Make no mistake – I love traveling internationally. I love the challenge and excitement of learning about a different culture. I love trying (usually poorly) to communicate in a foreign language. I love navigating the unfamiliar. I love embarking on an airplane to travel somewhere, anywhere, far away. But sometimes it’s nice, and sometimes it’s necessary, to stay closer to home.
In addition to flexibility in pandemic times, here are some other advantages of a closer-to-home trip:
- Bring anything, and anyone, that fits in the car, including the dog or cat!
- If you can’t schedule a long trip, a short one still works – even a day trip.
- No jet lag or time zone adjustment
- No costly airport parking, TSA lines, or mechanical delays
- Given proximity and lower cost, frequent return trips are possible if you fall in love with the destination
Just like everyone else, my 2020 travel plans were derailed by COVID-19. This year’s scratched itineraries included a wine tasting trip to Napa Valley in April, a trip to London and the Cotswolds in June, and a trip to Lake Como and Tuscany (more wine!) in September. Instead, I have spent these months of COVID lockdowns and restrictions in a much more accessible location: Lewes, Delaware. We had planned to spend many summer weekends in Lewes this year, but when the virus began its assault on the New York area in March, like many second homeowners in the area, we grabbed our stuff and drove over the giant Delaware Memorial Bridge to our beach escape. Husband and I purchased a second home here two years ago with an eye toward eventually retiring in this tax-friendly state, that has the added advantage of being relatively close to jobs and kids in New Jersey.
Delaware is proud to be the first established state in the US, but remains one of the smallest with fewer than 1 million inhabitants and only covering about 2500 square miles – less than 2% of the size of California. Delaware’s largest city, Wilmington, has only 70,000 residents, and the entire state is still covered by one area code, 302. Our home is located in Sussex County, the southernmost of Delaware’s three counties and the only one with an Atlantic coastline.
Locals happily refer to the area as “Slower Lower Delaware”, or SLD for short. (You will see destination stickers using the letters LSD – cute- but SLD is the real deal). The Delaware Beaches, as they are more officially known, are within a 2 hour drive of the fast-paced, pressure-filled areas surrounding Washington DC, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, and less than 4 hours from NYC, but visitors here enjoy an entirely different tempo (at least in the offseason: October – April). Just to the south is Ocean City, Maryland, a bustling seaside city full of high rise resorts and an amusement-filled boardwalk. To the north, across the Delaware Bay, via a car ferry, is the southern tip of New Jersey and charming, Victorian Cape May.
Squarely situated on the heavily populated Eastern Seaboard, the Delaware Beaches seem magically distant, sparsely populated, and full of open space to enjoy. The flat, open land lends itself to the kind of beautiful sunsets I remember from growing up in the Midwest, and I think they are a highlight of the area. Here are just a few recent sunset snapshots:
The area is very popular with hundreds of thousands of summer visitors who flock to the area mainly to enjoy its 25 mile Atlantic Coast, along with beach towns, boardwalks, and the busy Rt. 1 strip with restaurants, outlet malls, mini golf, and a go-cart track. However, just a bit further inland are bays and inlets for boaters and fishermen, golf courses galore, walking and biking trails, serene ponds, cornfields, farmsteads, and dairy farms boasting fresh ice cream.
Area highlights include :
Rehoboth Beach is the vacation hub of the Delaware Beach area. In Downtown Rehoboth, visitors will find cute shops, culinarily sophisticated restaurants, lively bars, and a classic activity-filled boardwalk with kiddie rides, games, and beachy snack delights such as french fries, saltwater taffy, and of course ice cream. Dogfish Head Brewery, headquartered in nearby Milton, recently completed construction of a large restaurant and entertainment venue right on Rehoboth Ave, the town’s primary street. And best of all, the lifeguarded beach off the boardwalk is free!
Dewey Beach is located on a narrow strip of land between the ocean and Rehoboth Bay – you’re never more than 1/4 mile from a waterfront in Dewey. Dewey is known for attracting a younger crowd, and has a number of live music venues and clubs.
Heading south down Rt 1 from Dewey through a state park and over the scenic Indian River Inlet bridge brings the traveler to one of my favorite spots, Bethany Beach. Known as the “the quiet beach”, Bethany’s nickname says it all. The town boasts an adorable, small downtown with plenty of shopping and dining options, and a small boardwalk meant for strolling rather than partying. Sea Colony is a large resort complex just south of downtown featuring several pools, a tennis complex, and private beach access.
Lewes is the transit point for the ferry from Delaware to Cape May, New Jersey, but offers so much more. The “first town in the First State” was founded in the 1600s and served as a launching point for all things naval. It’s a bit less of a tourist destination than the other towns, all of which include an Atlantic coastline; Lewes’ beaches are on the Delaware Bay. The regional high school and hospital are located in Lewes, and in addition to being the northernmost point of “the Beaches”, the town offers a quaint, boating-oriented downtown evocative of Newport, RI or Kennebunkport, ME. In my opinion, it’s the hidden gem of the Delaware beach scene. (it’ also my new hometown, so I’m a little biased!)
