed rooms that will make you feel like you’ve stepped back to another century. Innkeeper Rosemary Malatesta takes great care of her guests and cooks a mean breakfast ($125 a night). Not the B&B type? Check into the Comfort Inn & Suites Brandywine Valley, which has an indoor pool and whirlpools in the rooms for $90 a night. Elegant and convenient, the Fairville Inn is surrounded by miles of beautiful country and you’ll find fresh flowers in all the rooms. Rooms range from $150-$250. You can find more hotel listings in the area on the Brandywine Valley Visitors Bureau Web site (www.
com). WINING AND DINING Here’s some advice: When in mushroom country, eat the mushrooms. But even if you choose not to dine on the famous fungi, restaurants in the valley offer a surprising variety of cuisines. Gil-more’s in West Chester brings highbrow French fare to small-town America. This BYOB spot serves succulent dishes like pan-seared salmon and sautéed calf liver, and if the mushroom cappuccino is on the menu when you’re there, order it. The Half Moon in Kennett Square has rooftop open-air seating, affordable prices and exotic fare. Along with more than 60 types of beers, the menu features daily wild game specials like kangaroo, antelope, alligator and emu. Not to be missed on a hot day is La Michoacana Homemade Ice Cream. This Mexican ice cream store, also located in Kennett Square, serves up more than 50 flavors of out-of-this-world ice cream, from cucumber with chili to roasted corn, all for extremely low prices. THE GREAT OUTDOORS For the active traveler, there’s much to love on the Delaware side of the Valley. Mountain bike the network of trails at the Woodlawn Wildlife Refuge near Smith Bridge – bikes are available for rent at the Eastern Mountain Sports store in nearby King of Prussia. In Brandywine Creek State Park, visitors can check out the numerous stone walls built in the late 1800s (it used to be a Du Pont dairy farm) while hiking any of the six marked trails. The park even has an 18-hole disk golf course. If it’s hot out, take a dip in the Brandywine Creek. If you’re feeling adventurous, head on out to South New Street and see if you can talk your way into the Quarry Club, a private swimming hole rumored to be the best in the area. Like every place you visit in the Brandywine Valley, it will be worth the trip. Sidebar: SUMMERTIME IN BRANDYWINE VALLEY July 2 Fountains and Fireworks. Longwood Gardens’ Centennial Fireworks and Fountains show, “Centennial Salute.
” July 8 Graystone Victorian Ice Cream Festival. 10 a.
m. to 5 p.
m. on the grounds of the Graystone Mansion in Coatesville. Sept. 9-10 The Mushroom Festival (at right), a two-day event in Kennett Square with cooking demonstrations, art shows and farm tours (www.
org). For more, contact the Brandywine Valley Visitors Bureau at 1-800-228-9933 or www.
com or www.
com. IF YOU GO … Longwood Gardens: www.
org; (610) 388-1000. Open 9 a.
m. $14 adults; $6 youth. The Winterthur Gardens: www.
org; 1-800-448-3883. 10 a.
m. -5 p.
m.; Tuesday-Sunday. Closed Mondays. Mount Cuba Center: www.
org; (302) 239-4244. 8 a.
m.; Monday-Friday. Brandywine River Museum: www.
org; (610) 388-2700. Open 9:30 a.
m. to 4:30 p.
m. $8 adults, $5 seniors, students and children. Va La Family Farmed Wines: www.
com; (610) 268-2702. Open Friday-Sunday, noon- 5:30 p.
m.; tasting is $27. The Stebbins-Swayne House: www.
com; (610) 444-9097. The Comfort Inn: www.
com; (610) 399-4600. Gilmore’s: www.
com; (610) 431-2800. Fairville Inn: www.
com; (610) 388-5900. Half Moon: www.
com ; (610) 444-7232. La Michoacana: (610) 444-2996. Eastern Mountain Sports, King of Prussia: www.
com; (610) 337-4210.
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