Abandon all your prejudices about the US, says Victoria Summerley. The Brandywine Valley is determined to defy expectations

There's a certain breed of snobbish, opinionated Brit who thinks that America is all strip-malls and burger bars. They believe that all Americans are overweight, that they drive everywhere - probably from the living room to the bedroom, given half a chance - and that when an American shop assistant or a waiter flashes you a friendly smile and tells you to "have a nice day", they don't really mean it. Oh, and worst of all, they maintain, there is no "culture" in America, or at least not the sort that results from centuries of exploitative patronage and a rigid class system.

There's a certain breed of snobbish, opinionated Brit who thinks that America is all strip-malls and burger bars. They believe that all Americans are overweight, that they drive everywhere - probably from the living room to the bedroom, given half a chance - and that when an American shop assistant or a waiter flashes you a friendly smile and tells you to "have a nice day", they don't really mean it. Oh, and worst of all, they maintain, there is no "culture" in America, or at least not the sort that results from centuries of exploitative patronage and a rigid class system.

This breed of snobbish, opinionated Brit (let's abbreviate that to Sob) tends not to have visited the United States very much, if at all. They're probably too busy checking out the property prices in Puglia, or the Ariège, or whichever region of Italy or France has been deemed the New Tuscany or the New Dordogne. But if they were to take a trip across the Atlantic, they might find all their prejudices confounded in the Brandywine Valley in Pennsylvania.

There's enough history in Pennsylvania to satisfy even the most querulous Sob, from Philadelphia, birthplace of independent America, to Gettysburg, which marked the turning point of the Civil War. The Brandywine Valley itself, 35 miles from Philadelphia on the border with Delaware, is the site of the Battle of Brandywine, when Washington's army was defeated by British troops under the command of General Howe in 1777. But you get the strong impression that this isn't enough for the communities of Brandywine. They don't want to be fossilised, nor do they want to be swallowed up by shopping malls and suburbia. There's still a war of independence going on here, but this time the enemy is Wal-Mart and the prize is individuality.

The Brandywine River Museum at Chadds Ford was created as a direct result of this urge to conserve the natural beauty of the area and its cultural resources. It was the brainchild of the Brandywine Conservancy, set up in 1967 to preserve farmland at risk from industrial expansion, and it is housed in a former gristmill on the banks of the Brandywine itself. When it opened in 1971, it contained 20 works of art, but it now has nearly 3,000, of which a major portion are works by the American illustrator N C Wyeth and his son and grandson, Andrew and Jamie. I suppose a Sob might complain there are no classical columns or pediments here: it is the setting that has been given a starring role. The central circular grinding area has been converted into a spiral staircase, which leads out at each level on to a curving promenade that offers floor-to-ceiling views of the tree-lined river alongside.

There are trees and water of a different variety at Longwood Gardens, the former home of the industrialist Pierre du Pont. Longwood is part botanical garden, part park and 100 per cent theatrical exuberance. It's a bit like Kew or the big Royal Horticultural Society gardens such as Wisley in that there is something to see all the year round (four acres of heated greenhouses provide somewhere warm to wander in winter). But it's nothing like Kew or Wisley in the Terrace Café, which as well as a self-service section has a sit-down dining room that serves stunningly good food. (Seared Maine diver sea scallops with crispy prosciutto potato cake and chive beurre blanc. Kennett Square mushroom strudel with white truffle cream sauce. Chesapeake Bay crab cakes with spicy remoulade. You get the picture.)

And neither Kew nor Wisley have fountain displays choreographed by Colvin Randall, who initially trained as a horticulturalist at Longwood and is now their archivist. I can feel the Sob beginning to curl his or her lip at this point, but all I can say is, if you think you've seen fountains, you've never seen anything like the fountains at Longwood. They make the Emperor Fountain at Chatsworth look like a dripping tap. I saw the smaller fountains in the open-air theatre dancing to a Sousa march and broke into spontaneous applause. I fear the full display, with fireworks, might have proved altogether too exciting.

