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In Delaware, a new Instagram-friendly driving trail spotlights local artists and sites

Kelsey Montague is one of six artists who created murals for Delaware’s new Discoveries Trail, which features nine outdoor artworks scattered around the state, including at Bethany Beach. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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Ask me what I did on a recent trip to Delaware and I will tell you that I stand-up paddleboarded on the Mispillion River. Rode in the back of a pickup truck through a stand of sunflowers. Romped through a cascade of azaleas. And, before heading home, stood in a starburst of sunshine while a dolphin frolicked at my feet. Now ask me how I could participate in so many activities during a pandemic and I will share my strategy: I followed the Delaware Discoveries Trail.

In late September, the Delaware Tourism Office unveiled the latest trail in its oeuvre (it’s No. 5), a collection of nine interactive artworks scattered around the state like breadcrumbs. Visitors drive to the outdoor murals that are located at sites with ample open space — a sculpture garden, a wildlife refuge, a beach club parking lot. The idea is to engage with art, not people.

“The trail is very covid-compliant,” said Liz Keller, the director of the tourism office.

The concept for the trail sprang from the 20-foot-high butterfly wings that Kelsey Montague painted in Nashville in 2016, as part of her international What Lifts You campaign. Taylor Swift fans will recognize the wings that emerged during the 2019 release of her single “Me!”: The singer commissioned Montague to design her a pair, also in Nashville.

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Denver-based Montague, who created two murals for the project, is the only out-of-state participant; the other five are local. Though the pieces vary in theme and style, the artists integrated hallmarks of Delaware into their designs, such as the state animal (the gray fox) and the state insect (ladybug), as well as such notable landscape features as the Mispillion River and the beach.

“I wanted the people interacting with the mural to feel like they were part of the town of Wyoming,” said Natalia Ciriaco, an art teacher in Newark who painted stop No. 6. “They could feel like they were in a field of sunflowers leaning or sitting on a truck.”

Because of Delaware’s diminutive size, you could see all nine in one day. The distance between the most northern (Wilmington) and the most southern (Bethany Beach) stops is about 100 miles. As an incentive to visit multiple sites, the tourism office will send you a painting kit if you submit images of four murals. Since the launch, a dozen people have earned the prize and 200 trailblazers have posted photos using the official Instagram hashtag #DelawareDiscoveries. Nine of those pictures are mine.

Last month, I followed the trail from end to end. After snapping my requisite shot, I poked around each area in search of diversions that are as safe and engaging as donning peacock feathers that don’t tickle and paddling down a river that doesn’t splash. (Note: Before traveling, check the visitor requirements for Delaware and the return policies of your home city or state.)

Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington: The Hagley is the only venue on the trail that requires visitors to pay an entrance fee ($8 online or $9 in person). The artwork by Leah Beach sits on Workers’ Hill, by the picnic pavilion. A complimentary shuttle runs every half-hour, or choose the healthier option: Walk the half-mile route along the Brandywine River. For Beach, the setting was her muse: “The flowers are azaleas, which grow on the property. My concept for the dandelion was to have it look like it is silhouetted by the sun. I wanted to keep the colors more muted than super bright, to reflect the industrial feel of the property.”

While you’re there: Learn about the blasting powder and gunpowder enterprise that E.I. du Pont established in 1802. The self-guided Powder Yard Trail Experience (yes, a trail within a trail) features 16 structures, including the millwright shop and steam engine house; outdoor demonstrations; and informational signs that cover such topics as the 1920 explosion that killed five workers. Also check out the Workers’ Hill Community, where employees who hailed from Ireland, France, Italy and England resided, as well as the rarefied grounds of the du Pont family’s home. The Wilmington & Western Railroad runs a fall foliage ride in early November and a holiday lights excursion in December. For safety reasons, the train windows will remain open, so bundle up.

Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington: To find Laura Erickson’s painting of peacock feathers, enter the sculpture garden and hook a left. The image is on the back wall of the studio arts building. The artist explained her vision: “The mural is meant to be an interactive mural, where you stand in front of the peacock tail and you become the peacock. I wanted to convey the message of embracing being yourself, standing out and following your dreams.”

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While you’re there: Roam the 11-acre Copeland Sculpture Garden, an artful obstacle course with 20 contemporary sculptures set among native plants. Several pieces, such as “Crying Giant” (2002) and “Protecting the Future” (1966-1967), resonate with the times. To feel more centered, take a meditative spin around the labyrinth, behind the sculpture garden. The ring, which measures 80 feet in diameter, was based on medieval manuscript drawings and constructed out of seven tons of Delaware River rock. And you thought you were carrying a heavy load.

Delaware Children’s Museum, Wilmington: The museum is currently closed, but the artwork is in plain view: Just look for the world map decorated with local flora and fauna, including the state bug, the ladybug. “When people come to take their picture in front of the mural, they can point to where they are from, where their ancestors are from,” Erickson said. “They also love finding the hidden insects throughout the mural.”

While you’re there: Grab a bite at Riverfront Wilmington, which is lined with drinking and dining establishments with alfresco seating, such as Iron Hill Brewery, Ubon Thai Cuisine, Big Fish Grill and Drop Squad Kitchen, a vegan soul food spot. The 1.3-mile walkway connects with the Jack A. Markell Trail and ribbons through the Russell W. Peterson Wildlife Refuge, a landing pad for migratory and resident birds. At the northern end, the DuPont Environmental Education Center is home to a variety of critters, including bald eagles, muskrats, red foxes and belted kingfishers. The facility also boasts a 10-acre ornamental garden, a walking loop that ventures into the marsh, and access to the 5.5-mile biking and hiking trail that links Wilmington to New Castle.

Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Smyrna: The artwork is one of two pieces by Montague, who pays tribute to the refuge’s inhabitants: “My piece incorporated elements of the sanctuary. It includes a blue heron, a flying goose, a sunflower and a fox — all creatures and foliage you can find in the Bombay Hook wildlife refuge.”

While you’re there: Putter along the 12-mile wildlife drive and watch the nature documentary unfold outside your car windows. For a closer look, explore any of the refuge’s five trails, or climb an observation tower for a bird’s-eye view. At Painted Stave Distilling, order a to-go cocktail, such as a buttered pecan Old-Fashioned or a spiced pear Collins, or reserve a seat in the garden at the Old Smyrna Theater, a previous tenant.

Town of Wyoming: Look for the town hall sign that declares Wyoming “the Best Little Town in Delaware.” The mural is on the other side of the parking lot. Neither the sign nor the superlative appear in Ciriaco’s artwork, but several structures did make the cut. “I incorporated the Wyoming railroad and train and several buildings with unique architecture,” she said.

While you’re there: Load up on produce and its iterations (apple cider doughnuts, apple cider doughnut ice cream, apple slush) at Fifer Orchards, which comprises a farm store, U-Pick fields (currently pumpkins) and, depending on the season, a corn maze (Pac Maize was this year’s theme) or a Christmas tree lot with a blazing fire and hot cider. Tre Sorelle Dolce sells its ice cream, Italian ices and coffee drinks two ways: through its drive-through stand and takeout window. Play a round of miniature golf in between licks.

DE Turf, Frederica: DE Turf claims to be the largest all-synthetic-turf sports complex in the Mid-Atlantic, so it’s no surprise that artist Michael Johnson chose a sporty motif and rah-rah slogan. “I went back and forth on what message to paint in the middle, eventually landing on ‘You got this!’ because you realize you always have a chance to make that game-changing play. You can take a picture as if you’re kicking the soccer ball or stopping the shot, so the message works both ways.”

While you’re there: Invoke the mural’s message at Killens Pond State Park, an outdoorsy escape with a 66-acre pond teeming with largemouth bass, carp and pickerel, among other fish; a three-mile cross-country course; and an 18-hole disc golf course. Nearly a dozen four-person cabins are available to rent year-round. For sand between your toes, or under your winter boots, head to Bowers Beach on the Delaware Bay between the St. Jones and Murderkill rivers.

Mispillion River Brewing, Milford: For his second mural, on the front of the brewery, Johnson painted a trio of objects that speaks to the location and his interests: Milford’s pedestrian bridge, a paddleboard and a tap handle. “I grew up surfing and enjoying the ocean,” said the Rehoboth Beach resident, “so we combined all those things to look like a wave coming out of a beer tap for someone to paddleboard by the river.”

While you’re there: Order a pint and play cornhole in the outdoor seating area. Sample a comfort beer, such as the oatmeal raisin cookie stout, or if you need an energy boost, try a sour beer with electrolytes, such as War Goose. In Milford, the Mispillion Riverwalk is adorned with 18 model boats based on the Augusta, the yacht built at the Vinyard Shipyard in 1927. Artists decorated the replicas with Milfordian themes and landmarks. My Sister’s Fault specializes in Puerto Rican dishes, such as empanadas with traditional (chicken, beef) and nonconformist (pizza, cheesesteak) fillings, and tres leches for dessert. Opt for delivery or pickup.

Cape May-Lewes Ferry Terminal, Lewes: Christian Kanienberg created an aquatic scene that one could imagine taking place under the ferry or dock. (If only the boat had a glass bottom.) “I designed the mural to feature a spiral shape resembling a school of fish swimming in a wavelike tube,” he said. “Regional fish are represented in a very street and stylized way. Some are flounder, rockfish, sea bass and bluefish.”

While you’re there: Cruise across the Delaware Bay to the southern tip of New Jersey. The ferry takes three hours round trip. In the terminal, grab a coffee and baked good at Lewes Coffee Co. or a more substantial meal at Grain on the Rocks, which overlooks the port. The restaurant hosts weekend concerts outdoors. Cape Henlopen State Park, one of the country’s first public lands (thank you, William Penn), has long stretches of beach the color of toasted almonds; the Fort Miles Historical Area, a former World War II military base; and several nature trails. The park holds a number of outdoor events, such as moonlit hikes, bird walks and jogging tours. The dozen cabins are open year-round.

Big Chill Beach Club, Bethany Beach: The beachy hangout has closed for the season, but the artwork is still accessible. Don’t confuse Montague’s piece with the Big Chill mural. Hers has the dolphin and radiating sunbeams.

While you’re there: Get your land and sea fix at the Delaware Seashore State Park, which contains two island nature preserves, a surf spot at the North Inlet beach and the Indian River Life-Saving Station Museum, on the National Register of Historic Places. Sign up for an excursion, such as the moonlit shipwreck hike (Nov. 13) or the winter solstice hike (Dec. 21). Take in the sweep of southern Delaware from atop the Indian River Inlet Bridge. The span’s pedestrian walkway is, reassuringly, 12 feet wide.

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