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Located just about midway between New York City and Washington DC, the city of Wilmington Delaware comes as a surprise to first-time visitors--it's neither bucolic nor bustling, but, well, about halfway between those two extremes. And it can be pleasantly diverting to have a compact center of town, which affords easily accessibility to several outstanding estates, important to American history, within just a few miles' drive.

The estates belong to the duPont family or their heirs and assigns, in some cases foundations or trusts. And they include the grandest gardens in America, without doubt, at Longwood, and the an impressive collection of American art, furnishings, tools and the like at Winterthur, bested only by the Smithsonian Institutes in Washington, D.C.

Wilmington is the place to come if you enjoy fine arts, American history and/or the pleasure of knowing how to live well. The duPonts, for all their faults as dealers in dangerous chemicals and gunpowder, had the good sense to build beautiful homes in which to live, and to bequeath these to the American people as museums for everyone with the price of admission to enjoy.

While the northern part of Delaware is more familiar to travelers, the city of Wilmington itself, plus its southern surroundings, can be an eye-opener for people who feel they've seen everything. The area is easy to reach, being just 30 minutes from the center of Philadelphia, 90 minutes from Baltimore or Atlantic City and just 100 miles in each direction on I-95 from New York City and Washington DC. (One-third of the nation's population lives within 350 miles of Wilmington, the city fathers tell us.)

Although known as a company town in the past (duPont Chemicals), the city of Wilmington is now a hub of credit card companies and other banking-related firms, as well as continuing to be the nominal headquarters of a slew of world-famous corporations, thanks to the state's lenient laws and low taxes (no sales tax, for instance).

But the attraction for road trippers is the beautiful countryside, combined with the ease of maneuvering in and out of Wilmington itself, and the historic suburbs to the city's south.

When you feel like leaving the car behind, consider the City Circuit Bus (No. 32), which runs daily except Sunday, for just 25 cents (free to children). This line serves the Riverfront, downtown Wilmington, Rodney Square, Kahunaville (don't ask!) and the Amtrak Station, among other sites. For more information, contact DART at 800/652-DART or Web site www.dartfirststate.com.

The duPont Estates

The first of four duPont estates you might like to visit is the Hagley Museum, where the French family set up shop (literally) and began making gunpowder for the new American Republic in 1803. The buildings and gardens are remarkable, the old powder mills, railroad and canals amazing. Open daily March 15 through December 30, the rest of the year weekdays only at 1:30 PM. All tours are guided, and include a bus ride. Admission $9.75, less for seniors, children and students, under six with adult free. Phone the museum at 302/658-2400, or 800/228-9933 for a free brochure.

The Nemours Mansion & Gardens, the estate of Alfred I. duPont, is about as French as you can get and still be in the United States. The Louis XVI-style chateau is quite attractive, but most sensational is the formal garden extending almost one-third of a mile along the main vista from the 102-room mansion, complete with classical fountains and colonnades. They have guided tours from May through November. Contact them at PO Box 109, Rockland Road, Wilmington DE 19899, phone 302/651-6912, Web site www.nemours.org. Closed Mondays. Admission $10, no children under 12 allowed.

Longwood Gardens seems to me a botanic Disney World, what with water fountains playing to the tune of the Stars & Stripes Forever, a kite flying contest on the lawn and a chimes tower (where a 62-bell carillon will begin playing concerts soon). Here you will find one of America's most comprehensive gardens, subdivided into dozens of categories and styles. There are 20 outdoor gardens, 20 indoor gardens, 11,000 different types of plants, as well as fountains and more than 800 events each year, ranging from flower shows to organ recitals and fireworks. The 1,050 acres are kept beautiful by 600 employees, students, and volunteers, including 54 full-time gardeners. You can take tea on weekdays from 2 to 3. There are big special displays at many times throughout the year, including Easter and Christmas. Open every day of the year, with admission costing $12 ($8 on Tuesdays), less for children, young people (to 20), under six free. Contact them at Route 1, PO Box 501, Kennett Square PA 19348-0501, phone 610/388-1000, Web site www.longwoodgardens.org. Their restaurant phone is 610/388-6771.

Winterthur is perhaps the greatest display of Americana in the United States outside the Smithsonian Institution itself, with furniture, silverware, pottery, you name it, 85,000 objects in 175 rooms and three galleries. The huge house, looking more like a rambling country hotel than a home (there are 250 rooms on seven floors), could occupy you for days with its treasures. In addition, there are 60 acres of gardens on the total-966-acre property, but the house here is what you came for. It has been open as a museum since 1951, and is worth the price of admission, $10 for adults, less for seniors, students and children (under 5 free). Open daily 9 to 5 except Sunday noon to 5. Contact them at Winterthur, Route 52, Winterthur DE 19735, phone 800/448-3883 or 302/888-4600, TTY 302/888-4907, Web site www.winterthur.org.

