On a road you've been driving regularly since "Rocky 2," it can be a genuine thrill to come upon something new.
New, as in New Castle, Del., which is actually old -- 350 next year -- but had thus far escaped me (except for two decades of quarterly visits to the Dunkin' Donuts on U.S. 13/40 that's precisely halfway between here and my folks' place at the Jersey shore). Turns out New Castle not only has significant frontage on 21st-century America's interstate of choice (I-95, or the short, wide stretch of I-295 that connects I-95 with the Delaware Memorial Bridge for 35 million high-speed passersby each year) but also on one of the busiest interstates of 17th- and 18th-century America: the Delaware Bay.
For a child of New Jersey, birthplace of the thousand-foot turn lane, the spur-of-the-moment decision to exit at New Castle for a day or two, instead of the usual moment, was serendipitously rife with the kind of roadside perspective missing from the four official I-95 "rest areas" between here and New Jersey.
The layover was prompted by something genuinely new beside the road -- the Harley- Davidson dealership/theme park called Mike's Famous Roadside Rest, which opened in November where Route 9 crosses I-295 just this side of the bridge. On these six acres in the '50s, one of the first of 500 Howard Johnson's Motor Lodges in the United States and Canada put up its radioactive-orange roof and opened for business. Two years ago, Wilmington entrepreneur Mike Schwartz bought the then-abandoned property -- having already bought and turned around an aging local Harley dealership -- and, with the help of Harley Davidson Credit, built a small, $6 milion "brand land," a la Coca-Cola and Lego. (He was well aware that, in these five-figure Dow days, the average Harley owner is not a wiggy twentysomething tattoo freak but a 43-year-old college grad with a median income of $68,500.)
Pink Floyd's "Money," oddly enough, is playing on the outdoor speakers as I park around back, where the patio seating and neon accents provide some human-scale contrast to the towering Harley sign and architectural wheelies -- including the restored orange-peaked HoJo registration kiosk, now a carryout shop called 2Go -- that face the highway. A fortyish woman in a blue sweatshirt, one arm of which is empty and pinned up at mid-bicep, strolls past my door with her gray-haired, leather-jacketed guy. I like this place already.
Inside, the Museum of the American Road is indeed open. I breeze, my hand gripped tightly on the wallet in my coat, across the recycled hard-pine flooring of the brightly industrial showroom, where a young salesman whispers sweet specs to a couple admiring a 2000 FXST Softail ($17,500) as it spins slowly on a floor-mounted carousel, another couple prices full-length leather Harley jumpsuits, and two pigtailed girls watch their dad, in wire rims, cropped hair and jeans, do his tight-lipped best on the Harley-Davidson pinball machine.
The museum is four bucks for four rooms of semi-interactive, well-sorted road memorabilia, famous Harleys and a fab exhibit on Dave Barr, the paraplegic motorcycle adventurer. (Lest you think a theme is developing, Barr lost his legs not in the saddle but to a land mine in Angola, as if that makes him any less of a legend among the throngs who arrive here on two wheels and linger over the fliers for Daytona Week rallies and Memorial Day rides to the Vietnam Vets Memorial.)
The real find within, Mike's Warehouse Cafe, nestled between the showroom and the custom shop, is an intimate, 50-seat cross between a factory cafeteria and a '50s roadside diner. The food trays are heavy-duty baking pans that the kids (and certain, um, adults) can launch along the factory rollers at the short-order counter. There are trays of hot sauces and condiments at your table for burgers and pulled-pork barbecue sandwiches with O-rings (as in onion) on the side. The food is good. The help is kind to aging roadsters.
One excellent $6 sauted vegetable-and-bean wrap with thick unsalted potato chips later, I'm on my way out when I run into the Mike's Famous Chrome Classics CD display. I can feel my wallet death grip loosening.
The three miles south on Route 9 thus fly by ("Magic Carpet Ride," Steppenwolf), and my behind-the-wheel introduction to the cobblestone-shouldered, brick Georgian-Federal-Victorian streets of downtown New Castle is alternately exciting ("Funk #49," James Gang), disturbing ("Radar Love," Golden Earring) and euphoric ("Maggie May," Rod Stewart).
New Castle was founded in 1651 as Fort Casimir by the Dutch, who wrestled over it with the Swedes and eventually lost it to the British, who renamed it New Castle and gave it to William Penn, mostly so his troublesome Quakers would have a place to land on their way to Philadelphia. Nowadays downtown apparently belongs to the historic preservationists, it being amazingly intact and (unlike the rest of New Castle) barely commercial.
