Philly Escapes: New Hope, the Brandywine Valley, and Winterthur

A look at three charming weekend escapes just outside Philadelphia

Because Philadelphia has become one of the great comeback cities of the Northeast, and it remains one of America’s gay-friendliest destinations, it’s worth thinking about some of the wonderful cultural attractions, charming towns, gay-friendly inns, and fine restaurants that lie within just an hour’s drive of Pennsylvania’s largest city. Greater Philadelphia is known for such verdant river towns as Chadds Ford and gay-popular New Hope (and its neighbor, Lambertville, N.J.), not to mention fantastic museums, mansions, and gardens, such as the du Pont legacies of Winterthur and Longwood Gardens. Here’s a look at three charming weekend escapes just outside Philadelphia.

New Hope and Lambertville
Straddling the Delaware River less than an hour northeast of Philadelphia and 90 minutes west of New York City, the twin towns of New Hope, Pa., and Lambertville, N.J., have long been popular gay getaways. Lambertville is smaller and has fewer attractions, but the dapper little village does have a handful of noteworthy galleries, boutiques, and cafes. Across the river, New Hope bustles with fine restaurants, some of them gay-owned, and is also home to the superb Bucks County Playhouse. It’s an excellent base for touring some of the alluring attractions in surrounding Bucks County.

History buffs should visit Washington Crossing Historic Park, where they can learn about General George Washington’s important attack on the British on Christmas night of 1776, an event that completely changed the momentum of the war in America’s favor. Just west of New Hope, Peddler’s Village is a 42-acre community containing more than 75 crafts shops and restaurants. It verges on kitschy but makes for a fun afternoon diversion.

Right in downtown New Hope, you’ll find a branch of the exceptional James A. Michener Art Museum, whose main campus is in the nearby community of Doylestown. The museum focuses on works by the many American Impressionist and Modern artists who lived and worked in the Delaware River Valley, and also has an extensive exhibit on noted woodworker George Nakashima. Excellent rotating exhibits are mounted at both branches of the museum.

Doylestown has a noteworthy historic district, comprising more than 1,200 buildings, including quite a few cafes and restaurants. The town’s most celebrated resident, an eccentric philanthropist named Henry Chapman Mercer, is responsible for two of the area’s most famous structures. He developed downtown’s Mercer Museum, a massive 1897 castle filled with tools, folk art, crafts, and machines that hark back to America’s 19th-century Industrial Revolution. Just outside of downtown, you can tour Mercer’s former home, Fonthill, a 13th-century-inspired mansion built in 1912 and filled with the elaborate Arts and Crafts tiles fired in the adjacent Moravian Pottery & Tile Works. Tours are available of both facilities.

The definitive gay accommodation in New Hope is the Raven Resort, a familiar presence since 1979. This is a full-scale gay retreat, complete with 10 handsomely outfitted rooms, a massive pool and sundeck (popular for Sunday tea dances), a piano cabaret and dance club, and one of the better restaurants in the area. Fans of Victoriana should consider the 1870 Wedgwood Inn, a gay-friendly B&B right in the center of town, within walking distance of retail and dining. There are eight rooms here, all with fireplaces and four with whirlpool tubs. The same owners run the nearby 1833 Umpleby House and 1873 Aaron Burr House bed-and-breakfasts.

The upscale Inn at Lambertville Station has become a favorite venue for gay weddings – its 45 spacious rooms, many with views of the Delaware River, are quite inviting whatever the occasion. Set high on a hill in nearby Stockton, N.J., the romantic and gay-popular Woolverton Inn sits on a 10-acre plot of gardens, meadows, and woodland. Rooms come in a variety of sizes and styles, but they’re all furnished beautifully and include such amenities as CD players and soft featherbed mattresses.

