Destination: Lewes, Del.
Whenever I need a taste of Long Island, Cape Cod or Nantucket, but don’t have time to go the distance, I head to Lewes (pronounced “Loo-iss.” Repeat: Loo-iss), Del. Located six miles north of Rehoboth, and 15 miles from Ocean City, Lewes is set on the Delaware Bay, not on the Atlantic, which makes for a big contrast to its neighbors. There’s no boardwalk, just quiet streets along the boat-filled Lewes-Rehoboth Canal. No neon signs either, just painted wooden signs above old-fashioned clapboard and brown shingle buildings on streets that could easily double for those in a New England coastal town.
My Roland Park neighbors, Maggie and John Marra, had raved about it for years, and finally, four years ago, we drove up from Rehoboth one evening for dinner to see it for ourselves. “We picked Lewes,” says John, who has owned a house there for 18 years, “because it’s not on the ocean, so it doesn’t have the crowds.”
“It’s really the historic houses that got us,” adds his interior designer wife Maggie. Theirs dates to the mid-1700s, and the charm of “the first town in the first state” comes from so much history being preserved- almost 400 years worth.
The nearby point of land, now known as Cape Henlopen, was first discovered by Henry Hudson in August 1609. Some 22 years later, in 1631, 32 Dutch settlers decided the area was perfect for a whaling station, but they were later massacred by the Leni-Lanape Indians. Over the centuries, this Sussex, Del., town has been besieged by pirates (including Captain Kidd) and bombarded by a British frigate during the War of 1812, but it still carries on as a seafaring town. That, too, lends a New England feel.
History aside, what draws me to Lewes is its sheer beauty- both natural and man-made. Since our first trip four years ago, we usually head straight to the quaint heart of town. But on a recent trip we decided to explore the 5,000-acre Cape Henlopen State Park, a point of land that juts out between the Atlantic and Delaware Bay.
Having passed the 120-foot-tall cylindrical concrete towers dotting the Delaware shoreline for 30 years, we finally visit the only one open to the public at Cape Henlopen State Park. After climbing 115 steps, we look out over acres of beaches, dunes, pine forests (whose pine cones provide visiting teens a unique medium for writing their names below) and an expanse of shoreline that stretches to Rehoboth and Ocean City. Interest has increased in these towers where American soldiers watched for German U-boats, and fund-raising efforts are under way to restore them.
Back on the uncrowded beach, surrounded by grasses and dunes, I feel far away from any enemy threat and more as if I am walking the serene, protected beaches of the Hamptons or Cape Cod.
Unfortunately, we don’t make it to the overlook to see the “walking dunes,” where the wind-blown sand dunes are constantly moving (albeit slowly- four-tenths of a mile to the southwest every 150 years). These federally protected dunes are off-limits, but they are visible from a bike trail. The Great Dune, whose elevation ranges between 50 to 80 feet depending on the wind, is the highest sand dune between Cape Cod and Cape Hatteras. Next time, I’ll borrow a bike and go see these natural wonders. Trails (bikes and helmets are available free on a first-come first-serve basis) thread through the park, which also has a nature center with five aquariums and many children’s programs including reptile shows, kayak tours and a weekly dolphin watch.
Just outside the park, the Cape May-Lewes Ferry transports passengers and a maximum of 100 cars per trip (so reservations are needed) to New Jersey in about one hour and 10 minutes. Tempting for another day trip.
Although Lewes exudes history and Norman Rockwell charm, its museums, gardens and restaurants offer a cosmopolitan flair. On the way into town the Zwaanendael Museum is an eye-catcher. (It’s named for the ill-fated early Dutch whaling colony that means “valley of the swans.”) Featuring an ornamented gable with carved stonework, its Dutch architecture (an adaptation of the Stadhuis in Hoorn, The Netherlands) was my first clue to Lewes’ roots. Built in 1931 to celebrate the town’s first 300 years, the museum focuses on local history with exhibits about the first Dutch settlement, the 1812 British bombardment, the sunken H.M.S. DeBraak and the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse.