You must exit the car here, by the way. There's plenty of parking -- at least until spring's "A Day in Old New Castle," when many of the Colonial city's homes and (better yet) private gardens are open to the public and visitors take shuttle buses from the First Baptist Church, which is out near those vinyl-sided split-levels in subdivisions thoughtfully named for William Penn.
On foot, you'll also find several excellent antiques shops and restaurants and romantic B&Bs, including one -- the Armitage -- that sits at the foot of Delaware Street at The Strand, about where Penn actually first set foot on the continent, his hand no doubt tightly gripping a sizable land grant from the king. Until the Delaware Canal and later the railroad froze New Castle in time, many thousands of others disembarked here and entered the New World through New Castle's Packet Alley.
In the restored 17th-century Armitage (where Penn spent a night), the rooms now have cable TV and laptop-friendly phones (and there's a suite with a whirlpool). In the mists beyond bayfront Battery Park are the sillouettes of supertankers, distant refinery works, a huge black smokestack and the distant glint of semis on the twin suspension spans of the Delaware Memorial Bridge.
It's cold, it's all a bit strange and there are still frozen mounds of snow everywhere. Still, I'm wondering how this would look on a sunny spring day from the seat of a 2000 FXST Softail.
WAYS & MEANS
GETTING THERE: New Castle, Del., is about two hours from the Beltway. Take I-95 north to I-295. Take the last exit before the bridge onto Route 9 south and follow the signs.
BEING THERE: Both old and new New Castle invite tarrying and eschew sales tax. The latter has lots of nice 100-yard-wide intersections and plenty of free parking, and its thrills include Mike's Famous Roadside Rest (302-658-8800, www.mikesfamous.com); the way-beyond-produce, Friday-Sunday indoor Farmer's Market (302-328-4101, opposite the airport on U.S. 13); and the cramped, rewarding used-books and books-on-tape trading post Manor Books (302-322-5584). In old town, your tour ought to include at least the Court House, the Commons and the Old Library Museum, which are free and open year-round; check out the Amstel House, Old Dutch House and George Read House and Garden, all of which charge a small fee to take you further into New Castle history via the restored homes of its builders.
WHERE TO EAT: Pubby and good: Jessop's Tavern. Quaint, quick, vegetarian-friendly: Cellar Gourmet, opposite the court house. Appropriate and unique: Opera House Victorian Tea Room (weekends only).
WHERE TO STAY: Other romantic spots, besides the waterfront Armitage (302-328-6618), include the more out-of-the-way Victorian Gothic confection, Fox Lodge at Lesley Manor (302-328-0768), where the list of amenities goes on almost as long as the name does, and the David Finney Inn (302-322-6367), whose restaurant is also a popular spot for lunch and dinner. If you're looking to romance your savings account rather than your spouse, though, there's a fine new Hampton Inn (856-351-1700) just across the bridge in Pennsville, N.J. -- where the gas is also 10 cents a gallon cheaper and is never self-service.
DETAILS: New Castle Visitors Bureau, 1-800-758-1550, www.visitnewcastle.com.
Last spring, professional Escapist Donovan Kelly visited Indian Water Maple Co. in New Creek, W.Va., for us. Readers responded so well that two more sugar camps -- plus bluegrass bands, blacksmiths, crafters, quilters and, of course, professional buckwheat pancake makers -- have joined forces to create the New Creek-Claysville-Laureldale Maplefest 2000 March 18-19. It's three hours west on U.S. 50. Call 304-788-5482 for more information or to request that they shorten the festival name a bit next year.
THREE AT LAST!
Our final list of Top Three Escapes made its way to us via a strange and miraculous route from server to router and back (okay, okay: it was emailed), all the way from Oak Hill, Va. -- a place that reader Jane McKown Fuchs apparently leaves with some regularity to alleviate some mild cases of cabin fever. Her favorite cures:
1. Lost River State Park (Mathias, W.Va., 1-800-225-5982, www.lostriversp.com): Remote but accessible cabins in the woods. We took our boys when they were young and had a great time hiking and playing charades. No TV! In middle age, we went with friends, cranked up the boombox and had a rock-and-roll New Year's Eve.
2. Stratford Hall Plantation (Stratford, Va., 804-493-8038, www.stratfordhall.org): On Virginia's Northern Neck, a gorgeous house with delicious food and Southern hospitality. (It has a restaurant, and is the birthplace of Robert E. Lee.) Stay at Westmoreland State Park (more cozy cabins in the woods).
3. Antiquing along U.S. 11 in the Shenandoah Valley. Beautiful scenery and plenty of shops and B&Bs along the way.
Fuchs gets a copy of "Escape Plans," The Post's getaway guide, for having her list published. Starting next week, your chance to win valuable prizes (okay, okay: prizes) starts with the debut of Escapes Trivia.