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Better Living Through Mind-Boggling Wealth

Today in Wilmington, old plastic has given way to new--a credit card bank, MBNA, now dominates business and philanthropy. The du Ponts themselves long ago signed away family control of the chemical company. But they still rank highly in the standings of the wealthy (Fortune estimated in 1999 that the many descendants of Pierre S. du Pont were worth about $13 billion). And the du Ponts and their homes still command the attention of gossips, socialites and tourists from Delaware and beyond.

"They think of us as an aristocracy, but we're not," says Irenee, a half-billionaire who lives in a house the size of a sanitarium but proudly drove the same 1980 Chevette hatchback for almost 20 years. "We're people whose parents struck it rich by working very hard. All in all, we're a pretty regular bunch."

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ESCAPE KEYS

Wilmington is two hours north of the Beltway up I-95. Attractions include:

* Hagley and Eleutherian Mills (off Route 141, north on Route 100, Wilmington). The du Ponts' first gunpowder mill and first mansion, lovingly preserved. Info: 302-658-2400, www.hagley.org.

* Longwood Gardens (Route 1, Kennett Square, Pa.). Landscaping to rival Versailles. $12. Info: 610-388-1000, www.longwoodgardens.org.

* Nemours Mansion (1600 Rockland Rd., Wilmington). Where Alfred I. cloistered himself away from the rest of the du Ponts. $10. Reservations required. Info: 302-651-6912, www.kidshealth.org/nf/mansion.

* Winterthur Museum (Route 52 north of Wilmington). Henry Francis du Pont's country estate, now home to a stellar collection of American decorative art. $8. Info: 800-448-3883, www.winterthur.org.

* Hotel du Pont. Corporate elegance in downtown Wilmington. Rooms start at $179. Info: 800-441-9019, www.dupont.com/hotel/home.htm.

* Inn at Montchanin (Route 100, north of Wilmington). Where the other half lived, but not how. A hamlet that once housed du Pont mill workers is now an upscale country inn. Rooms start at $160. Info: 302-888-2133, www.montchanin.com.

For a comprehensive list of Brandywine Valley attractions, contact the Chester County Conference & Visitors Bureau at 800-228-9933, www.brandywinevalley.com.


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