As royal-watchers worldwide focus on Friday’s wedding of Britain’s Prince William, the town of Lewes, Del., prepares to mark another regal occasion: Saturday’s official birthday of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. The annual celebration is a chance for the town to highlight a Dutch connection that goes back 380 years.
Although Lewes is named after a town in England, its beginnings are Dutch. A ship from the Dutch West India Co. landed in the area in 1631 to set up a whaling station called Swanendael, or Valley of the Swans. A dispute with local Native Americans soon led to the slaying of the 28 Dutchmen. A second group arrived in 1632, but the whaling station was not a success and lasted only three years.
More settlers came in the 1650s and they began to harvest timber to send back to Amsterdam for shipbuilding. It wasn’t long before the British took control of the area, but the Dutch never left. The two groups intermarried, and by the 20th century, very few Dutch families remained.
In 1931, town officials decided to mark the 300th birthday of the landing by building a museum. The Zwaanendael Museum, a striking brick and carved stone building, was designed after the city hall in the Dutch town of Hoorn, home to the area’s first settlers. No artifacts exist from the original settlement, but the museum features a few pieces of Dutch ceramics, clothing and wooden shoes mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries.
One unusual item is a 17th-century wooden koekplank, a cookie mold with indentations onto which the dough would be pressed to create a pattern before baking. The museum also explains the area’s maritime history, including the sinking of the British warship HMS deBraak in Delaware Bay during a storm in 1798.
As you leave the building, you can’t help noticing the large portraits of the Dutch queens Wilhelmina, Juliana and Beatrix. “What’s interesting is that it’s been three generations of queens,” said Elizabeth Gott, lead interpreter at the museum. “Beatrix’s son [Willem-Alexander] will be the first king they’ve had in three generations. He has daughters, so after that it will be back to a queen.”
Koninginnedag, or Queen’s Day, goes back to the childhood of Wilhelmina, who became the country’s first female monarch in 1898. The tradition continued with Juliana, who reigned from 1948 until 1980. The national holiday in the Netherlands now includes outdoor concerts, flea markets, food and drink. More than a million people will gather Saturday in Amsterdam to honor Beatrix, who turned 73 in January (but opts to celebrate during a month that’s nice for street parties).
In Lewes, it’s a decidedly smaller celebration. On Saturday, museum docents clad in orange — the queen’s family is the House of Oranje-Nassau — will lead a day of Dutch-related children’s games and crafts, offer samples of orange sherbet and give a Dutch royal history lesson.
In addition to the museum and the abundant displays of tulips in the spring, Lewes has a few other Dutch connections worth exploring. Part of the Ryves Holt House, one block from the center of town, dates to 1665 and is the oldest house in Delaware. It now serves as the headquarters of the Lewes Historical Society.
The nearby Hiram Rodney Burton House, also owned by the historical society, was built at least in part by Dutch descendant Helmanus Wiltbank in the late 17th century. It stayed in the family until 1809. The Holt House can be visited year-round, but the Burton House and several other historic buildings on the same property are open only during summer months.
Although Dutch cuisine isn’t among the offerings, the tiny downtown features two culinary staples in the Netherlands: seafood and coffee. Jerry’s Seafood, which specializes in an oversize crab cake called a bomb, offers fish and chips, shrimp scampi and other traditional seafood choices. Striper Bites has a more casual atmosphere with equally good seafood.
The coffee lover who knows his Ethiopian Yirgacheffe from his Mexican Cesmanch must stop at Notting Hill Coffee Roastery. The coffee comes by the bag or by the cup, and when accompanied by a blueberry muffin/turnover hybrid is a giant step up from your chain-store morning mug.
Other dining options include Kindle, a cozy new earth-toned restaurant with a modern American menu; the French-inspired Buttery; and a popular new Mexican restaurant, Agave.
Save room for a scoop or two at King’s Ice Cream, a fixture in town for 30 years. If you miss the orange sherbet at the Zwaanendael Museum, King’s has it along with a decadent Dutch chocolate, creamy coffee and a knockout black raspberry. After a day of feting a faraway queen, a visit to Lewes wouldn’t be complete without culinary homage to the local King.
142 Second St.
A renovated 1926 boutique hotel on Lewes’s main street. Modern amenities amid art deco decor. From $90 through May 26.
122 Market St.
Spacious rooms in the heart of town. Breakfast included. From $195 through May 26.
108 Second St.
Dinner entrees from $19.
111 Bank St.
Dinner entrees from $18.
124 Second St.
Coffees, pastries, waffles and sandwiches. Sandwiches from $4.
201 Second St.
Scoops from $3.
102 Kings Hwy.
Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Sunday, 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Free. Queen’s Day is Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
110 Shipcarpenter St.
Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday, 11 a.m to 1 p.m.