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Why go to Delaware?

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For all its contributions to American society--it was the first state to ratify the Constitution, it was the site of a pivotal event in rock 'n' roll history, and it's the proud birthplace of both nylon and Valerie Bertinelli--Delaware these days is known mostly for two things: beaches and tax-free shopping.

Maybe a third, according to Mariela Gomes: It ain't Jersey.

"It's not like other places," Gomes says of Rehoboth, the beach-lover's haven where she and a dozen swim-suited and flip-flopped family members and friends were spending a day. "It's not New Jersey, where you get rude teenagers. This is family. It's clean, it's close to home." (She's from Smyrna, about 50 miles north.)

If Delaware has a vacation epicenter, it's Rehoboth Beach. With more than a mile of sandy ocean shoreline, a boardwalk and streets packed with shops, restaurants, arcades and souvenir shops, it draws visitors from up and down the East Coast. Rehoboth and adjoining Dewey Beach attract a little more than 6 million visitors a year, according to the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce.

"It's very popular year-round," says chamber president and CEO Carol Everhart. "It's a romantic getaway all year long, people love walking the beaches in the winter and doing the metal detectors and that sort of thing. We have a lot of eco-tourism, there's a lot of kayaking. So it's not just a summer getaway."

But summer is when the crowds arrive. Everhart says that more than 20 million people live within a three- or four-hour drive, allowing them to visit several times a year, often just for extended weekends. The busiest month is August, but September and October are popular too--bigger visitation months than May and June, in fact.

Even with 30 miles of beach coastline, Delaware has much more to offer as a vacation destination. And because it's small--only 96 miles long and 9 to 35 miles in width--visitors can cover a lot of territory in a week. Before hitting the road for some highlights, though, a little background.

Delaware sits on the Atlantic, wedged between New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Its 900,000 or so residents live in three counties--New Castle in the north, Kent in the center and Sussex in the south. New Castle is largely industrial, home to the DuPont empire (which gave us the aforementioned nylon) and to Wilmington, Delaware's biggest city with about 73,000 residents (and the city that gave us the aforementioned Ms. Bertinelli). Kent and Sussex Counties are agricultural (corn, soybeans and poultry) and flat. Central Illinois flat.

Enough trivia. Let's explore.

We start up north, where the glory of the Du Pont family is on display at several magnificent sites. (And note: In general, it's Du Pont when referring to the family as a whole and du Pont when used as part of an individual's name. And the company is DuPont. Some family members go with alternate versions; you can do that when you're a Du Pont/du Pont/duPont.)

Winterthur, just south of the Pennsylvania line, is a museum, garden and research library, the former country estate of Henry Francis du Pont. He opened it to the public in 1951 as a way of displaying his lifetime collection of decorative and art objects. You also can stroll the 60-acre garden or do research in the library.

The Hagley Museum in Wilmington began life as the du Pont gunpowder works, founded by E.I. du Pont in 1802; today visitors can tour the Du Pont family ancestral home and formal French gardens, see how gunpowder was made and learn about 19th Century life.

And if you're not Du Ponted out, there's the Nemours mansion and gardens, also in Wilmington. With 70-plus rooms over five floors, the former home of Alfred I. duPont is offered as just that: a home, not a museum (though how many homes have works by Tiffany, M.W. Turner and Pieter Bruegel theYounger?). Wilmington has all the benefits of any large city--fine dining, arts and entertainment. Nice to visit but not reason alone to come to Delaware. Beaches and shopping, remember?

The quickest way to traverse the state is Delaware Highway 1, a north-south route that starts southwest of Wilmington and will get you to the beaches in about an hour. Better is Delaware Highway 9, a winding two-laner where a traveler can experience some of Delaware's other charms.

Start in New Castle, a town that pre-dates Philadelphia and was once the busiest port on the Delaware River. And if you're in New Castle, find time to visit with Kathy Bradford, a historic interpreter at the New Castle Court House Museum. She has stories.

"The building has been here since the month George Washington was born, 276 years ago," she says. "This is the most historically significant building in the state. This is literally where Delaware began."

She'll even show you the upstairs room where the First State was born.

