The weekend promised to be unseasonably warm for early May, so Friday evening traffic was heavy on Route 1. But just a couple of miles away, I had the wide beach in Cape Henlopen State Park all to myself -- not another person in sight.
Although it was a perfectly clear day, a deep fog horn occasionally moaned, apparently from the small white Harbor of Refuge lighthouse. A pilot boat left the harbor to meet a cargo ship coming out of Delaware Bay.
At the end of my last day visiting Delaware's coast, I decided to take a sunset walk to its northernmost point: the very tip of the barren, low-duned cape, where the bay meets the Atlantic Ocean.
But walking on both the bay and ocean sides of the narrow finger of land, I was stopped by fences and signs warning the area is closed until Oct. 1. On the ocean beach, the sand was scarred by tire tracks of four-wheel drive vehicles. But no tracks, not even footprints, went beyond the fence, even though it did not extend all the way down to the surf.
Many gulls were feeding at the water's edge just north of the barrier, but none south of it, as if they knew which area was off limits to humans.
Later I learned the tip of the cape is closed to protect at least four nests of shore birds named piping plovers. It will remain closed through summer to shelter other nesting and migrating birds. Park operators have decided ensuring the birds' future is more important than the innate desire of humans like me to go everywhere and see everything.
I was exploring Delaware's seashore because its 25 miles of ocean beaches -- between the popular shore destinations of Cape May, N.J., and Ocean City, Md. -- were a big unknown to me. Far from interstates and other major highways, these beaches are bypassed by many southbound vacationers.
Yet more people from eastern Pennsylvania have been discovering Delaware's beaches in the past five years, said Karen McGrath of the Fenwick-Bethany Chamber of Commerce. She said those beaches are "closer" now that more of Route 1 is a four-lane highway below Wilmington. She claimed even people who enjoy Ocean City are staying in Delaware, because it is quieter and, with no sales taxes, less expensive.
"We have a huge visitation from Pennsylvania," confirmed Carol Everhart, director of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce.
Despite its size, Delaware's seashore offers diverse vacation opportunities: oceanfront hotels on a boardwalk, modern beach houses in quiet communities, a large number of bed & breakfasts and country inns, chain motels along bustling Route 1 or camping in two state parks.
I never realized more than half of Delaware's seashore is undeveloped and protected as part of three state parks. Cape Henlopen has about four miles of beaches, Delaware Seashore has six and Fenwick Island has three. All three parks are popular for ocean swimming and surf fishing. Cape Henlopen and Delaware Seashore also have camping areas.
The most distinctive landmarks along Delaware's coast are 11 World War II concrete observation towers that stand like forgotten sentinels still at their posts. Part of the coastal defenses against a possible German invasion of Delaware Bay, they were called fire control towers -- not for forest fires but to direct artillery fire from Fort Miles, now Cape Henlopen State Park. The long-gone guns of Fort Miles never were fired in anger.
Only two Delaware beach towns have boardwalks. Neither has the colorful concentration of rides, games, shops, eating places and other amusements that sparks sensory overload in sunburnt vacationers. If you want that kind of night-time action, Ocean City, Md., is right next door.
I did my pre-season preview of Delaware's seashore early last month, fully aware that going in May would not give me the same experience as going at the height of the summer season.
But with temperatures in the high 80s, it certainly felt like mid-summer at the shore. Families with blankets and beach umbrellas dotted beaches, although most people did little more than stick their feet in the cold water.
I didn't inspect all of Delaware's beaches but those I saw appeared to be wide and clean. Beaches in Lewes, Rehoboth, Dewey, Bethany, South Bethany and Fenwick Island recently were certified for their public safety and environmental quality by the Washington, D.C.-based Clean Beaches Council.
Not being on the list doesn't mean a beach is unsafe or unclean, explained spokesmen for the nonprofit organization. (Ocean City, Md., is not on the list and the only New Jersey beaches listed are at Sandy Hook National Seashore.) But beach communities that feel they can meet the council's posted standards pay $2,000 for an annual inspection and certification. And the council publicizes beaches that make the grade. "We're trying to create an ethic for the coast," said council President Walter McLeod.
Route 1 links Delaware's beaches, bridging Indian River Inlet, which roughly splits the area at Delaware Seashore State Park.
Here's a north-to-south look at Delaware's seashore:
Delaware's northernmost ocean beaches are part of 3,785-acre Cape Henlopen State Park, largest of the three state parks on the coast.
The state park has the only World War II tower visitors can ascend. You can climb 115 steps up a spiral staircase inside the 75-foot-high structure to enjoy excellent views from the top. You can watch ferries coming and going across the bay to the north and see Lewes (pronounced "Lewis") to the west and Rehoboth to the south.
Not an oceanfront beach town, Lewes is next to the state park on Delaware Bay. It has a bayfront public beach, with calm, shallow water that makes it popular for parents with preschool children.
The town is best known as the southern terminus of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry.