I like strolling the European-style public gardens behind it, by the Visitors’ Bureau, where a meticulously maintained, circa-1721 garden is full of perennials and herbs. The building itself, the Fisher-Martin House, built in 1730, was moved here in 1980 as part of the 350th anniversary cele- bration and carries on a long tradition of house-moving in Delaware.
As a docent explains, the tradition goes back to the original settlers. Because growing tobacco quickly depleted the soil, entire villages simply picked up and moved their houses to new, more fertile, fields.
Houses, more recently moved, fill two complexes today. On Second Street, the pleasantly shady Lewes Historical Society Complex showcases a mixture of architecture from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, including a one-room farmhouse with a sleeping loft, a Greek Revival doctor’s office, a blacksmith shop and a low-tech one-room country school with benches, desks and blackboards.
It’s hard to believe that the adjacent Shipcarpenter Square, where my friends the Marras live, is also comprised of moved houses- they look as if they’ve always been there. Some are shingle, some clapboard. All are restored, private homes dating from 1720 to 1880.
Too hungry to tour, we head past the historic St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and walled cemetery to Caf8E Azafr87n. Along with refreshing lime and raspberry Italian sodas, we devour frittatas, homemade bread, a field green salad with walnuts, gorgonzola and a saffron (‘azafr87n’ in Spanish) vinaigrette. A steady stream of locals comes in, picking up paninis to take to the beach, asking for chocolate chip cookies. I opt for a rich, dark chocolate pie instead.
Well-fortified, we head down the hill to my regular stop at The Union Jack gift shop, where I always run into owner and former Baltimorean Susan Marbury. There, we stock up on Bronnley’s lemon soaps from England, as well as British Railway postcards before browsing the upscale American crafts in the adjoining Stepping Stone Gallery.
To see what’s new in the best selection of regional books at the beaches, I head to Books by the Bay in its new, spacious location on Bank Street where there’s a fireplace and a new full-service caf8E that serves breakfast and lunch.
Like the town’s restaurants, many shops line their walls with reasonably priced, Lewes-themed paintings by area artists. Strong support for the arts is one of the town’s marks of distinction. More than a dozen fine art, photography and craft galleries are open, as well as three museums. In addition to the Zwaanendael, there’s the lightship Overfalls on the canal. Built in 1938 as a floating lighthouse, this last remaining lightship on the East Coast is now a maritime museum. Down the street, the cypress-shingled Cannonball House Marine Museum features nautical exhibits and, in its basement wall, a replica of a cannonball from the War of 1812.
A variety of walking tours, sponsored by the historical society, incorporate many of these sites. There’s a seafaring tour and a cemetery tour, complete with ghost stories. We try to take the Colonial and Victorian architecture tour that begins at the dignified, shingled Ryves Holt House, the oldest house in Delaware, that dates to 1665 and in this location since 1685, but our docent never arrives. Instead, we watch a video on the history of Lewes and explore the narrow stairs and rooms of what was once a Colonial inn. Then we meander down the street to the more formal Burton-Ingram House full of early Lewes furniture and portraits.
At dinnertime, we make our way to Gilligan’s, housed in a part-ship, part-beach house waterfront jumble near the Inn at Canal Square. A strong storm comes up, so we move inside and sit next to a couple from Pittsburgh. “These are the best crab cakes I’ve ever eaten,” says the wife, who turns out to have grown up in Roland Park. It’s a recommendation I had heard earlier in the day from two of the town’s more than 100 docents who work in the many historic houses, churches and museums.