Other Highlights

The Brandywine River Museum is the place to go if you like the Wyeth family of artists. One of the largest collections of works by N.C., Andrew and Jamie is here, as well as outstanding pieces by other modern American artists. Look for Jamie's "Portrait of a Pig." Opened just in 1971, the museums lies along the river, and was converted from a Civil-war era grist mill. You'll find them on US 1 just south of PA Route 100 in Chadds Ford, PA, phone 610/388-2700, open daily except Christmas. Admission $5, less for seniors, students, children, free under six. There's a nice little restaurant, too, open for lunch from April through December except Monday and Tuesday. At the museum, you can purchase tickets to tour the N.C. Wyeth House & Studio, half a mile away, April through mid-November. You get there on a bus from the museum. Cost is $3.

My favorite spot here is the tall ship Kalmar Nyckel, a full-size recreation of the beautifully carved vessel that brought the first permanent European settlers to the Delaware Valley in 1638. Those who reached these shores founded the colony of New Sweden and built the first log cabins (a Scandinavian invention) in America. You can sail for 75 minutes on the Christina River for $25, but visiting the ship (main deck only) at the dock costs just $4. Occasional three-hour sailings cost $40, and you may help with the rigging if you wish (they need strong backs out on the open water). You can buy soft drinks on these cruises. Board the ship at Dravo Plaza Pier, next to the Shipyard Shops, at 900 South Madison, Wilmington, phone 302/429-SHIP, Web site www.kalnyc.org.

Wilmington's Riverfront is a comparatively new development, and sweetly impressive, from the imposing Kalmar Nyckel itself to the First USA Arts Center, currently hosting "Le Grand Voyage: Treasures from the National Marine Museum of Paris" through May. Other exhibits come and go as well. You'll find them at 800 South Madison Street, phone 888/862-ARTS, Web site www.riverfrontwilmington.com. Admission $5 for adults, less for seniors, children under 5 free. Closed Mondays.

You can walk along the Riverfront's 1.3 miles, taking in the history of Wilmington at 21 different marked sites, from a shipyard to an urban wildlife refuge. There are maps available at the tourist office and at the Riverfront itself, in the First USA Arts Center, among other spots.

The Delaware Art Museum offers free admission every Saturday from 9 to noon, and on Wednesdays between 4 and 9. The permanent collection features outstanding work from 19th and 20th century artists including Howard Pyle, Dante Gabriel Rosetti and Edward Hopper. A special exhibit on the works of Edmund C. Tarbell remains up through April 28, 2002. Contact the DAM at 2301 Kenmere Parkway, phone 302/571-9590, Web site www.delart.org. Admission $7, less for seniors and children.

If you like really modern art, get yourself to the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts (DCCA), where a tiny cafe offers refreshment, too. Exhibits are stupendously innovative (at least the ones I saw were), and change every six weeks or so. I found Halo, a sculpture by Rick Rothrock, who works in marble and gneiss to be riveting. Admission $5, less for children and seniors. Located at 200 South Madison Street, phone 302/656-6466, Web site www.thedcca.org.

Nearby New Castle

New Castle is a lovely town at Wilmington's southern edge, looking much like a small Williamsburg but lived in by real people, not actors. Founded in 1651 by the Dutch, New Castle was Delaware's capital from 1704 to 1777. You can have a fine time strolling its streets (some still cobbled), alleys and churchyards. There are six places to have light refreshments, a dozen shops, and several historic houses to visit.

Most important is the Court House, built in 1732. From its cupola, early surveyors drew a 12-mile circle that defines the unique boundary between Delaware and Pennsylvania, the only partially circular line between any two states. Free admission and free guided tours daily except Monday. Many scenes from a forthcoming movie featuring Edward Asner as a stationmaster on the underground railroad of the 1840s were recently shot here.

Old Swedes Church and the Hendrickson House come as a unit. Said to be one of the nation's oldest houses of worship in continuous use as originally built (1698), the charming edifice stands across a graveyard from a Swedish-American stone farmhouse from 1690. Although established as a Lutheran church, it is now under the jurisdiction of the Protestant Episcopal Church, and is a registered national landmark. There is no charge for admission to either building. For information, phone them at 302/652-8605. The Web site is www.oldswedes.org.

Lodgings

Note: Prices here do not include an 8% lodging tax.

