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Lewes? Never Heard of It
Progress, like surf, breaks gently on this Del. town.

By Roger Piantadosi
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

The town--Delaware's oldest, first settled in 1631 by Dutch colonists who did not survive their meeting with the native Lenni Lenape--is filled with restored 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century structures, including a half-dozen tour-able old places maintained by the Lewes Historical Society, and the distinctive Zwaanendael Museum itself, modeled after the town hall at Noorn in the Netherlands and exhibiting military and maritime artifacts from Lewes' 17th- through 19th-century past.

And should, amid all this serenity and maturity, the urge for waves reappear inexplicably, remember: You are only a few minutes' drive from a fast ferry to New Jersey (where the wave was, I believe, invented). And you're also not all that far from either the vastly different ocean surges at Delaware Seashore State Park farther south, or surges of other sorts beyond that, in Ocean City.

In fact, come to think of it, you'd really like Ocean City. Maybe you should go there. Forget everything I said about . . . about . . . that other place.

WAYS & MEANS

GETTING THERE: On a good day, Lewes is about three hours from the Beltway. Take U.S. 50 east across the Bay Bridge to a left on Route 404 to Georgetown. Follow Route 9 from there into Lewes.

BEING THERE: Despite its summer-season pretensions, Lewes has always been, and still is, a fishing center. Charter boats, as well as sightseeing boats and whale-watching tours, are found in the same picturesque harbor as the big commercial boats. Details: Fishermen's Wharf (302-645-8862) or Anglers Fishing Center (302-645-8688). Lewes' oldest standbys can be found at Savannah Road and Kings Highway (the Zwaanendael Museum, 302-645-1148) and downtown at the Lewes Historical Society complex (302-645-7670) and the 18th-century Cannonball House Marine Museum. You'll often encounter an unexpected blacksmithing show at tiny Preservation Forge (114 W. Third St., 302-645-7987) and next door at Auntie M's ("Antiques & Curios at Appropriate Prices," 302-644-2242). Besides the swimming, birding, biking and nature pursuits at Cape Henlopen State Park (302-645-8983, $5 a day for out-of-state cars), Lewes newcomer Rocks, Rims & Rapids (302-644-7020, www.lewes.com/RocksRimsRapids) offers kayak and bike rentals and an on-site climbing wall.

WHERE TO STAY/EAT: You'll find the traditional grown-up B&B experience at the lovely Bay Moon (302-644-1802) and central, reliable New Devon Inn (800-824-8754). Closer to the beach, the Blue Water House (800-493-2080) is certifiably less sedate and more colorful, with a casual, Caribbean feel and a peerless top-floor Lookout lounge with 360-degree view. Besides the Buttery (302-645-7755) and Gilligan's (302-645-7866), we've also heard good things about the dark-paneled, pubby but ever less stuffy Rose & Crown (302-645-2373).

DETAILS: The Lewes Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, 120 Kings Hwy., 302-645-8073, www.leweschamber.com.

THE ESCAPIST

Results of Escapes Trivia #13, in which we asked where one could--if one weren't so busy entering trivia contests--take a walk to the top of the country's largest conical-shaped earthen burial mound:

Brian Foreman of Laurel gets a copy of "Escape Plans" for knowing that the answer, some 2,000 years old and just 200 miles away, is in the aptly named town of Moundsville, W.Va. Experts say more than 60,000 tons of dirt were moved, mainly by woven basket, to create Grave Creek Mound, which stands 69 feet high and 295 feet in diameter and was originally surrounded by a large moat. Visitors can learn more about those models of pre-Columbian industry, the Adena people (otherwise known as the Mound Builders), at the on-site Delf Norona Museum (304-843-4128, www.wvculture.org/sites /gravecreek.html).

On to a less morbid but no less fascinating Escapes Trivia #14:

Q: What state contains more than a quarter of the Appalachian Trail?

Deadline for Contest #14 entries is noon Friday, June 2. Send entries by email (escapist@washpost.com; put the phrase "Escapes Trivia" in the subject field), fax (202-334-1069) or U.S. mail (Escapes Trivia, Washington Post Travel section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071). Winners, chosen at random from among correct entries, will receive a copy of The Post's "Escape Plans" getaway guide, or other prizes as announced. One entry per person per contest. Employees of The Post are ineligible to win prizes. Entries become the property of The Post, which reserves the right to edit, distribute or republish them in any form, including electronically. Escapes Trivia questions are compiled by Amy Brecount White for The Washington Post.

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