The Brandywine Valley and Main Line Suburbs
The posh “Main Line” suburbs west of Philadelphia enjoy a reputation for neatly manicured country estates and gentleman’s farms, not to mention bustling downtowns rife with terrific shopping and dining opportunities. The area is easily accessible from Philadelphia by SEPTA commuter rail or by car. A great reason for a visit here these days is the bounty of fine-arts attractions, with the star being the Barnes Foundation, in the town of Merion. Art collector Albert C. Barnes amassed a tremendous collection, specializing in French Post-impressionist and early Modern works, during the early to mid-20th century. He established this museum, which contains 181 works by Renoir, 69 by Cezanne, and 59 by Matisse, as well as countless works by Picasso, Degas, and Rousseau. You’ll also find quite a few paintings by gay Pennsylvania artist Charles Demuth, plus a considerable trove of fine antiques and collectibles. There are few private collections in the world of greater significance.

The region’s other art must-see is the Brandywine Museum, in the town of Chadds Ford, where generations of the Wyeth family – including N.C., Andrew, and Jamie – have earned international acclaim for their paintings and drawings. Inside this airy museum you can explore the works of the Wyeth family along with many of their contemporaries. While you’re out this way, be sure to pay a visit to Longwood Gardens, a 1,000-arce compound of gorgeously manicured gardens – there are photo ops at every turn, from the sparkling fountains and airy conservatories to beds of roses and rows of imaginatively trimmed topiaries. Longwood routinely hosts concerts and seasonal events.

One lesser-known area attraction that deserves far more attention than it receives is the Wharton Esherick Studio, the fascinating home and workspace of esteemed 20th-century wood-cut artist, furniture designer, and sculptor Wharton Esherick. His wonderfully peculiar home is a now a museum, set on a wooded hillside near Valley Forge National Historic Park. The place is filled with Esherick’s distinctive artwork and furnishings – this is a must for any fan of the Mid-Century Modern, Arts and Crafts, and Art Nouveau movements.

For accommodations, a good, centrally located, and contemporary option is the Crowne Plaza, which is just across the street from the vast shopping center, King of Prussia Mall. Right in Chadds Ford, the gay-friendly and exceptionally comfy Pennsbury Inn dates to 1714 and contains seven warmly furnished rooms.

Winterthur and Wilmington, Delaware
The Brandywine River continues south from Pennsylvania across the border into northern Delaware, where you’ll find still more regal mansions and noteworthy sites, including one of the nation’s truly great museum estates, Winterthur, formerly the home of eminent horticulturist and antiques collector, Henry Francis du Pont. The property comprises some 1,000 acres of beautifully kept grounds, including more than 60 acres of fragrant, colorful gardens. You can tour the 175-room mansion, glimpsing just a few of its 85,000 paintings, antiques, decorative items, and collectibles. The museum shop is one of the best you’ll ever find, and there’s also a nice cafe for lunching.

A nearby and related attraction of note is the Hagley Museum & Library, a 235-acre estate on the Brandywine River that was the site of the original du Pont gunpowder factory. It now contains restored mill-worker homes, the ancestral home of the du Pont family, and more lovely gardens. In downtown Wilmington, the Delaware Art Museum has earned justifiable acclaim for its outstanding collection, including works by gay painters Marsden Hartley and Thomas Eakins.

Downtown Wilmington has plenty of places to stay, mostly chain hotels, but there is one highly distinctive lodging: the prestigious and quite cushy Hotel du Pont, a magnificently restored grande dame that’s nearly a century old. Check out the spectacular art collection in the public areas. A meal in the hotel’s Green Room (consider the decadent brunch on Sundays) is an affair to remember. If you’re keen on a more scenic setting, opt for a room at the elegant Inn at Montchanin Village, a discerning historic compound comprising 11 buildings, just minutes from Winterthur. In fact, the 28-room property is named for the grandmother of the original du Pont mogul, Pierre. Many of the accommodations here have fireplaces, deep soaking tubs, and fine antiques – it’s quite an enjoyable place to spend the night after a day of touring the region’s many stunning mansions and gardens.