In the summer, the Corner Cupboard Inn is a refuge from Rehoboth Beach's T-shirt shops, carmel corn and waves of day-trippers. But in September and October, it offers the best of beach worlds -- a cozy retreat a few blocks from a glorious -- and empty -- beach and ocean water that's still warm and inviting.
For some, the beach wouldn't be the beach without the hustle and bustle of the boardwalk. For others, a dream weekend is a cozy room on a quiet, sandy tree-lined street near the water. Many beachgoers don't even know that such a place exists in the popular Rehoboth-Bethany area.
But it does. There in the residential Pines section of Rehoboth, just a 15-minute walk from the hubbub of Rehoboth Avenue, is the Corner Cupboard Inn, a well-kept secret for 50 years.
Elizabeth Gundry Hooper, who grew up in the area and bought the place from her aunt Alice Gundry in 1974, runs the Corner Cupboard in a gracious, casual style. One of few places in Rehoboth without a two- or three-day minimum for summer guests, the Corner Cupboard is open all year. The inn is nestled behind pine trees in what's otherwise a totally residential area. Neighbors in surrounding homes live in harmony with the inn, calling it "an institution," and often stroll over to the inn's dining room for waffles or fresh lobster.
The Corner Cupboard has been around since 1932. "My aunt was from Baltimore and she bought this place during the Depression," says Hooper. "She had lots of friends who wanted to come visit her at the beach. When she realized she couldn't afford to feed and house them all, the inn just evolved."
The 16 rooms are scattered through three buildings: a two-story main house with a large screened-in dining porch, a small building in back with rooms looking onto a sunny center patio, and a small house next door. During the warmer months, the price of breakfast and dinner at the inn is included in the room cost, something few guests could complain about after tasting chef Leroy "Boots" Walker's homemade blueberry turnovers and crab imperial.
The front door of the inn leads to an antique-filled living room filled with bunches of loosely arranged wildflowers. "A friend of mine brings the flowers in," says Hooper. "When I bought the inn, she didn't know how to help me with this screwball project so she offered to provide the flowers. I didn't think she thought I'd be going this long."
Hooper presides over her staff of preppie college students from a small office to the side of the living room. As you're checking in, Hooper may recommend a day trip you can take to Lewes or offer you a warm piece of just-baked banana bread. "It's a crazy place," she says, as the phone begins to ring off the hook.
Each guest room is an eclectic collection of furnishings. You might find a four-poster bed, a comfortable wicker chair, an antique writing desk or a collection of Oriental hats hanging on the wall. Rooms are well stocked with tempting novels and stacks of interesting magazines.
"This place is for people who like the beach, antiques, books and conversation," says Hooper, who lives on the first floor of the main house. "When people call to make a reservation and they ask about swimming pools, television sets and phones, we know we're not exactly what they're looking for."
The ocean is only a two-block walk from the inn, and the crowd you'll find is mostly families. Hooper helps guests cope with the greasy, gritty combination of sun, sand, and Bain de Soleil by providing blue beach towels, folding chairs, and an outside shower. And after the beach, there is a place to hang wet, sandy towels and a clothes dryer.
The meals at the inn, served on the porch, are themselves well worth your stay. Breakfasts feature kidney stew, fresh blueberries and pancakes. Dinners are served in soft candlelight and feature scallops, soft-shell crabs and fresh fish. Saturday evenings, a jazzy pianist plays during dinner.
A charming (and cost effective) facet of the Corner Cupboard arises from the fact that it doesn't have a liquor license so you BYOB. Guests unabashedly tote brown bags to meals and the kitchen will happily chill your wine before dinner. In the patio, there's a "bar" set up with ice, glasses and napkins so guests can bring liquor and make their own drinks and sip them in the garden. (Just watch out for the killer mosquitoes.)
Though Hooper says the ocean is what attracts people to the inn, cloudy days aren't a total washout. "On a rainy day, I try and get people together who might enjoy talking to each other. Plus people get together in the living room and just strike up conversations or get together for backgammon or bridge games . . . Sometimes it's a crazy place."
In October, says Hooper, the summer's 100,000-plus crowds dwindle down to a more manageable 2,000. And guests who arrive in chillier weather will be greeted by a crackling fire in the living room. "The foliage is pretty good, the beach is clear and you can still swim because the water stays warm," she says. "The stores even reduce their prices." Some guests come annually to a Christmas Shop held every October at Rehoboth's Convention Hall.
But though the calm tranquility of the Corner Cupboard is refreshing, even the most laid-back guests need an occasional dose of life on the boardwalk. Bargain hunters can visit Gershman's on Rehoboth Avenue, an outlet stocked with discount Izod and Polo items. For snacks between the inn's gargantuan meals, the boardwalk area is a junk food groupie's dream with George's Famous Hand Peeled French Fries and Nicola's renowned Nic-O-Boli's -- beef, cheese and pizza sauce rolled in dough and baked. And a glimpse at the tribal rituals of youth during summer at nearby Dewey Beach's Rusty Rudder should send you scampering back to the quiet serenity of 50 Park Ave.
Do yourself a favor. Don't breathe a word about the Corner Cupboard to anyone. Throw away this article after you read it. Or file it under Personal and Confidential. Otherwise you'll never be able to get a room there. And instead of curling up with Proust in a cozy armchair at the Corner Cupboard, you'll be crunching caramel corn on the boardwalk with the crowds.