Founded in 1631, DELAWARE was once part of neighbouring Pennsylvania – Philadelphia is only ten miles north – until separating in 1776. In 1787 it was the first former colony to ratify the Constitution and become a state. Much of Delaware’s fortunes can be traced to its lax corporate laws that have allowed countless multinational corporations to take up official residence here, and to the du Pont family, who, fleeing the wrath of revolutionary France, set up a gunpowder mill that became the main supplier of conventional explosives to the US government. The family built huge mansions in the Brandywine Valley north of Wilmington, near the perfectly preserved old colonial capital, New Castle, on the Delaware Bay, five miles south of I-95. Further south, Dover, the capital, may not detain you long, but beyond it, the small and amiable resorts of Lewes and Rehoboth Beach mark the northern extent of over twenty miles of mostly unspoiled Atlantic beaches.Read More
The du Pont mansions
The du Pont mansions
The first of the du Pont mansions is accessible in Bellevue State Park, 800 Carr Rd (daily 8am–dusk; free). William du Pont Jr converted a Gothic Revival mansion into his own version of James Madison’s Neoclassical home and called it Bellevue Hall. You can’t get inside, but can visit the grounds and see the charming ponds, woodlands, gardens and tennis courts.
Twenty minutes northwest of Wilmington, members of the du Pont family built opulent homes in the rural Brandywine Valley. The Hagley Museum, off Hwy-141 just north of Wilmington (mid-March to Dec daily 9.30am–4.30pm; $11; w www.hagley.org), showcases their 1802 founding of a small water-powered gunpowder mill, which grew over the next century to include larger steam- and electricity-powered factories – most of which are still in working order. Be sure to tour the luxurious du Pont mansion, Eleutherian Mills, the centrepiece of the 235-acre estate.
The enormous, dusty-pink Nemours Mansion, just a mile away at 1600 Rockland Rd (tours Tues–Sat 9am, noon & 3pm, Sun noon & 3pm; $15; t 1-800/651-6912, w www.nemoursmansion.org), was built by Alfred du Pont in 1910 and named for the family’s ancestral home in France, and is surrounded by a three-hundred-acre, French-style garden. Inside the mansion, you’ll find plenty of lavish rooms including those devoted to fitness, bowling and ice-making, and a collection of early-twentieth-century automobiles. Two miles northwest, off Hwy-52, the one-time du Pont family estate of Winterthur (March–Nov Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; tours $18–40; w www.winterthur.org) now displays American decorative arts from 1640 to 1860, each of its 175 rooms showcasing styles ranging from a simple Shaker cottage to a beautiful three-storey elliptical staircase taken from a North Carolina plantation. Separately, the estate galleries present a selection of furniture, textiles, ceramics, paintings and glass in a museum setting.
Delaware’s original capital, NEW CASTLE, fronts the broad Delaware River, just six miles south of Wilmington via Hwy-141. Founded in the 1650s by the Dutch and taken over by the British in 1664, New Castle has managed to survive intact, its quiet cobbled streets and immaculate eighteenth-century brick houses shaded by ancient hardwood trees.
The heart of New Castle is the tree-filled town green that spreads east from the shops of Delaware Street, and dominated by the stalwart tower of the Immanuel Episcopal Church, on Harmony Street at The Strand, built in 1703 and bordered by tidy rows of eighteenth-century gravestones. On the west edge of the green, the Old Court House, 211 Delaware St (Wed–Sat 10am–3.30pm; free), was built in 1732 and served as the first state capitol until 1881. Its dainty cupola provided the vista from which surveyors determined the state’s arcing northern border, drawn up when Delaware seceded from Pennsylvania (and Great Britain) in 1776.