Atrip to the beach can be an educational one if you choose Lewes, Del., as your destination. It can be a quiet one, too, especially in the fall as the peak tourist season winds down.
Located near Cape Henlopen (where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean), Lewes is loaded with history -- so much so that it would be a main center of the proposed Delaware National Coastal Heritage Park. What Lewes is not loaded with are noisy arcades, crowded mega-restaurants and loud bars.
"This is a town that really values history," says Carol Cutbill, a docent at the Zwaanendael Museum, which is named after Lewes' original moniker. "That's why I'm here. This isn't a hurdy-gurdy seaside town."
Indeed it isn't. There is no boardwalk in Lewes, but there is plenty to see and do in this well-mannered, reserved, pretty little place -- including, if you pick a warm fall day, sunning on your choice of a bay or ocean beach.
Dubbed "The First Town in the First State," Lewes was originally a Dutch colony, founded in 1631. Some of the well-preserved homes still standing today go back almost that far.
The Ryves Holt House (218 Second St., 302-645-7670) could be called the First House in the First Town in the First State. Built about 1665, the Spanish brown (some might call it pink), shingled structure may be Delaware's oldest home. Named after a high sheriff of Sussex County, Del., who lived there in the 1700s, the house today hosts the Lewes Historical Society Visitors Center.
From the visitors center, you can take a guided walking tour of historic Lewes at 3 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, or a guided walk through two of Lewes' dozen graveyards at 2 p.m. Thursdays. Both tours are conducted until the end of October.
If you would rather see the sites at your own pace, buy a ticket at the visitors center that grants admission to a general store circa 1800, an 1884 boathouse and lifesaving station, an 1800s doctor's office, a one-room schoolhouse and eight historic homes -- including the Cannonball House, which was damaged by the British during the War of 1812. Docents, sometimes in period dress, are happy to take you through each building.
The Zwaanendael Museum (Savannah Road and Kings Highway, 302-645-1148) has artifacts from the British warship DeBraak, which sank off the Delaware coast in 1798 (film director Peter Weir visited the museum and used the DeBraak as a reference while making the movie Master and Commander). Also on display are exhibits about the 1813 British naval blockade and bombardment of Lewes. Included is a copy of an amusing letter from the commander of the British squadron to the town's chief magistrate, dated March 16, 1813, politely asking to buy cattle, vegetables and hay.
"If you refuse to comply with this request," the letter reads, "I shall be under necessity of destroying your Town. I have the honor to be, sir, Your very obedient Serv.t, J.P Beresford."
Befitting Lewes' quiet nature, the town's two public bayside beaches (end of Savannah Road, and Cape Henlopen Drive near Savannah Road, 877-465-3937) have small, gentle waves. A mile or so east of town on Cape Henlopen Drive, just past the Cape May-Lewes Ferry (800-643-3779), which goes across the Delaware Bay to New Jersey, are the bigger breakers of the Atlantic Ocean beaches at Cape Henlopen State Park (42 Cape Henlopen Drive, 302-645-8983).
If you somehow don't get your fill of history in Lewes, there's more at Cape Henlopen -- the park contains one of 11 concrete towers along the Delaware coast that were used for military observation during World War II. Climb the 114 spiral steps for a great view of the surrounding waters and coastal woodlands, plus messages written in the sand below ("Hi!" "We'll Miss You Jonathan").
Where to shop
Lewes has its prerequisite share of antiques and jewelry stores (Chatelaine's Antique Jewelry, 119 Second St., 302-645-1511 has both: There you can buy -- or just admire -- a $7,200 1890s diamond and emerald ring), plus art galleries (the Packard Reath Gallery, 122 Market St., 302-644-7513, has fine art photography), upscale gift stores (at Thistles Fine Art, 203 Second St., 302-644-2323, you can get a lamp made of seashells that somehow is not tacky), and special-interest shops such as Mare's Bears Quilt Shop, 528 E. Savannah Road, 302-644-0556, and Puzzles, 111 Second St., 302-645-8013.
Where to eat and drink
At the Buttery Restaurant and Bar, 10 Second St., 302-645-7755, you can dine in an elegant Victorian setting and spend as much as $35 on braised lobster tail or summer squash blossoms tempura. For a more casual -- and cheaper -- meal, choose from restaurants and cafes such as Gilligan's Waterfront Restaurant and Bar (known for its crab cakes), 134 Market St., 302-644-7230; Cafe Azafran (Mediterranean food), 109 Market St., 302-644-4446; and the stylish Blue Plate Diner, 329 Savannah Road, 302-644-8400, which offers both typical and not-so-typical diner fare (burgers, garden salad with blackened tuna steak, banana pancakes).
For those who are just thirsty, the Irish Eyes Pub and Restaurant, 213 Anglers Road, 302-645-6888, has a festive bar outside, overlooking the Lewes and Rehoboth Canal, which cuts through town.
Lewes is about 2 1/2 hours from Baltimore. Take Interstate 97 south to U.S. 50 east and cross the Bay Bridge ($2.50). Near Wye Mills, take Route 404 into Delaware, then Route 9 to Lewes.
For more information on Lewes, including fall events such as the annual Coast Day festival Oct. 3, call the Lewes Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau at 877-465-3937, or visit www.leweschamber.com.
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