1. CAPE COD, Massachusetts
This 160-mile (257-kilometer) circuit around Massachusetts’ vintage Cape Cod serves up miles of beaches and the quiet villages along the bay side, the beautifully desolate dunelands of the outer Cape’s national seashore, lively Provincetown, and the busy resorts that face Nantucket Sound.
Cross the Sagamore Bridge from the mainland to Cape Cod. The first town will be Sagamore, where the Pairpoint Glass Company carries on the local tradition of hand blowing lead crystal into functional and decorative items.
Proceed east from Sagamore to Sandwich, the oldest town on the Cape. Settled by Puritans in 1637, this town flourished in the 19th century as a glass-making center. The Sandwich Glass Museum preserves much of the best works from all different eras. Across Sandwich’s tree-shaded village center stands the beautifully preserved Hoxie House, which dates from the 1600s and may very well be the Cape’s oldest saltbox house. Also dating from the 17th century, the adjacent water-powered Dexter Grist Mill still turns out delicious stone-ground (organic) cornmeal. On nearby Shawme Pond, the Thornton W. Burgess Museum honors the Sandwich native who wrote The Adventures of Peter Cottontail and other classic animal stories for children. Set on the manicured grounds of a former estate just outside town, the Heritage Museums and Gardens of Sandwich showcase all kinds of reconstructed historic buildings.
Proceed east from Sandwich along Sandy Neck Beach (off Sandy Neck Road), a splendid barrier beach of low dunes; a 6.2-mile trail leads to the Sandy Neck Light. Back on Mass. Route 6A is Barnstable, settled in 1639 and for years thriving on fish caught in the Great Banks. In the 1800s, scores of sea captains lived in town; many of their houses still stand. Continue to the Yarmouth Port, part of greater Yarmouth. Longtime resident Mary Thacher bequeathed her collection of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century furniture, along with the circa 1780 Winslow Crocker House, to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. Nearby, the oriental treasures carried home by its sea-captain owner fill the 1840 Greek Revival Captain Bangs Hallet House.
From Yarmouth stay on Mass. Route 6A through Dennis and Brewster, which boasts more 19th-century homes of sea captains. Also here: the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, with exhibits on Cape ecosystems. Continue on to Cape Cod’s most expansive inland preserve, Nickerson State Park, encompassing nearly 2,000 acres of rolling pine forest dotted with freshwater ponds. Options include hiking, fishing, swimming, bike riding; a trail connects to the 22-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail.
Proceed through Orleans, which is edged by some of the Cape’s best beaches, including Skaket (on the calm bay side)and Nauset (on the ocean side), where bracing Atlantic waters offer excellent surf casting. From here the drive enters scrubby pitch pine and oak forest and a world of lonely beaches, sea cliffs, and dunes. A good portion of this landscape has been preserved as the 44,600-acre Cape Cod National Seashore, with a visitor center at Salt Pond in Eastham. Trails and board walks lace 1,100 acres of pine woods, marshes, and tidal creeks at the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. Just ahead, an outdoor exhibit at the Marconi Station Site commemorates the clifftop spot where radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the first message across the Atlantic in 1903.
Stay on Route 6 through the quiet town of Truro, then bear left onto Route 6A, the scenic bayside approach to the popular summer resort town of Provincetown. A picturesque jumble of narrow streets, this colonial seaport possesses elements of a Portuguese fishing village. The Pilgrims landed here in 1620 before settling on their final destination of Plymouth. The stop is commemorated by the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, a 252-foot Italian Renaissance granite tower erected in 1910. The spectacular 360-degree view at the top encompasses the Cape’s variegated landscapes and the sea beyond. For local history, stop in Provincetown Heritage Museum; there is even a half-scale model of a Grand Banks fishing schooner. Perhaps the most dramatically beautiful portion of the national seashore can be found at nearby Province Lands. A short climb to the observation deck provides majestic views of dune, village, and sea. Take hiking trails that meander through the dunes, or bike a five-mile loop.