The Court House Museum was Delaware's original capital, and it was in the second-floor Assembly Room that its citizens decided to break away from Pennsylvania--and later England-- in 1776. The next year, with British gunships sitting in the river a couple of blocks away, the state capital was moved to Dover. But the building continued to serve the people of New Castle, as a courthouse for a century, then as the town hall, mayor's office, police station, men's club, gymnasium and tea room. Back on 9, it's a short drive to Delaware City and nearby Ft. Delaware State Park, on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River. The fort held more than 30,000 Confederate prisoners during the Civil War--more than 2,000 of them died there--and has been restored for tours. The island is also known as a wading-bird nesting area--bring binoculars--and has a walking trail for visitors.

No journey through central Delaware is complete without a stop in tiny Leipsic. Specifically, a stop at Sambo's, a shortened version of founder Sam Burrows' name, which started serving freshly caught crabs more than half a century ago. Over time, its menu has grown to include tofu, arugula and quiche. Just kidding.

"We don't do a lot of healthy things," points out Elva Burrows, Sam's daughter-in-law, who now owns the place. "[The menu] has pretty much stayed the same."

Crab, caught by local watermen, is king at Sambo's. Crab imperial, crab bisque, soft shells, steamed crabs by the half dozen, dozen or bushel (if you've never cracked your own, this is the place to learn). Then there are the crab cakes. Huge, meaty, moist, deep-fried to perfection.

If you can tear yourself away, next head to Dover. Just outside town is Spence's Bazaar, an indoor and open-air marketplace, flea market, auction barn and farm stand for three-quarters of a century. Every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, outdoor sellers offer VHS tapes, T-shirts, ash trays and other treasures, booth owners in one building sell a slightly higher grade of stuff, auctions go on out back, and Amish merchants set out meats, cheeses, sweets, jams and baked goods.

Visitors who prefer history over lawn mower parts find plenty in Dover. Ground zero is the Green, a town square that was laid out in 1717 and is the heart of the city's historic district. At one end is a marker noting where the Golden Fleece Tavern stood. It was at the Golden Fleece on Dec. 7, 1787, that Delaware became the first state to ratify the Constitution (Sambo's would have been a better location, but it was still 160-some years away).

Because Dover is the capital, it's chockablock with lawyers' offices and government buildings. But it's also sprinkled with surprises, like the Johnson Victrola Museum.

Located on New Street, a couple of blocks from the Green, it is dedicated to Eldridge Reeves Johnson, the Wilmington-born and Dover-raised inventor responsible for the Victor Talking Machine Co. It is packed with talking machines, advertising material and Johnson's personal effects. Don't try to sort it all out; that's what Dottie Harper is for.

"It's not the kind of place you just walk around. You have to have a tour to get the whole scope of things," says Harper, one of the museum's interpreters.

Around the corner on the same block are two more museums--the Museum of Small Town Life and the Delaware Archaeology Museum--in what had been the Old Presbyterian Church and its Sunday school. And a short walk away is the Biggs Museum of American Art, in the visitors center on Federal Street.

At the opposite end of the cultural spectrum: Dover International Speedway, home to two NASCAR weekends a year; and Dover Downs Hotel and Casino, with harness racing, slots, entertainment and more.

And before leaving Dover, that rock 'n' roll tidbit . . .

In early 1956, rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins had just hit it big with his song "Blue Suede Shoes." And with an appearance scheduled for the nationally broadcast " Perry Como Show," he was going to be even bigger. But on March 21, the car he was riding in collided with a pickup truck near Dover, sending Perkins to the hospital with three fractured vertebrae, a broken collarbone and a concussion. Two weeks later, as he recuperated, Perkins saw his friend Elvis Presley perform "Blue Suede Shoes" on national TV. And while Perkins had the original hit with "Shoes," it's the Presley version that most people remember and that helped launch The King.

Our Delaware 9 adventure ends just south of Dover, where the highway merges with Delaware 1, which takes us in the direction of Lewes. Settled in the 1630s by the Dutch, it has a long maritime history, from Captain Kidd and Blackbeard to coming under fire from British ships in the War of 1812 (the Cannonball House Museum still has a cannonball embedded in it) to German U-boat sightings in World War II. Lewes and the surrounding area also are home to a spacious beach, the Zwaanendael Museum, the Dogfish Head brewery (in nearby Milton) and the Nanticoke Indian Museum (Millsboro). There's also a ferry that runs to Cape May, N.J., and its Victorian delights.

