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Brandywine Christmas: Delightful Feast Of Holiday Activities Full Of Family Cheer
By Karen Rubin

The children waited with great expectation. All dolled up in their fancy frocks and colorful winter coats, hats and mittens, excitedly talking about what they might expect when they meet Santa for breakfast.

We were at the Visitor Center of Winterthur, one of the hallmark attractions of the well endowed Brandywine region, straddling Wilmington, Delaware and Pennsylvania, waiting the few moments for the shuttle bus which would spirit us to the mansion home that has sprouted rooms and wings like Hogwarts, decorated for our visit as if we were welcome guests of the Henry Francis DuPont family. There, Santa Claus would be waiting, and beyond, the Enchanted Woods.

We found the Brandywine region, which straddles Wilmington, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, absolutely enchanting at Christmastime, with a plethora of festivities that start around Thanksgiving and extends to Twelfth Night (the weekend after New Year's), hardly missing a beat even on Christmas Day.

Like the most deliciously prepared holiday buffet, Brandywine is in equal measure fun and fascination that will delight young and old. A visit is as delectably exciting as that first gaze at the colorfully wrapped presents beneath the tree on Christmas morning.

The problem with visiting many otherwise interesting places at Christmas is that often there is little to do. That is not the case in the Brandywine. Not only are all the major attractions open year round (some even on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day) and all the mansions (and museums) specially decorated, but they offer special activities, themed tours (including special evening visits), and exhibits for the holidays.

People come from miles around (making for quite an extraordinary traffic jam) to visit Longwood Gardens. The Gardens have become famous for the dazzling lighted displays spanning acres and acres, fanciful "dancing" fountains, exquisite decorations, strolling carolers in Victorian dress, concerts and festive organ sing-alongs that gave us our best Christmas Eve ever (best to come by 4 p.m. and wait for darkness to descend; the restaurant and cafeteria offer excellent dining selections).

"Longwood Gardens Christmas," ongoing from Nov. 28 through Jan. 5, from 9.am. to 9 p.m., including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, is as close to fairytale perfect as can be. As you cross the threshold from the Visitor Center, you see paths lined with trees decorated with 400,000 colored lights and chimerical decorations like hanging snowflakes. But that is only the prelude.

Stroll a little further, bearing right, and you will come upon the Open Air Theatre, where Dancing Fountains "perform" to holiday music, a special delight that adults tend to treasure among their favorite childhood memories.

Walk into the heated Conservatory where there is room after room-an incredible four acres under glass-that take on a magical aura. A grove of Christmas trees decorated with red and silver ornaments sparkles in the East Conservatory, while a 30' floral tree towers over the flooded expanse of the Exhibition Hall. Living white cyclamens and red poinsettias flourish amidst its evergreen branches, while mirrored ornaments reflect the Conservatory's myriad colors and lights. More horticultural finery, including swags of exotic plants, living wreaths, and trees decorated by area designers and elementary schools, festoon nearly four acres of greenhouses. You may well come upon the strolling Yuletide Singers, at the orchids, or amidst the thousands of poinsettias accented with amaryllis, narcissi, begonias, iris, and tulips.

Then make your way to the Special Events Pavilion, and the immensely popular organ sing-alongs; evening concerts also include performances by area choral groups, handbell choirs, and a harp orchestra. Four cultural nights highlight Kwanza, Chanukah, Finland, and Wales.

Outside the Conservatory, the sounds and sights of the season ring clear with carillon concerts, organ musical fountain displays, and 400,000 tiny lights twinkling in the evening skies. During daytime, you can explore hundreds of acres of outdoor gardens and miles of groomed trails and enjoy the atmospheric sounds of bells emanating from Longwood's historic Chimes Tower. A carillon with 62 cast bells plays holiday music every half-hour during daylight hours. Everywhere you look, there are seasonal ornaments of Nature's making, from the Meadow's amber sea of dried grasses and wildflowers to the berries, barks, and needles in Peirce's Park. The Gardener's Tree features ornaments crafted from garden findings, including gourds, seedpods, and cones. The wildlife have their own tree hung with edible ornaments near the Peirce-du Pont House, where topiary reindeer frolic along the drive. The 1730 Peirce-du Pont House, which was Pierre S. du Pont's home, offers a fascinating exhibit about the property, the family and life at the estate.

But at night, the effect is magical. After dark, a night-blooming garden of lights opens at Longwood. Huge starry snowflakes seem to fall from the sky, and 400,000 tiny lights glow in the trees, while roses and lilacs fashioned from lights bloom in the beds.