Leaving Provincetown, the drive follows U.S. 6 toward Orleans. From the traffic circle there take Mass. 6A and Mass. 28 north (though the road actually goes south) to Chatham, at the Cape’s outer elbow. Smaller and more sedate than Provincetown, Chatham nevertheless offers splendid sea views from the overlook at Chatham Light. Tucked among the 18th- and 19th-century houses of its leafy residential neighborhood is pleasant Chase Park, where you’ll find a 1797 gristmill and the historical society’s 1752 Atwood House Museum.
2. HALLOWED GROUND, Virginia and Pennsylvania
Imagine driving through history, moving effortlessly from the American Revolution to the middle of the Civil War. Toss in mountain vistas, authentic food and architecture, as well as lots of horses—and you have the 175-mile (282-kilometer) route called the Journey Through Hallowed Ground. The name was coined by preservationists to champion a prime stretch of American geography threatened by the sprawl emanating from our nation’s capital. The route starts in Charlottesville, Virginia, and heads generally northeast through Maryland and on to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, site of the greatest battle of the Civil War.
Just southeast of Charlottesville sits stately Monticello, the private home of Thomas Jefferson. He designed the iconic country mansion, which and his inventions — including the wheel cipher, an early encryption device — are on display here. Monticello’s extensive gardens, now in cultivation again, once grew imported wine grapes and 330 types of vegetables. Much of the surrounding Piedmont region, which embodied Jefferson’s 18th-century agrarian dream, is little changed since his residence here
A short drive southwest from Monticello stands a more modest farmhouse in a pastoral setting, Ash Lawn-Highland (1000 James Monroe Pkwy), built by James Monroe before he became the fifth U.S. president and moved to grander digs.
Jog north on Route 20 to Barboursville, whose eponymous vineyards and winery specialize in homegrown European varietals. Nearby stand the ruins of the James Barbour Mansion, built for the early 19th-century governor of Virginia and future secretary of war. Just north of Barboursville, near Orange, rises grand Montpelier (11407 Constitution Hwy.), the 2,750-acre estate of Jefferson’s pal James Madison, the fourth president of the United States and architect of the U.S. Constitution. A careful renovation offers a rare glimpse of 18th-century construction techniques as well as a trove of discoveries.
Now the route moves ahead to the 19th century, from the era of the Founding Fathers to that of the Civil War. The Civil War is still a big deal in Virginia. “We kicked theirs at Bull Run,” a reference to the first Battle of Manassas, which took place on July 21, 1861, at what is now the Manassas National Battlefield Park. Here, Union and Confederate armies first clashed and the Rebs prevailed.
The town of Middleburg, to the northwest of Manassas, is ground zero of American fox-hunting.
Now detour west of Middleburg to pass through the field where the dashing Rebel general J.E.B. Stuart, covering Gen. Robert E. Lee’s march north to Gettysburg, engaged Union General David Gregg.
Retrace your route back past Middleburg, then head north, across the Potomac River at Point of Rocks, into Maryland. As the land rises toward the verdant Catoctin Mountain Park (a 50-mile-long ridge), the north-south dialectic becomes less obvious. In Frederick, see numerous 18th- and 19th-century buildings in the town historic district, home to the unique National Museum of Civil War Medicine. Its exhibits of battlefield triage—with reenacted sounds—give a sobering taste of the horrors of war.
Proceed north of the Mason-Dixon Line toward Gettysburg, site of the conflict that turned the tide of the Civil War. Take the first Gettysburg exit on Route 15, now called the Blue and Gray Highway, and watch for stone walls crisscrossing Gettysburg National Military Park (97 Taneytown Rd.). Stop at the Visitor Center at 1195 Baltimore Pike (Rte. 97) to study the electronic map that explains in detail this complicated three-day engagement. Pause at the cemetery that is the last resting place for some of the 51,000 soldiers who fell in battle. Take in a landscape preserved in much of its original character and peppered with monuments put up by the various states who sent fighters.