A couple of miles south of Lewes and we're back at Rehoboth, with its crowds, salt-water taffy and legendary Grotto Pizza (really, in these parts it is legendary). And, of course, shopping. Tax-free shopping.

"It is a tremendous draw and a benefit to the state, especially to the resort area," Everhart says. "The downtown [Rehoboth] area has all the specialty shops, and so many restaurants are independently owned. So whether eating or shopping for clothing, it's all tax free."

Delaware doesn't miss the sales tax revenue. The state estimates that each day visitor to Rehoboth contributes $100 to the local economy per day; overnight visitors contribute a minimum of $200 per day. With 7 million visitors--half day-trippers, half on extended stays--the revenue is flowing.

Shopping is so popular that people who are on vacation in other states come to Delaware for it.

Molly (she declined to give her last name) and her family were staying at a relative's summer home in Ocean City, Md., and drove up.

"I just like the outlets," she said, sitting on a bench at one of the malls along Delaware 1. "There are outlets in Ocean City, but this is bigger. It's something to do when you don't want to go to the beach."

Sometimes, though, the shopping experience is more necessity than fun.

Carter Bryce, a Chicago business consultant, was on his way to Dewey Beach--less commercial and less crowded than Rehoboth, and dog-friendly--when his car was broken into at a rest stop. The thief swiped all his clothes, so one of his first orders of business was a stop at Wal-Mart to replenish his wardrobe. The lack of a sales tax was a bonus.

"The first thing I noticed, since I travel a lot, is that the tourism business is not as sluggish as other tourist towns I've visited recently," he says. "I attribute that to the lack of a sale tax."

And, don't forget, it's not Jersey.

Learn about the First State at www.visitdelaware.com. and visit www.beach-fun.com to see what's going on in Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach.

What to do in Delaware

ONGOING"Sealed in Glass, Stone, and Tin," an exhibit at the Museum of Small Town Life in Dover, through Dec. 31. (316 S. Governors Ave., Dover; 302-739-3261)

"Emeline Hawkins: Her Journey from Slavery to Freedom on the Underground Railroad," at the New Castle Court House Museum, through Dec. 31, 2009. (211 Delaware St., New Castle; 302-323-4453)

"Rediscovery Through Recovery," an exhibit of artifacts salvaged from a British ship that sank off Lewes in the 18th Century, at the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes, through Dec. 31, 2009. (102 Kings Highway, Lewes; 302-645-1148)

CALENDAR OF EVENTSOct. 31-Nov. 1: American Finals Rodeo 31, Delaware State Fairgrounds, Harrington South Dupont Highway, Harrington. (302-398-3269, www.apra.com/afr.cfm)

2009

Feb. 20-22: Hockessin Art Festival. Hockessin Memorial Hall. (1225 Old Lancaster Pike, Hockessin; 302-239-5279; www.wwrr.com)

March 7: Rehoboth Beach Chocolate Festival, Rehoboth Beach Convention Center (229 Rehoboth Ave.; 302-227-6181; www.rehomain.com/downtown_happenings/chocolate.htm)

March: Opening of "Shipbuilding in the First State," Delaware Visitors Center and Galleries, Dover. (406 Federal St., Dover; 302-739-4266)

April 17-19: "Meals from the Masters Weekend," a culinary extravaganza of food and wine in Wilmington. Various locations. (302-656-3257, www.mealsfromthemasters.com)

May 16: A Day in Old New Castle, an 85-year tradition of touring private homes and gardens. Various locations. (877-496-9498, www.dayinoldnewcastle.org)

May 29-31: NASCAR triple-header weekend, Dover International Speedway. (1131 N. Dupont Highway, Dover; 302-883-6500; www.doverspeedway.com)

June: Opening of "Simple Machines," John Dickinson Plantation. (340 Kitts Hummock Rd., Dover; 302-739-3277)

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