Every year around this time, I get into a car with my husband and a couple friends and make the journey over hill and dale and White Marsh Shopping center to Longwood Gardens. The drive is a long one. But a day savoring A Longwood Christmas and the pleasures of conversation stimulated by thousands of naturally-inspired projects is very much worth it.
If you’re considering a pilgrimage of your own, I’d like to share ten day-tripping tips that have worked well for us over the last few years. If you’re not considering it, I hope I can change your mind.
1) Visit A Longwood Christmas on a Monday-Thursday.
For some, this may be impossible. For others, it just feels impossible. If you reside in the latter group, I urge you to throw caution to the wind and take a day off work. The crowds are considerably lessened, the beer garden lines are non-existent and in more remote areas, the gardens feel as if you might own them.
2) Share A Longwood Christmas with others.
Not everyone is a plant nerd, but the wonderful thing about A Longwood Christmas is that the sheer scope of holiday shock and awe appeals to everyone – and for different reasons. Last year we brought an enthusiastic friend and her somewhat less enthusiastic husband who now refer to it as one of those ‘great days’ that remain long in memory.
This year, I planned to go with a girlfriend while our husbands took a day off to track and hunt weigela-munching deer. When Michael suggested to his hunting buddy that they join us instead, the grumbling could be heard across the valley.
But Tom is a woodworker and engineer as well as a hunter. He is also a Pennsylvania native. Not only did he brighten car conversation with tidbits about Pennsylvania landmarks and industries we have ignorantly driven past on previous trips, he spent the day sizing up new projects from fantasy outdoor treehouses to the smoothly burnished surface of an oak pantry table in the Peirce-du Pont House.
He’d been to A Longwood Christmas twenty years before, but never realized there was much more than the conservatory to see.
Tom didn’t bag himself a deer that day, but I think I got me a convert.
3) Buy your tickets and/or membership to A Longwood Christmas online in advance.
Tickets to the gardens during A Longwood Christmas are timed (with one-hour arrival windows), and though you can buy tickets at the gate, there is always the small chance you could be out of luck and need to wait for the next window. Members don’t need timed tickets unless they are arriving after 2pm, which is yet another reason to become a member of this extraordinary garden.
4) Plan for an early afternoon arrival.
We usually leave our house around 9am and either find an early lunch in a restaurant en route or bring a picnic to eat in their parking lot or picnic grounds. This bit of planning (more or less depending on your pocketbook and inclination) ensures that we arrive at the gardens before one o’clock rested and with full bellies. We are then free to explore the grounds and conservatory for several hours before daylight wanes – which is just as important as exploring them after the waning.
5) Dress warmly in many layers.
You’d think I wouldn’t have to include this one, but alas, I caught my husband trying to sneak up there this year wearing a leather jacket and a baseball cap. The fact is, the warmer you are, the more you focus on the sights around you and in front of you. Also, the less you annoy those in your party. You will simply. See. More. Did you know there are fully decorated treehouses on the way to the meadow? You won’t if you’re cold and turn around at the lake.
6) Take advantage of all that is open during a Longwood Christmas.
Many people assume that A Longwood Christmas is all about the four-and-a-half-acre conservatory – and certainly, this is a huge highlight.
But if you neglect the many other elements of the garden you miss out on the full experience. Thankfully, Longwood provides an outstanding interactive online map that allows you to scope out not-to-be-missed features before you visit. From the Lookout Loft treehouse on the edge of the forest walk to the stone grotto hidden within the fountain pump house, there is so much more than you think – quite possibly more than you can believe.
7) Break up your visit to A Longwood Christmas with a restorative something.
Dusk usually finds us sharing a bite to eat and a glass of wine or craft beer in one of the many heated tents that Longwood erects during the season in their spacious beer garden. Even the most hardened holiday cynic will have a hard time denying the magic of staring out at emerging lights whilst sitting in the comfort of a warm, decorated tent munching bratwurst.
Each of the newly constructed wooden buildings that punctuate the network of tents offers something different – wood fired pizzas, sausage and sauerkraut sandwiches, tempting BBQ and humble burgers.
For more extensive fare, you can either visit the Terrace Restaurant just inside, or make your way to the upscale cafeteria where roast dinners or bowls of warming soup and chili are on the menu.
Take your time to walk around and see what’s on offer at each of the vendors lest you spend your dinner staring at the superior choices of your companions.
The food and beverages at Longwood tend to be on the expensive side, so while we treat this as what it is – an indulgence – we also think about the enormous amount of money it must take to create the jaw-dropping displays on the other side of the tent.
So have another beer, buy your designated driver a luxurious dessert and head back outside to enjoy an illuminated nightscape.
8) Retrace your footsteps when night falls
Trust me. To ‘enjoy the lights on the way out’ because it’s feeling a little late and you’ve got a drive ahead of you would be a colossal mistake. Instead, give yourself a strict hour and wander down past the lakes to the Italian Gardens and on towards the Hourglass Lake Pavilion.
From forests dripping snowflakes to treehouses lit with candles, the displays dazzle with creative genius and the skill needed to execute them. If you can spare a little more time, take in the conservatory one more time after dark – it is breathtaking.
9) Enjoy using the facilities at possibly the most pleasant public restrooms in America.
Public restrooms Marianne? Really?
Oh yes. The softly lit, 300×14 foot green wall passage that houses individual restrooms in the East Conservatory is the largest in North America. It’s home to over 47,000 plants. Only Longwood could make visiting a public restroom a destination for reasons other than urgency.
10) Consider becoming a member of this exceptional garden.
Membership at Longwood isn’t just about A Longwood Christmas – though it does make it easier to visit. It’s about tulips in spring and fireworks in summer and colors that set over one thousand acres on fire in the fall. It’s also about supporting the research, education and outreach that go on behind the scenes at Longwood every day of the week. Members also enjoy a 10% discount in the gift shop and café/beer garden, and are mailed a seasonal newsletter to remind them of those tulips and fireworks and color-soaked displays in the year ahead.
A Longwood Christmas is quite simply a magical experience – for plant enthusiasts, for grumbling spouses, for bundled-up children and even for woodworkers who thought they’d rather be hunting.
So go on – take a day and live the experience at this world-class garden and conservatory.
Fri/Sat/Sun and every day December 26-January 1st are peak days for A Longwood Christmas, and timed tickets via phone or online are required for entry. From January 2nd – 6th the crowds disperse but timed tickets are still required. Visit www.longwoodgardens.org for more information and pricing. Online map at https://longwoodgardens.org/maps/christmas.
A version of this article was originally printed in The Frederick News Post and is posted here with kind permission.