Cruise Route 1 past the seemingly endless outlet malls, and it can be hard to remember that Delaware, aside from its original inhabitants, was first cruised, by the Spanish and Portuguese, in the 16th century. And that the first European settlement in the state was on the site of modern-day Lewes in 1631, only a decade after the landing at Plymouth Rock. (Unfortunately, the Dutch town of Zwaanendael, like the colony at Roanoke, was eradicated shortly thereafter; and as with Virginia Dare, who was said to have survived and been adopted by the Indians, legends persist of two brothers who escaped into the forest.)
Still, Lewes can fairly claim to be "the first town in the First State." Zwaanendael means "valley of the swans," and you may still see the elegant birds that gave Lewes its original name sailing down the Lewes and Rehoboth Canal. You can even see what the town looked like, if not in the early 17th century, at least the late 17th and early 18th, by picking up the walking tour map from the Visitors Bureau (302/645-8073) at 120 Kings Hwy., itself a 1730s survivor called the Fisher-Martin cottage. The Historic Complex is just what it sounds like, a mini-warren of preserved homes and businesses at Third and Park streets (302/645-7670). The CannonballHouse Marine Museum, at 118 Front St., is also pretty much what it sounds like -- a 1790s home shelled during the War of 1812. And there are similar artifacts and photos at the Zwaanendael Museum (SavannahRoad and Kings Highway; 302/645-1148).
Naja Minns, 9, and Samorrow Palmer, 12, of Parsonburg, Md., look for teasures at water's edge; the Cape May-Lewes Ferry floats peacefully in the distance.
(Photo by Art Baltrotsky)
BEYOND THE BEACH
Lewes is not actually so much a beach resort as the "bedroom community" for Cape Henlopen State Park five minutes away: It offers four miles of nearly unspoiled sands, both ocean-side bathing (a little rough, but good for surfing) and Delaware Bay floating (calmer and better for small children). It also has a bird sanctuary, nature center, sports facilities and so on. Captain Kidd is rumored to have buried a treasure chest of gold in the Henlopen dunes in 1700, but metal detectors, though allowed around the swimming beaches in the evenings after the life guards go off duty, are prohibited on the dunes -- as is climbing, sliding or anything else.
Lewes itself is quite small and tidy -- you are almost certain to see residents weeding gardens or sweeping porches as you walk about -- and the blocks along Second Street and Savannah Road are full of neat antiques shops, boutiques, cafes and restaurants. From the wharf on the canal, you can take whale- or dolphin-watching cruises as well as charter fishing boats.
As at the other quiet resorts, sunset-watching is most people's idea of nightlife, and there are lounges and decks scattered all over for the purpose. Just about the only lively scene is at Irish Eyes at Anglers (213 Anglers Rd.; 302/645-6888), which hosts karaoke nights on Fridays and brings in live music (mostly acoustic) on Saturdays.
The most popular day trip out of Lewes is to Cape May, N.J., via the ferry, which docks off Kings Highway just north of town. Cape May is famous for its wealth of Victorian hotels, homes and B&Bs, and it offers a convincing vision of what the Atlantic resorts were like in a more innocent time: long front porches, flower gardens, family-style dinner tables. (On the other hand, the ferry is also the conduit to Atlantic City and the casinos there.) It's also popular with lighthouse addicts, who climb the 218 steps to get a panoramic view (and guided tour, from an actor portraying one of the early lighthouse keepers) of the 1857 tower at Cape May Point (609/884-7277).
The ferry service between Lewes and Cape May, N.J., has been made much more pleasant by the construction of new, glass-walled terminals and the gradual replacement of the old fleet with new three-deck boats with food courts and lounges. Although the cost for a car is stiff -- $60 round trip -- there are multi-trip packages, pedestrian or bicycle tickets and shuttle bus options as well if you prefer to park 'n' ride. For information and reservations, call 800/643-3779 or visit the Web site at www.capemaylewesferry.com.
Because it isn't directly on the beach, and has a much quieter tone with an older, settled population, Lewes is not heavy with rentals. However, there are a few inns and B&Bs available, and some motels within an easy drive. And since Lewes is only a few minutes from the northern end of Rehoboth, you can also stay in a motel on Route 1.
Kupchick's was such a staple of Lewes life that it's sad to say it has closed. But something old, something new: The buzz is on Striper Bites, which opened mid-season last year at the foot of the drawbridge (107 Savannah Rd.; 302/645-4657), with longtime area chef Mark Hussong in the kitchen. Dish not to miss: Hussong's crab cakes, good enough to live up to being Maryland's unofficial state dish (except that it's in Delaware).
From Washington, take U.S. 50 east across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge ($2.50 toll eastward, no toll westward) and across the Kent Narrows Bridge. At the Route 404 intersection, turn left onto 404 and continue to the traffic circle in Georgetown. Turn onto Route 9 east and continue into Lewes.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Contact the Lewes Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau (302/645-8073) or visit the Web site at www.leweschamber.com.
-- Eve Zibart