To best plan your visit, check Longwood Gardens' events listing on the website. The outdoor gardens and Conservatory open at 9 am and 10 am, respectively, and both close at 9 pm during the holiday season. Admission is $15 for adults (no Tuesday discount), $6 for youths ages 16-20, $2 for children ages 6-15, and free for children under age 6. Longwood Gardens is located on Route 1 northeast of Kennett Square PA, 610-388-1000, (recorded info, 800-737-5500), http://www.longwoodgardens.org/

Yuletide at Winterthur

Another Brandywine highlight which deservedly draws families from all over, is Yuletide at Winterthur, offered November 9, 2002, to Sunday, January 5, 2003 (tours depart frequently from 10 am until 4 pm daily), plus special evening visits to the Enchanted Woods, and Breakfast with Santa events.

Winterthur was the American country estate of Henry Francis du Pont, among the first to appreciate and collect American antiques. He was such an avid collector, he kept expanding the original 1839 house to accommodate his growing collection, until the collection reached 85,000 objects and the home reached eight stories and 175 rooms. Being able to wander around such a Wonderland is enchanting, enough, but never as much as during the holiday season, Winterthur.

The theme for the tours during the holiday season is Decorating for the Holidays, where you discover the origins of favorite holiday decorations and customs, including stockings by the fire, gingerbread houses, lavishly wrapped gifts, colorful floral displays, tempting foods, and the crowning glory -- the Christmas tree (the staff actually goes through the museum and changes the exhibits especially for the holidays). Vignettes depicting seasonal customs from long ago allow you to experience what the holidays were like for earlier generations of Americans.

But you also experience the home as if you were a guest of the du Pont family. Displays set against the exquisite backdrop of Winterthur's renowned period rooms show how the du Ponts and others have adapted those early customs to inspire our modern seasonal celebrations. Children will also delight in visiting the Enchanted Woods, where they can romp through the Tulip Tree House, the Faerie Cottage, the Troll Bridge, the Story Stones, S-s-serpentine path, and the Acorn tea room. (Reservations required: adults/$15, seniors and students/$13, children 5-11/$9; call 800.448.3883, 302.888.4600).

Special Enchanted Yuletide Evenings are offered at Winterthur on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, 5-8 p.m., from Nov. 29 through Dec. 28. The Enchanted Woods become even more magical, when local choirs and bands perform amid a backdrop of enchanting lights. (Reservations Required; adults/$10, children 2-12/ $4).

For the Breakfast with Santa events (offered Dec. 7, 14, and 21, 9 - 11:30 a.m.), families enjoy a buffet breakfast with Santa in the Visitor Center cafeteria, then join in making a colorful Victorian tree ornament. Hands-on activities in the Touch-It Room and an activity in the special exhibition, The Grandeur of Viceregal Mexico are also included in the morning's program. (Reservations required; adults/$16, children 2-12/$11).

Children will enjoy the Touch-It Room, a large, low-ceilinged room holds a parlor and a general store area as well as hands-on displays and activities about lighting, kitchenware, and crafts. The tea set, puzzles, dress-up clothes, and basket of wooden toys provide a playful way to learn about early American life and help students appreciate handcrafted objects as well as the skills that were needed to produce and decorate them.)

(Winterthur is open Monday-Saturday, 9-5, Sunday, noon-5; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day). Winterthur, Rte 52 Wilmington DE, 302-888-4600, 800-448-3883, www.winterthur.org.)

Hagley Museum and Library offers "Christmas at Hagley", from Nov. 29 through Jan. 1. Eleutherian Mills, the 1803 Georgian-style estate E. I. du Pont built for his family, is decked for the holidays in a combination of styles from the 19th and 20th centuries. The decorations include a special Twelfth Night dessert service in the family dining room. The visit to the mansion home is included with regular museum admission to this fascinating 235 acre-complex of early Industrial Revolution gunpowder mills, machine shops and worker-village, where the DuPont business empire began. Costumed interpreters, talks and demonstrations (the machine shop of vintage equipment is fascinating) make this wonderfully engaging for young and old alike. (Open 9:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., closed Christmas Day; adult/$9.75, seniors & students/$7.50, children 6-14/$3.50, families $26.50.

In addition, special evening tours of Eleutherian Mills, when you get the full effect of outdoor lighting, music, refreshments and holiday decorating demonstrations, are offered Dec. 13, 20, 27, 5:30-8 p.m. ($9 for adults, $4 for children 6-14; reservations should be made at 302-658-2400, ext. 259 ASAP). Hagley Museum is located 3 miles north of Wilmington DE via Routes 52 & 141, 302-658-2400.