As with so many hotels right in Wilmington, the Friday and Saturday rates are eminently affordable at, for example, $59 to $99 per double room, while those for the business travelers on Sunday nights through Thursday nights are not ($139 to $149 for the same). That's the case at Courtyard by Marriott, right down town at 1102 West Street, phone 800/321-2211 or 302/ 429-7600, fax 302/429-9167. There's in-room coffee service, an iron and ironing board, video, fridge and more in each room. You can workout at the fitness center, too. There's a moderately-priced restaurant down the street just half a block, the Washington Street Ale House, serving everything from burgers to Sunday brunch (phone 302/658-ALES).

Every day of the week, the Sheraton Suites says it has some double rooms available at $89, but there are a lot more of them on weekends (Friday and Saturday nights) than the other five nights of the week, and then, some rooms may cost more than the minimum. The hotel is nicely located in the city center, and each room is a suite, featuring a separate living room and bedroom. The hotel has a decent restaurant, Basil, too. Each suite also has a desk, wet bar with fridge and coffee maker, iron and board, hairdryer, two color TVs, two phones and a computer port. Sheraton Suites is located at 422 Delaware Avenue, phone 302/654-8300, fax 302/576-8010.

The Brandywine Suites is having a promotion (for an indefinite period, they say) for double rooms at just $69, though their usual rack rate for a double is $109 on weekends, $169 weekdays. They tell me you can also get the promotional rate on weekdays if you ask for the corporate or government rate. In the heart of downtown at 707 North King Street, the hotel has a Mediterranean Grille, where three meals are served daily. Each of the 49 suites boasts a separate living room, as well as two TVs, a fridge and wet bar. You can phone them at 800/756-0070 or 302/656-9300, fax 302/656-2459.

At the Wyndham Hotel, weekend rates for a double are $99, but weekdays could run from there on up to as much as $179. In addition to its Terra Nova restaurant serving three meals a day, the hotel features a fitness center, which includes a heated indoor pool. Each guest room (and some are ADA certified) includes an alarm clock/radio, TV, hair dryer, coffee maker, iron and board, and phone with dataport and voice mail. Some nonsmoking rooms are available, also. Contact them at 700 King Street, phone 800/WYNDHAM or 302/655-0400, fax 302/655-0430, Web site www.wyndham.com.

Dining Out

Breakfast goes for as little as $4.10 at the Posthouse, and that means two large eggs with choice of sausage, ham, bacon, scrapple or pork roll, as well as toast and jelly, plus choice of home fries or grits. Lunch might run as low as $1.95 for a cheeseburger on a bun, and dinner from just $5.10 for a hamburger steak or veal cutlet, which come with choice of roll or biscuits and any two sides (among which are mashed potatoes, tossed salad, baked beans and more). They're at 105 North Union Street, phone 302/654-4414, and they are open daily from 6:30 AM to 8 PM, except on Sundays, when they close at 3.

If museum-going makes you hungry (it does me), you might welcome dropping in at the Delaware Art Museum's Cafe, where a sandwich goes for as little as $4.75, a quiche for $4.50. The museum even has a Starving for Art: Thursday Lunch Tour (from 12:15 to 1:15), featuring a 30-minute tour, then an informal discussion over lunch. Each tour focuses on one artist, movement or theme. (Tours for the rest of the year include those on John Sloan, Edward Poynter, Ford Maddox Brown and others.) You pay for your box lunch and the tour is free, or you can bring your own lunch and the tour is still free except for price of admission. Phone them at 302/571-9590, ext. 538. The Web site is www.delart.org, the address 2301 Kentmere Parkway.

One of the most fascinating places to eat in Wilmington is at the Riverfront Market, where you can ogle the fresh fruits, meals and vegetables before deciding at which stall to order your lunch. Ignoring the sushi place and several other vendors, I picked Jonas Miller's Butcher Shop, where I had a thick ham and cheese sandwich, with a soft drink and choice of chips or pretzels, for just $5.95. They also have salads, and you can take your food outdoors on fine days to eat at picnic tables (there are some inside for not-so-fine days.) The market is open from Wednesdays through Saturdays from 9 to 6 (an hour earlier on Saturday). Located where Market Street meets the Christina River, phone 302/425-4454 for the market, 302/655-2770 for Miller's. Open daily except Sundays.

Mexican fare, with enchilada dinners starting at just $7.75 (combination of four types), reigns supreme at El Tapatio, which local publications have voted "Best Mexican Restaurant" and "Best of Delaware" last year. Find them at 1700 Pennsylvania Pike, phone 302/791-9566. Open daily, live music on Friday nights.

Summing Up

For additional in depth information about Wilmington write or call:

Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau
100 West 10th St., Suite 20
Wilmington, DE 19801
Tel. 800/422-1181 or 302/652-4088
E-mail: info@wilmcvb.org
Online at www.wilmcvb.org.

Online information for visiting the rest of Delaware can be found at the official tourism Web site here: www.visitdelaware.net.