If you're marketing yourself as a "lifestyle" destination, you need foodie attractions as well as art galleries and museums. Brandywine has no fewer than 10 wineries, most of which offer tastings and sales and some of which have picnic facilities. There are also many microbreweries, two of which have their own restaurants.

As you travel around the area, you may see trucks piled high with mushrooms, for this is the mushroom capital of the United States. Cultivated mushroom production is said to have first started in the town of Kennett Square in 1896 by two florists who wanted to use the lower darker shelves of their greenhouse more productively.

Today, Brandywine produces not only button mushrooms but also portabella, shiitake and oyster mushrooms. There is a mushroom festival held in Kennett Square every September (you can sample all the microbrews at the same time at the Kennett Brewfest, held on the same weekend) and it's a rare local menu that doesn't feature a variation on Chester County Mushroom Soup.

Kennett Square itself is a good example of Brandywine initiative. During the past two years, the emphasis has been on encouraging owner-run businesses to open up on Main Street in a bid to combat the increasing use of cars and the spread of the malls. Around half the businesses on the tree-lined Main Street are new, boosted by custom that is lured into town by the farmers' market and the mix of independent retailers and restaurateurs.

Not all the newcomers have settled in Kennett Square. Simon Pearce, the Irish-born glass designer who now has a string of stores stretching from Kansas to New York City, opened in West Chester three years ago this month. Set on the Brandywine, it's very similar to his Vermont venture, with an on-site furnace where you can watch glassblowers at work, a retail store and an upscale restaurant, where the food and drink is served on Simon Pearce pottery and glass.

The food is modern American: roasted butternut squash bisque, lobster lasagne, bay scallop risotto. Sobs take note: having Simon Pearce move in to your area is a bit like Harvey Nicks moving into your city. Undeniable cachet.

Another newcomer is Noel McStay, who with his wife Jane moved from Long Island to take over the historic Fairville Inn in May this year. Like many b&b owners, Noel and Jane are retirees, but to see Noel in action, you'd think he'd been in the business all his life. Along with our suite, which featured acres of space, toile de Jouy wallpaper, an open fire, our own deck and a canopy bed, we were treated to a huge breakfast and Noel's line in friendly banter which succeeded in making us smile the minute we arrived after a two-hour drive through pouring rain.

If you like warm welcomes, good food and imaginative cultural enterprise, I'd get over to the Brandywine Valley right away. Before they declare it an Sob-free zone.

The Facts

Getting there

Victoria Summerley flew from London Heathrow to Philadelphia with British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com). In late November and early December return fares cost £252. You can also fly non-stop from Gatwick and Manchester to Philadelphia on US Airways (0800 783 5556; www.usairways.com) with return fares around the same price.

One week's fully inclusive car hire in Philadelphia starts from £139 with Holiday Autos (0870 400 0010; www.holidayautos.co.uk). Hire of a four-wheel drive vehicle such as a Chevrolet Blazer costs £269.

Being there

Fairville Inn (001 610 388 5900; www.fairvilleinn.com), 506 Kennett Pike, Chadds Ford, PA, offers double rooms from $162 (£108) and suites for $270 (£180) per night, including breakfast and tax.

Brandywine River Museum (001 610 388 2700; www.brandywinemuseum.org), Routes 1 and 100, Chadds Ford, PA. Open daily 9.30am-4.30pm, admission $6 (£4) for adults.

Longwood Gardens (001 610 388 1000; www.longwoodgardens.org), US Rte 1, PO Box 501, Kennett Square, PA. Phone for opening times, which vary. Admission until 4 January costs $15 (£10) for adults.

Simon Pearce (001 610 793 0949; www.simonpearce.com), 1333 Lenape Road, West Chester, PA.

Further information

Pennsylvania Tourism (020-8994 9848; www.ExperiencePA.com).

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