Optimal seasons for this drive are late spring (April–May) and early fall (Sept.–Oct.). Summers tend toward hot, humid, and crowded; winters can be cold and snowy. For more on the historic route, see www.hallowedground.org.
3. BRANDYWINE VALLEY, Pennsylvania and Delaware
The 12-mile (19-kilometer) stretch of the Brandywine Valley from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, southeast to Wilmington, Delaware, may seem brief, but it takes a few days to truly enjoy. A road trip through the Brandywine Valley offers a taste of American aristocracy. In the former country mansions of the ultrarich, travelers glimpse the early 20th-century extravagant lifestyle of a fascinating New World royalty. The du Ponts, one of the wealthiest American families, built estates graced by lovely gardens and filled with world-class art. E. I. du Pont, the first family member to leave France, came to America in 1800 and planted miniature fruit trees and other plants on a bluff overlooking the Brandywine River. His industrial innovations in making gunpowder resulted in a patent and a very prosperous business. Succeeding generations inherited his business and gardening genes, expanding into plastics and consumer products and creating extraordinary botanical collections.
Start at Longwood Gardens, about three miles (five kilometers) northeast of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Pierre du Pont, who reshaped the family company for the 20th century, found spare time to personally design Longwood Gardens – fountains, forest rambles and walks in Italianate gardens. The conservatory, with 4.5 acres (1.8 hectares) under glass, nurtures 5,500 kinds of plants.
Leaving Longwood, head for U.S. Rte. 52/Kennett Pike, the National Scenic Byway that meanders through the heart of the Brandywine Valley, providing glimpses of country estates hidden in the trees. After 7 miles (11 kilometers), turn left on Kirk Road. Check in at the big gray barn at the Inn at Montchanin Village. Eleven structures, some stucco-and-frame, were built between 1799 and 1910; they once housed workers of the DuPont Black Powder Mills.
Learn all about where the du Pont story began at the stately Hagley Museum, less than a mile away from Montchanin. Take Rte. 100 south and turn left on Rte. 141 to the spot where E. I. du Pont built his gunpowder mill. After seeing DuPont innovations from nylon stockings to NASCAR race cars in the museum, you may wander on your own or tour in a bus with a guide to see the small stone buildings of this early American industry. Eleutherian Mills, the first du Pont home in America, sits on the cliff above the powder works. The three-story Georgian home reflects family life through memorabilia of five generations of du Ponts.
Back on Rte. 141, take a 3-mile jaunt to the new visitors center for Nemours Mansion & Gardens. Alfred I. du Pont, the great-grandson of E. I., built the 70-plus room Nemours in 1910. The Louis XVI style of architecture and Versailles-like gardens emphasize the family’s French roots.
Head north on Rte. 52 to the nearby Winterthur —the country estate so big that it has its own post office address (Winterthur, Del.). It takes a full day to take in the wonders of this 982-acre family residence that Henry du Pont turned into a museum.
Continue on to the Brandywine River Museum on U.S. 1 in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. The museum sits in the midst of the Brandywine Conservancy, straight north on Rte. 100, just ten minutes from Montchanin. The museum occupies three floors in a 19th-century brick gristmill. The collection of American art features works of the Wyeths, who lived and painted in homes and studios nearby.
To stave off the pressure of development, Lammot du Pont Copeland and his wife created a hilltop island of nature that surrounds their former home. You can get to Mt. Cuba Center via a tangle of country roads that wind through woods, but it might be best to take the easy way and go south to Rte. 141, then northwest to 3120 Barley Mill Road. Knowledgeable guides introduce guests to Mt. Cuba’s woodsy preserve by reservation only. From Mt. Cuba, leave Barley Mill Road and pick up Rte. 141, jog north to Rte. 52, and then head southeast into Wilmington. In this pleasant small city, the largest city in Delaware and home of the DuPont company, stroll along the riverfront.
The views of the Brandywine Valley can be picturesque year-round, though the gardens at Longwood and Winterthur are at their best in the warmer months.