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Lewes & Cape Henlopen

Friday, May 20, 2005

If it's postcard charm you seek, Lewes is the pinup: a miniature San Francisco lined with "painted lady" Victorian and Queen Anne houses in the old village by the canal and mews of curio and ice cream shops. The "first state's first town," as it proudly describes itself, began as a Dutch whaling and fishing village, and charter and commercial fleets still go out from the marinas on Anglers Road (and bring back fresh seafood for the restaurants); so do whale- and dolphin-watching cruises that take you even farther from the madding crowd. You can even combine the two on a sunset dinner cruise.

Lewes is a multigenerational attraction: The surf along the Delaware Bay is a kinder, gentler medium for children, while the Atlantic Ocean has enough surf for the teenagers. The shops are less touristy and T-shirty, and more apt to turn up the odd piece of cut glass, and the restaurants -- in surprising abundance for a small town -- cater to adult expectations. There are playgrounds and tennis courts for the energetic and waterside bars for the sedentary. And while there's no actual curfew, it's a town where you can get a good night's sleep: Volume levels are voluntarily polite.

"Greater" Lewes is booming, of course, along with the entire Delmarva shore, but the big push so far is west of the historic district, back toward Rehoboth and the commercial strip of Route 1, where it doesn't affect the view or the mood. In fact, the drive in from the highway only emphasizes Lewes's nostalgic stage-set downtown. It used to be that nearly all the summer visitors rented houses by the week (or month) in the lanes between the canal and the bay, but there are an increasing number of B&Bs and inns for weekenders, along with a few motels and even campgrounds for going mobile.

Don't Miss:

Lewes is not literally a "beach" town, since it's on the Rehoboth-Lewes Canal, but there's a public parking lot at the bay end of Savannah Road, and Cape Henlopen State Park , only about five minutes south of town (302-645-8983), has four miles of beach that edge both the bay and the ocean, plus a nature center, bathhouse and fishing pier (where the kids can learn to crab), observation tower, hiking and biking trails, and its own population of deer. . . . Whale and dolphin cruises depart several times a day from Fisherman's Wharf on Anglers Road (302-645-8862) and last two to three hours. Dolphin sightings are guaranteed, though the whales choose their own moments. . . . History is a hot topic in a town that turns 375 next year; stop by the Visitors Bureau, itself in the historic Fisher-Martin House (120 Kings Hwy.; 302-645-8073), for a walking tour of meticulously preserved homes. The Zwaanendael Museum at Kings Highway and Savannah Road (302-645-1148) has exhibits from the 17th-century whaling trade, the wreck of a British man-of-war that sank in 1798 and was recovered in 1984, and mementos from the heyday of the renowned Delaware Bay Pilots, who for decades negotiated the treacherous shoals. And the Cannonball House Marine Museum at Front and Bank streets got its name the hard way -- it was shelled by the British during the War of 1812. Lewes shop(pe)s are primarily clustered along Front and Second streets and in the alleys between, but don't miss the working blacksmith shop and museum, Preservation Forge , at 114 W. Third St. For more information on these museums, stop by the Lewes Historical Society complex at Third and Shipcarpenter streets (302-645-7670). . . . A town that eschews much in the way of franchises, Lewes does well in the dining department. Surf (with a bit of change-up turf) is still the local staple, but it's available in more modern recipes these days at Striper Bites, on Savannah Road by the drawbridge (302-645-4657), and the atmospheric Buttery , across the street in the Trader Mansion at Second and Savannah streets (302-645-7755), especially at dinner or Sunday brunch. The deft Mediterranean-fare Cafe Azafran has expanded from only daytime into dinner service (109 Market St.; 302-644-4446). Back toward the junction of routes 1 and 9, in the booming area called Five Points, is the modern-eclectic Fish On (17300 N. Village Main Blvd.; 302-645-9790), rapidly becoming a regional star and with the best wine list of the lot. If you must have pizza, skip the mass-produced stuff and try the wood-fired pizza at Mr. P (1004 Kings Hwy./Route 1; 302-645-1900). . . . For those who need a soundtrack, check the Irish Eyes (213 Anglers Rd.; 302-645-9931) or the Drawbridge Bar at the bridge end of Anglers Road in the Lighthouse restaurant (302-645-6271). . . . For a somewhat larger version of Lewes, take the ferry to Cape May (302-644-6030) to see the Victorian homes and Queen Anne hotels with their turrets, latticework and crow's-nests -- it's the only town to be a national historic landmark in its entirety -- but make it back to Lewes for dinner. The ferry landing is at the foot of Route 9 between Lewes and Cape Henlopen.

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