Named by Pennsylvania founder William Penn, Lewes is promoted as "the first town in the first state." That "town," actually 28 men in a fortified Dutch settlement, was wiped out by Indians in 1631. You'll learn about their plight in Zwaanendael Museum. Built in 1931, it is modeled after a town hall in Hoorn Holland. Lewes wasn't resettled until 1658, 20 years after Delaware's first permanent settlement was established at what is now Wilmington.
More than 225 years ago, Delaware and its beaches were part of Pennsylvania, given to Penn to guarantee his colony access to the sea. It remained part of Penn's colony for nearly 100 years, from 1682 until 1776, when it declared its independence from both England and Pennsylvania.
Elsewhere in the small museum, you'll see artifacts recovered from the Brig Debraak, a British ship that sank nearby in 1798; learn about the bombardment of Lewes by the British fleet in 1813; and see photographs of Cape Henlopen Lighthouse, which collapsed into the sea in 1926.
"People interested in history come here, as well as those interested in nautical vacations," said Betsy Reamer, director of the Lewes Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau. "Fishing boats do bay or ocean fishing. People also can go whale or dolphin watching or take sunset cruises."
Lewes Historical Society maintains 10 homes and buildings, mostly in one location, open several days a week in summer. Staffed with volunteer docents, they are popular on rainy days.
Across from that complex is Shipcarpenter Square, a residential area where the homes are at least 100 years old and moved from other places. They include ship captains' houses and a former life saving station.
Nearby you can visit Nassau Valley Vineyards, Delaware's first and only winery. It has eight acres of vineyards and exhibits about wine's history.
ROUTE 1 SHOPPING
Between Lewes and Rehoboth Beach, Route 1 is six lanes wide and passes through a commercial strip. In this state of tax-free shopping, a major attraction is more than 140 outlet stores in three modern shopping centers. Other shopping centers, service stations, restaurants, hotels and attractions line the highway.
Probably the best known of Delaware's beach towns, Rehoboth Beach is surprisingly small: only one square mile, with a year-round population of less than 1,000. But it claims more than 2.7 million annual visitors. The parking meters had not yet been mounted on their posts during my May 2 to 5 visit.
Rehoboth offers a variety of hotels, restaurants, shops and other beach-related businesses, so you probably can stay in town without needing your car.
The town has Delaware's longest boardwalk, but it's only one mile. Most visitor-oriented businesses are on Rehoboth Avenue, the main street, rather than the boardwalk. One building has an official-looking bronze plaque on its wall. It states: "On this site in 1897 nothing happened."
Busy places include Grotto Pizza, Thrasher's French Fries, Kohr Bros. yogurt ("the original frozen yogurt since 1919") and Dolles Salt Water Taffy ("made on premises"). The Dolles sign is the boardwalk's most prominent landmark. I can vouch for the quality of Dolles' caramel corn. I also enjoyed a Nic-o-boli with the works, including anchovies, in Nicola Pizza. It's like a stromboli with hamburger barbecue.
Mostly kiddie rides are in the boardwalk's Funland Arcade, but Rehoboth has no amusement piers or large rides. The south end of the boardwalk has dunes on the land side with houses beyond them. Quiet, tree-lined streets running inland from the boardwalk look like they belong in towns miles from any beach.
Rehoboth is popular with gay vacationers, but Everhart of the chamber said, "Our highest visitation is mom, dad and two kids."
Rehoboth Beach was founded in 1873 as "a permanent camp meeting ground and Christian seaside resort." It is called "the nation's summer capital" because Washington, D.C., residents used to take trains to the beach. Those trains went right up Rehoboth Avenue to the ocean, which is why that main street is so wide.
I had the broiled seafood combination at Jake's Seafood House, which promised the best seafood in town. The crab lump cocktail appetizer was excellent, better than the main course: one crab cake, three shrimp and four scallops atop watery-tasting flounder.
South of Rehoboth Beach, Route 1 is less commercial and shrinks to four lanes. The only way you realize you've left Rehoboth is a sign welcoming you to Dewey Beach, "a way of life." It has a reputation as a summer party town for young singles who enjoy nightlife and water sports.
Traffic was significantly lighter south of Dewey, where Route 1 passes through the 2,848-acre Delaware Seashore State Park.
Every time I drove through the north end of the narrow park, I noticed gigantic C-shaped kites flying over Rehoboth Bay. One evening I finally stopped to get a better look -- my first look at kiteboarding, a sport that combines kite flying, surfing and sailboarding. Participants standing on boards hung onto lines of the colorful kites and zipped across the shallow bay toward the red setting sun. The best often was airborne for several seconds.
Farther south in the state park is Indian River Life-Saving Station Museum and Historic Site, the only one of the state's six stations still in its original spot. Built in 1876, it is painted its original colors: pumpkin and burgundy, which reminded me of a 19th-century train station. The museum is a memorial to members of the U.S. Life Saving Service, who saved thousands of lives during shipwrecks on the Delmarva peninsula in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Visitors learn about their lives, work and courage.
Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island, small towns below Delaware Seashore State Park, are promoted as the quiet resorts. Their primary accommodations are rental properties, rather than hotels and motels, so they attract many families. And commercial business is limited so the area will not get overdeveloped, said McGrath of the local chamber.
From miles away you can see the towering structures of Sea Colony condominium resort on the horizon at Bethany Beach. Closer, the nine unattractive brown structures of the high-rise complex create a disruptive barrier on the shore's landscape. They belong farther south among the concrete canyons of Ocean City, which I call Miami Beach North.
The narrow boardwalk at Bethany Beach is less than a half mile long, with very few businesses.
South of Bethany Beach is 344-acre Fenwick Island State Park, smallest of the three parks on the shore. Below the park is the community of Fenwick Island.
A don't-miss attraction is the DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum, which is filled with attractively displayed artifacts -- from gold to cannonballs to dinnerware -- recovered from sunken ships by Dale Clifton, a marine archeologist who owns the museum.
Don't be deterred by the fact that the museum is on the second floor of a pink gift shop named Sea Shell City in Fenwick Island, only about five blocks north of Ocean City. The museum is free and well worth a visit.
Clifton said he always displays his newest finds. Only about 10 percent of his collection is on display. More than half the items were recovered from shipwrecks off Delmarva peninsula. He said hundreds of ships were lost trying to reach the mouth of Delaware Bay. The oldest wrecks date back to the early 17th century. He believes a couple may be out there from the 16th century.
A front page from an old Allentown newspaper -- the April 19, 1912, Chronicle and News -- hangs in the museum. Clifton said it contains one of the best accounts of the sinking of Titanic.
One of my favorite meals was a shrimp salad sandwich containing whole shrimp in Tom & Terry's Seafood Restaurant just west of Fenwick Island. Not until you're seated do you appreciate that the place has a great view of Assawoman Bay.
At the Maryland line, Route 1 widens to eight lanes, commercial development intensifies and Ocean City's high-rise condos loom ahead. While that city is the destination for many, others might feel like turning around and going back to Delaware.
IF YOU GO
Hotels and motels were not completely booked last summer, said Karen O'Neill of the Southern Delaware tourism office, so this summer's visitors should not have problems finding rooms.
It's not too late to rent a house for a week this summer, according to two seashore realtors. Prices range widely, from $850 to $5,500 a week, with three-bedroom houses away from the beach in Rehoboth going for $2,000 to $3,000. Prices depend on several factors: the size of the place, its location in relation to the ocean or bays and the week selected.
"There still are some great last-minute rentals," said Kathy Goodman of Seacoast Realty in Bethany Beach. She said June is less booked than July and August "when everyone floods the beaches." She also suggested renting in September, when the weather is beautiful and the ocean is warmest for swimming.
"Normally, we'd be pretty much full by now, but this year is an exception," said Derrick Lingo of Jack Lingo Realtor in Rehoboth Beach. "I don't know if it's because of the stock market or what, but we still do have openings. And more people have listed their homes for rent, maybe to supplement their stock losses." He noted June rentals are less expensive than July.
Nearly 50 B&Bs and country inns are along Delaware's coast, most in the Rehoboth-Dewey area.
Delaware towns do not charge beach fees, but state park daily admission is $5 per vehicle for out-of-state residents. An annual pass costs $40.
State parks gates are closed when parking lots fill at their swimming beaches. That can happen on hot weekends, so get to parks before 10 a.m. those days. As people leave, the lots reopen. So you usually can get in later in the afternoon.
Swimming is permitted only at designated beaches with lifeguards. Far more of park beaches are available for surf fishing. Four-wheel drive vehicles, primarily used for surf fishing, need annual permits to be on the beach. The cost is $100 for out-of-state vehicles.
Parking is prohibited along Route 1, so you can't leave your car along the highway, follow a four-wheel-drive vehicle trail between the dunes and stake out a spot on a beach.
To reserve campsites in Henlopen or Delaware Seashore state parks, call 877-987-2757. On weekends, unreserved sites usually are taken by Thursday nights or Friday mornings.
For Cape Henlopen information, call 302-645-8983. For Delaware Seashore, call 302-227-2800. For Fenwick Island, call 302-539-9060.
For information about Delaware's beaches, call 800-357-1818. Or write: Southern Delaware Tourism, The Convention and Visitors Bureau for Sussex County, Box 240, 103 W. Pine St., Georgetown, DE 19947. Or check www.visitsoutherndelaware.com.
For Lewes, call Lewes Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau: 302-645-8073.
For the Rehoboth Beach/Dewey Beach area, call Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce: 800-441-1329 or 302-227-2233.
For the Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island area, call Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce: 800-962-7873 or 302-539-2100.
For a free copy of the Official Delaware Travel Guide, call Delaware Tourism Office toll-free at 866-284-7483. Or check www.visitdelaware.net.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times