Lewes? Never Heard of It
Wednesday, May 31, 2000
Lots of people make their annual summer beach trip specifically to make waves, or to briefly lose themselves, at least, among waves--both in the surf and otherwise.
Such people normally come to Lewes because they've missed a turn and are, well, lost.
No, I'm afraid this little Delaware resort-slash-fishing village is expressly meant for those of us who a) have maps in the car and aren't afraid to use them and b) have already seen enough waves, of every type, and were hoping to avoid that sort of thing for a week or two.
Waves aren't exactly illegal in Lewes, but they were, at least along the water, banned eons ago by whichever higher power (not the Army Corps of Engineers) located a wide spit of rock and sand between the wild Atlantic and the calm Delaware Bay. That cape is nowadays known as Henlopen, which is a fine, 3,300-acre state park and yet another reason certain drivers will be keeping their backward-capped heads down until they see signs for Rehoboth or, better yet, Ocean City.
There's nothing much on Cape Henlopen, after all, in the way of body piercing, outlet shopping or nightlife (unless you're a horseshoe crab). There are nature trails through dune (including the East Coast's highest) and marsh, beaches both waveless (bay side) and fully waved and guarded (ocean side), a lookout tower you can climb and not quite enough parking on a midsummer weekend to accommodate every boardwalk evader who shows up.
As for the town of Lewes, in case you couldn't tell: I love it here. Go away.
Lewes has changed much over the more than 20 years I've been paying sporadic visits, but not that much. All those well-worn and rentable houses along the bay are now flanked by taller condos, but not that tall, and not that many--and many of them are for rent, too. The town beaches are still free (though you'd better show up with a good $10 in meter food if you're staying all day) and still popular among folks who don't bring radios because radios tend to interfere with the more familiar screeches and whoops of their kids.
You can still walk down modestly boutique-ified Second Street making crazed, messy stabs at your mouth with an overloaded cone from King's Homemade Ice Cream--at any age, mind you--and draw no open-mouthed stares, just the occasional knowing nod. These days, instead of the family-run mainstays that made up in personality what they lacked in stateness-of-the-art, there are several bona fide menu busters in Lewes (which only makes sense, it being just 10 minutes to Bethesda--I mean, Rehoboth).
The Buttery is one; I had the most wonderful sandwich of cilantro-chili black beancake with chipotle lime aioli (luckily I only had to eat it, not parse it) on a recent gorgeous, sunny weekend. (And no, obviously this was not in May.) The sandwich was $6.50. Waitresses and waiters kept fighting over who would refill my iced tea. I barely got out of there before being run over by an overzealous dessert cart driver. Gilligan's, whose kitchen inhabits a beached yacht (literally) and an island somewhere between Havana, Paris and Appalachia (okay, figuratively), is another excellent choice for grown-up gourmets. The view here, on Front Street at the foot of Market, is also better.
There are a handful of good B&Bs in Lewes--including my new favorite (and the only one that caters to families), the Blue Water House, whose proximity to the beaches is enough reason to appreciate it. But then new owner Rick Quill went and painted every interior surface in a raucous, Duron-catalogue-exhausting manner that just makes you walk around with a big dopey smile on your face.
Which is what you're supposed to do on vacation, yes?
So: Quiet-seeking couples and antique lovers (and, on a less personal note, antiques lovers) are still Lewes' biggest fans. Families, especially with younger kids, tend to come here for the day--for the gentle surf--but find many more receptive accommodations (and nearby mechanized or at least non-natural diversions) in Rehoboth and beyond.