Truth be told I have been a Jersey Shore guy for years. Before my family moved to the Hamptons as a permanent residence, I spent most summers at the Jersey Shore. Recently, I received an invitation to spend four late spring days visiting Southern Delaware. All I knew about Delaware was that is was the second smallest state in the US, next to Rhode Island. I drove along the New Jersey Turnpike, over the Delaware Memorial Bridge and through Delaware on my way to Maryland, Washington DC, Virginia and points south.
The northern part of the state centers around Wilmington; the central part around the state capitol, Dover (I bet you didn’t know that). Southern Delaware, or Sussex County was a 4 1/2 hour trip on a quiet Sunday morning from my Manhattan garage to my hotel, Boardwalk Plaza in Rehoboth Beach. I am sure the Memorial Day to Labor Day traffic would increase that total greatly. The 84-room hotel is located on the boardwalk and was built in 1991 to look like a Victorian era hotel. I felt I had stepped into a bygone era. The resident parrots and a collection of antiques and period reproductions, as well as the gracious staff dressed in period garb and smiling greeted me. AAA granted the hotel 4 Diamonds and I can see why. Great service, a heavenly bed, bathrobes, large fluffy towels and more. My suite on the no children private concierge 4th floor (city ordinance does not allow heights over 6 stories) gave me access to the private rooftop sundeck and spa tub. There is also a small heated indoor-outdoor spa pool on the lobby level. Every evening the spa jets are turned on and the pool is adults only. I enjoyed a glass of wine from Delaware wineries Nassau Valley Vineyards and Fenwick Wine Cellars while relaxing at the spa pool.
The city’s origin as a seaside resort started in 1873 when the Rehoboth Beach Camp Meeting Association of the Methodist Church was founded to provide for summer religious gatherings. In the Bible in early Hebrew, Rehoboth means “broad places.” The US Natural Defense Council rated the beaches 5 Star for ocean water quality. The boardwalk is small but has miniature golf, arcades and Funland with its bumper cars, pinball machines and especially the Haunted Mansion attraction. Family-owned since 1962 there are 19 rides, with 13 for younger children. Delaware does not have a sales tax, which led to my visit to the three Tanger Oulet Malls on Route 1, just outside town. I had breakfast (they serve lunch & dinner also) in the Victoria’s Restaurant at the hotel. The three-tiered dining room allows a view of the Atlantic from every table, with outdoor dining on the boardwalk patio during the warmer weather. Another morning I stopped at the Bewitched & Bedazzled Bed & Breakfast for a snack & tour. The rooms are straight out of the TV show “Bewitched.” The adjacent home has their rooms named after glamorous movies featuring Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis. One lunch in town was at the Cultured Pearl restaurant celebrating 20 years at the beach. Specializing in traditional and fusion cuisine with a Sushi Bar and an assortment of 20 Sakes. There are indoor and outdoor decks where one dines surrounded by lush plants, waterfalls and koi ponds. This is a “must see and eat” restaurant in Rehoboth Beach and beyond. I had a pint at Dogfish Head Brewing and Eats on Rehoboth Avenue on my way out of town. I have to wait for a return visit to catch a performance at the Clear Space Theatre, located one block from the Atlantic Ocean; this 335-seat theatre has live theatre and musical entertainment.
Georgetown is located in the center of Sussex County, just 15 minutes from the beach areas and dinner was at the historic Brick Hotel On The Circle. The inn is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1836 this 14-room gem was completely renovated in 2008, including a vault private wine dining room and rooftop garden. We briefly toured the Sports at the Beach complex just outside Georgetown. It is a 9-acre complex with 13 professionally groomed baseball fields, used May through October. There are recreation areas, dormitories, a pool and concessions. Next door is “Screams at the Beach” featuring enclosed haunted components, walking trails, mazes and haunted hayrides. They are open for only 15 days around Halloween but opened just for our group. A must for all ages.
I did not take the Cape May-Lewes Ferry because it was still on a non-summer schedule which did not match my driving times but did spend several hours touring the terminal that is called “the second most haunted place in Delaware” (#1 is Pea Patch Island, part of Fort Delaware). There was a very interesting presentation by members of the Delmarva Historic Haunt volunteers. The Dutch first settled Lewes in 1631. The seaside town is situated by Cape Henlopen where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Delaware Bay. It is known as the First Town in the First State. We took a walking tour along the Lewes Maritime History Trail, a 4.3-mile route to 10 sites including Cannonball House (1760) known for being struck by British cannon fire during the War of 1812. It also serves as a maritime history museum, housing more than 375 years of nautical history.
Do you know who the greatest gangster in US history was? I guessed Al Capone or John Dillinger. When we toured the Seaford Museum, located in the restored 1930s post office building, I learned it was Patty Cannon. Who? In the early part of the 19th century her gang of 60 kidnapped slaves and free blacks from the Delmarva Peninsula and transported and sold them to plantation owners located further south. Cannon's daughter married Joe Johnson, who became her partner in crime. She died in prison in 1829 after a 30-year reign of terror. We next visited Johnson’s Crossroads where the Cannon gang’s headquarters was located. Johnson’s Tavern still stands as a reminder of this infamous time in Southern Delaware history. Also nearby is Governor William Ross mansion and plantation. Lunch was at Bon Appetit where co-owners Chino & Karen Pedemonte opened just for our group. This is one of western Sussex County’s premiere dining experiences. I thought nothing was free anymore. Outside of Seaford the historic Woodland Ferry has moved cars and people on a 5-minute ride across the Nanticoke River for more than 200 years and it is free.
On the way to dinner we stopped at Prince George's Chapel in the very small town of Dagsboro. When it was built in 1757 the Dagsboro area was still a part of Maryland. The chapel was named for Prince George, who later became King George III of England, and presided over the loss of the American colonies. The state of Delaware bought the property in 1967 and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. I drove back to the coast for an early seafood dinner at Catch 54 on Fenwick Island. We only had a few minutes to run through the nearby Discover Sea Shipwreck Museum. It contains one of the largest collections of shipwreck and recovered artifacts in the Mid-Atlantic. We arrived at Camp Barnes just before nightfall. Since 1947, thousands of children from all over Delaware have attended summer camp here. It is completely free for ages 10 to 13 and supervised by the Delaware State Police. We sat around the campfire at Camp Barnes and heard stories of “Mad Maggie,” the headless ghost of Camp Barnes lore. One of journalists on the trip took a photo of the campfire and showed us a silhouette of a young girl in the campfire. This was no illusion.