Marking the entrance to the Delaware Bay, Cape Henlopen State Park is the environmental gem of the area. With 6 miles of bay and ocean shoreline, CHSP is accessible from both Lewes (on the bay side of the Cape) and Rehoboth (on the ocean side). Automobiles can enter the park for $10/day, but are unable to traverse through the park from Lewes to Rehoboth, presumably to prevent traffic from using the park as a bypass for busy Rt. 1. However, bicycles and pedestrians can access the entire park; a fantastic 16 mile loop takes the rider or walker from Lewes to Rehoboth and back across Gordon’s Pond and down the Junction Breakwater Trail. Bird and wildlife enthusiasts and those seeking solitude can enjoy the pine-edged trails, lighthouses, campgrounds, WWII watchtowers, surfing, fishing, and inland waterway access along with natural, unobstructed beach views.
Although the Delaware beaches offer plenty of activities, daytrips are possible to Philadelphia, Washington DC, Annapolis, Victorian Cape May (via ferry), or Maryland’s eastern shore (Chincoteague Island is a very popular day trip – or camp overnight for a better chance to see the fabled wild horses).
While there are some hotels and B & B’s in the area, the vast majority of lodging for travelers is found in private homes or condominiums rented out by their owners through local realtors or on VRBO, HomeAway, or AirBNB. This type of lodging contributes to the family-friendly nature of the Delaware beaches and keeps costs down, allowing groups or families to rent a multi-bedroom space with laundry and a kitchen for self-prepared meals.
This post would be remiss without mentioning the Delaware Beaches’ alternate moniker: the “Culinary Coast”. While Rt. 1 is full of standard restaurant chains, the towns are full of small, locally owned foodie-friendly restaurants. Cuisines range from prevalent coastal (think crab cakes, lobster, fish tacos, and soft-shell crab), to farm-to-table, to Mexican, steakhouses, pizza, barbecue, French, and Asian. There are also a number of locally established breweries, including well-known Dogfish Head, and even a couple of decent wineries. We’ve done our best to keep them all busy by ordering takeout during COVID. Here is an incomplete list of our favorites, with links and in no particular order:
- Agave, Lewes – upscale Mexican – try the guacamole sampler!
- La Fable, Rehoboth – French, cabaret-style
- Salt Air, Rehoboth – Organic, farm-to-table
- 1776 , Midway mall, Rehoboth, classic steakhouse
- Bethany Blues, Lewes and Bethany- family-friendly barbecue where the bar specializes in bourbon
- Striper Bites, Lewes – coastal specialty with a fun bar scene
- The Purple Parrot Grill , downtown Rehoboth – the food is good, but come here for the very lively bar/biergarten scene and particularly for karaoke on Friday and Saturdays
- Irish Eyes, Lewes – Irish/American dining on the Lewes waterfront, live music many evenings
- Rustic Acres Farm Market, Holland Glade Road, Rehoboth – barbecue, bakery, and fresh ice cream
- Touch of Italy, multiple locations including Lewes and Rehoboth, reasonably authentic Italian – OMG THE CHICKEN PARM!!!
- Chesapeake & Maine, downtown Rehoboth – seafood with live music almost every night, part of the Dogfish Head complex
- Matt’s Fish Camp , Lewes and Bethany – coastal / seafood
- Houston White, downtown Rehoboth, steakhouse
- Iron Hill Brewery, just outside Rehoboth – great for a large party, this small chain out of Philadelphia has a large tented patio and their own proprietary brews
- 2nd Street Tavern, Lewes – American (fried green tomatoes topped w/ crabmeat is my favorite), lively with live music or sports on TV and big open Victorian porch
- Revelation Brewery & DaNizza pizza truck, Rehoboth – like eating in your friend’s backyard (that cool friend who makes their own beer)
- La Tonalteca, on Rt 1 outside of Rehoboth – inexpensive but great Mexican, with several local restaurants, colorful seating, and great margaritas
Please note – just because a restaurant isn’t listed above, doesn’t mean it isn’t great! To survive the quiet offseason, you need to be GOOD. We just haven’t visited them all…..
If there’s a silver lining to all of the grief and stress caused by the COVID pandemic, it’s that my job has pivoted to primarily work-from-home. As a result, our relocation to Delaware is now on the fast track, and I’ll be spending a lot more time here. I guess I’ll just have to learn to love biking trails, parks, beaches, quaint towns, a slower pace, beautiful sunsets, and great food. And I’ll have to learn to tolerate all the Orioles and Phillies fans, instead of the NY ones I’ve gotten used to 🙂