Except for the restaurants, most of Lewes closes down at 5 or 6, with only a few shops open later. Thankfully, King’s Ice Cream Parlor, in town for 20 years, is one of them. No beach day for me is complete without ice cream, and tonight I pick coffee ice cream from the shop’s popular homemade selections. We sit outside on the wide wooden benches under the awning, listening to rain drip from trees, look down the quaint main street and marvel at the quiet, uncrowded town in this corner of Delaware well-named: “Slower, Lower.” n
Lewes Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau
120 King’s Highway
P.O. Box 1
Lewes, Del. 19958
The nicest hotel is The Inn at Canal Square (122 Market St., 888-644-1911, http://www.theinnatcanalsquare.com) in the historic district with waterfront views. In the heart of town, try the newly reopened but historic Zwaanendael Inn with its Swan’s Nest Caf8E (142 Second St., 800-824-8754,www.zwaanendaelinn.com) or the Victorian John Penrose Virden House (217 Second St., 302-644-0217, http://www.virdenhouse.com), where guests eat breakfast on the porch. Within walking distance to the canal and beach is the romantic bed and breakfast Inn by the Bay (205 E. Savannah Road, 866-833-2565, http://www.AnInnbytheBay.com). For stays of a week or more, rent a house with in-season prices (much cheaper than at the ocean resorts) ranging from $950 to $5,000 per week, and off-season for about $1,000 per month! Try Coldwell Banker, Rehoboth Resort Realty (800-800-4129); Jack Lingo Inc. (800-331-4231); or Prudential Gallo Realtors (800-321-2268).
There’s plenty of great food in Lewes. Reservations are necessary, and many places offer to-go orders. The most elegant dining is at The Buttery (102 Second St., 302-645-7755), with its classic cuisine, Sunday brunch and famous blue cheese salad in a transformed, multi-colored Victorian house with equally colorful gardens; the yellow-awninged Second Street Grille (115 Second St., 302-644-4121) offers a changing, contemporary menu with seafood and steaks. La Rosa Negra is the place for upscale Italian food with white tablecloths, in a new, larger location (1201 Savannah Road, 302-645-1980). For great food in more casual settings, try Gilligan’s (134 Market St., 302-644-7230) overlooking the canal; Rose & Crown Restaurant & Pub (108 Second St., 302-645-2373) for English fish and chips; or Striper Bites Bistro (107 Savannah Road, 302-645-4657) for great crab cakes and live music. Mediterranean Caf8E Azafr87n (109 Market St., 302-644-4446) is a good bet for espresso, pastries or sandwiches and soups.
On the road to the ferry are Josephine Keir Ltd. (998 Kings Highway, 302-645-9047), with an extraordinary Oriental and fine carpet collection, and Circa Home at Charles Haldeman Florals (1002 Kings Highway, 302-644-8979) for antiques and home accessories, plus silk and natural flower arrangements.
In town, look at what local artists are doing at The Cape Artists (110 Third St., 302-644-7733). Quality kids clothes and toys can be found at Kids’ Ketch (132 Second St., 302-645-8448) and for kids of all ages, Puzzles (111 Second St., 302-645-8013) offers everything from mazes to jigsaws to 3-D puzzles. The Union Jack (107 W. Market St., 302-645-1254) has British imports, while nearby [continued on page 176] Books by the Bay (111 Bank St., 302-645-2304) has outstanding regional books and a new caf8E. Second Street is an emporium of women’s clothing: Find cosmopolitan hats, bags, dressy clothes at The Figurehead (125 Second St., 302-644-2129), upscale sportswear at Twila Farrell (122 Second St., 302-645-7007) and Lily Pulitzer at The Jetty (123 Second St., 302-645-4606).
Lewes Yacht Club Sailing School is recommended for kids, even non-members (302-645-8596). For fishing, dolphin and whale watching and charter boats, go to Anglers Fishing Center (213 Anglers Road, 302-644-4533) or Fisherman’s Wharf Fishing & Cruising (at the drawbridge, 302-645-8862). You can rent kayaks and also go for tours with Quest Fitness & Kayak (17252 Savannah Road, 302-644-7020). For ghost, cemetery and historic house tours, head to the Lewes Historical Society Complex (110 Shipcarpenter St., 302-645-7670). And for wine tastings, drive to nearby Nassau Valley Vineyard (32165 Winery Way, off
Route 9, 302-645-9463).