For the first time, the fabulous Nemours Mansion and Gardens, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary of being open to the public, has extended its visitor season through December 28. This glorious house pulls out all the stops for Christmas, just as Alfred I. and Jessie Ball du Pont did for relatives and friends, and will be decorated for the holiday season. The Nemours Mansion is a Louis XVI style chateau furnished with fine examples of antique furniture, rare rugs, tapestries and outstanding art. (Reservations recommended; 1600 Rockland Road, Wilmington DE 19803, 302-651-6912).

Along the Brandywine

Housed in a restored 19th century gristmill, the Brandywine River Museum showcases an extensive collection of three generations of Wyeth family art, and other 19th and 20th centuries art and artists related to the heritage of the region. At Christmastime, there are special exhibits and artful decorations. There is also a very pleasant riverside trail you can walk. (Rte 1 North of Kennett Square, PA . Open daily, except Christmas Day, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; $6/adults, $3 seniors, students and children 6-12; audio tours are available for $3; for information, 610-388-2700, www.brandywinemuseum.org). "Anne of Green Gables" is a special holiday treat at the Wilson-Warner House, one of the Historic Houses of Odessa. From Nov. 19-Dec. 31, various have been transformed to reflect the beloved Green Gables of the creative, precocious orphan Anne Shirley. The Wilson-Warner House is one of four Historic Houses of Odessa, owned and operated by The Winterthur Museum, and located on Main Street, in Odessa, Delaware, 22 miles south of Wilmington (Exit 136 on SR 1). They offer special Yuletide tours from November through December. (Closed Mondays, Thanksgiving Day, December 24, and 25. Adults $8; groups, seniors, students $7; children 5-11 $3, 302-378-4069).

Rockwood Mansion Park offers a Festival of Lights during the Holiday season. Tour twelve rooms of this marvelous Rural Gothic mansion, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Enjoy the Butler's Pantry, a Victorian Cafe that's perfect for refreshments, and roam 72 acres of serene parkland. You can also hike 2.5 miles of lighted trails -- part of the Delaware Greenway (610 Shipley Road, Wilmington DE, 302-761-4340).

Another one of the many Wilmington area attractions of particular interest is Mike's Famous Harley-Davidson Museum, where you get to see, hear and touch Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Feel the wind in your face and experience the thrill and excitement of traveling the American road. Interactive, educational family fun for all ages. (I-295 and Route 9 at the Delaware Memorial Bridge, New Castle DE, 302/791-0330).

Though you are likely to need a car to get around to the various attractions, this December three eye-catching rubber-tired trolleys begin service on the "City Circuit" route, connecting Downtown Wilmington, the new Justice Center, Amtrak Station, and the Riverfront attractions.

Festive Accommodations

We added to the pure pleasure of the holiday with an indulgent stay at the historic Hotel du Pont, right in the heart of Wilmington, and walking distance from a delightful riverwalk, and also across the street from the First Episcopal Church where we were welcomed at Christmas Eve services. The grand hotel offers a fitness center, original artwork (including fabulous collection of Wyeth paintings). The famous Green Room, the formal dining room which looks as it has since 1913, is one of the traditional places to enjoy Christmas dinner or brunch. The Hotel also offers various family packages during the year, which include admissions to major attractions (800-441-9019, www.hoteldupont.com; Historic Hotels of America, 800-678-8946 (www.historichotels.org), or Preferred Hotels & Resorts, 800-323-7500, www.preferredhotels.com/dupont).

Other area lodgings (including suite hotels which are ideal for families and grandparent/grandchild trips) offering "Kid-friendly Getaways-with Parent-Pleasing Perks," include: Brandywine Suites Hotel (302-656-9300); Courtyard by Marriott Wilmington (302-429-7600); DoubleTree Hotel Wilmington (302-478-6000); and Wyndham Hotel Wilmington (302-655-0400). A full listing of family-friendly accommodations with packages including features ranging from breakfast to admissions and tickets is at the Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitor Bureau site, http://www.wilmcvb.org/accom-ftf.html. The site also links to Family Friendly Events (http://www.wilmcvb.org/kids-family_cal.html).

Wilmington, we were very surprised to discover, is only about a three-hour drive from the New York City area. For complete attractions and lodgings information, check the Wilmington, Del. visitor bureau website, VisitWilmingtonDE.com, or call 800 489-6664.

Pix:

Strolling Yuletide Singers add to the festive air during the holiday celebrations at Longwood Gardens, in the Brandywine region. ( 2002 Karen Rubin).

The Enchanted Garden at Winterthur adds to the magic of a Christmas visit which may include Breakfast with Santa ( 2002 Karen Rubin).

A burst of gunpowder makes the visit to Hagley Museum, the site of the original DuPont mill and mansion that much more engaging ( 2002 Karen Rubin).

2002 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions or comments to FamTravLtr@aol.com.


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