State park visitors with active beach fishing permits can access their waterfront spots by car. (Myscha Theriault/TNS)

Lewes, Del., a uniquely American beach getaway

If you’re looking for a quiet weekend beach getaway that lets you skip the tacky trinket shops and overdeveloped strip in favor of quaint coastal charm, an intriguing history going back to the United States’ earliest days and a surprisingly well-developed shopping scene, there’s a tiny town in southern Delaware that might be just what the travel doctor ordered. With a strong agricultural influence and plenty of laid-back locals in work boots and ball caps, Lewes provides a refreshing slice of classic Americana within easy reach of the Washington Beltway. From art galleries and free waterfront concerts, to brewery options and costumed historical tavern chats complete with alcohol, here are my favorite ways to enjoy it.

Visitors to Lewes stop in the charming downtown area to enjoy a treat at the local ice cream shop. (Myscha Theriault/TNS)
Photo: Myscha Theriault/TNS

Access: Less than a three-hour drive from Washington or Baltimore, and only two hours by car from Philly, the town is easily accessible for a significant number of East Coast residents. Once you arrive, Hotel Rodney offers the easiest access to the shopping and historic districts. Rooms are a comfy balance of mod style and vintage charm, and the downstairs bar is a fun spot to relax at the end of the day if you don’t feel like going out again. Bonus? The free parking for guests lets you skip the stress of dealing with parking meters and is an easy walking distance to an abundance of the town’s activities.

Visitors arriving from across the bay in New Jersey are able to start their vacation fun before they ever get to the state, by hopping the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. It’s a relaxing ride on the water with deck chairs, food and beverage service, and the breeze of the open ocean. Round-trip individual tickets are less than 20 bucks, with no extra fees for Fido. Cyclists get an extra value as well, as their bikes get to travel the ferry for free.

Activities: Incidentally, the Lewes ferry terminal is a popular hangout spot. If you want to relax before or after your ferry ride with a drink or snack, chances are you’ll run into more than a few locals who use it as a pet-friendly spot to enjoy the waterfront, watch the boats and grab some grub. Seafood fans will especially enjoy their conch fritters and crab dip. While their afternoon happy-hour specials are a deal during the rest of the week, Sunday’s extended happy hour at the terminal runs until closing time, providing an even greater last-minute value for those waiting to catch that last boat back to Jersey. The terminal also hosts free Thursday night lawn concerts on certain dates during the summer, and offers complimentary mini golf.

Additional free summer concerts are provided at Canalfront Park, along with public yoga and other community exercise events. With all of the boutiques, tours and other things to do, one could easily forget the town’s beach. Grab an ice cream and your towel, and relax by the waves with Fido or your significant other while you soak up the sun. Also of note are the extensive beaches, bike trails and other amenities at Cape Henlopen State Park. Locals in the know take regular advantage of the section set aside for permitted fishing. It is this section of the park where visitors may navigate off-road vehicles directly to their shore front spot, providing an unexpected margarita lifestyle vibe on the Mid-Atlantic coast.

The park also offers a hands-on nature center, seasonal hawk watching and the Fort Miles Historical Area, featuring World War II barracks, artillery exhibits and a restored underground chamber complete with an outfitted battle plotting room, vintage artillery systems and more. A number of camping options are also available here, making it a great option for those visiting Lewes with a four-legged friend. The park waives the $10 entrance fee for those who choose the campground as their overnight accommodation option.

If you’re looking for a relaxing water activity that lets you work off some vacation calories, Quest Adventures offers guided kayak tours to suit a variety of interests and needs. Most are priced at $65, with options including a pints and paddles tour to an area brewery, a dolphin experience, sunset kayaking and a guided historical tour you enjoy from the water. The history paddle is only one of many such activities available to visitors. With an active local historical society and an abundant collection of period buildings housing artifacts and activity venues, fans of yesteryear will find lots to love.

Beverages: In general, Lewes has no shortage of places to bend an elbow. Whether it’s the $7 wine tastings with free tours at Nassau Valley Vineyards, a canal-side cocktail at Gilligan’s or any number of other adult beverage options, finding a place to relax with a drink after a kayak tour or an afternoon of gift shopping won’t be a problem. If you have time to squeeze in one of the local breweries, however, driving by Dogfish Head for a tour and a pour will be worth your tourist time. Canine-friendly inside and out, they offer complimentary behind-the-scenes experiences and four free beer samples every visit, making it easy to taste your way through the menu in search of your favorite flavor. They even have a cool steampunk tree house outside with the picnic tables.

Crooked Hammock is another fun brewery option with a laid back, funky vibe. Quirky decorations and a backyard garden area with hammocks, a fire pit, children’s playground and grassy area for youngsters and canines to romp around all combine for a great place to unwind after a day of exploring. Those who enjoyed the World War II exhibits at the state park will find a nifty history nugget here as well, in the form of one of their in-house brews. Named after area resident Richard Mootz, one of the real-life heroes who inspired the movie “The Monuments Men,” Mootzy’s Treasure is a citrusy IPA that’s worth a try.

Eats: If you want to grab a bite while you’re at one of those rare spots that lets kids, dogs and grownups relax at the same time, Crooked Hammock also has a super fun menu with plenty of options for vegetarians, including their massive nacho platter, hummus plate and giant Bavarian pretzels. While it can also be difficult to say no to their pineapple wings, it’s their side dish menu that deserves a shout-out. You’ll find plenty of unusual items such as watermelon salad, baked beans cooked in molasses and beer, orzo with sun-dried tomatoes and more. In fact, their sides are so popular, they even let you mix and match an order of three for $7.

Lewes has a number of perfectly fine breakfast options, but my favorite is the Lewes Bake Shoppe and Notting Hill Coffee Roastery. Offering a variety of coffees, baked goods and even a hot cocoa menu, it’s a great place to stop for a quick bite. Touch of Italy is a great lunch option at an affordable mid-range price. With a wide selection of wood fired pizzas, antipasti boards that are sized to share and a stick-to-your-ribs rigatoni bolognese, you definitely won’t leave hungry. They also have a meat and cheese deli, as well as a full counter of sugary yummies to satisfy your sweet tooth. My money’s on the cannoli.

If you only have room in your vacation budget for one over-the-top meal splurge, make sure it’s dinner at The Buttery. Located in a romantic 1894 Victorian building, it’s a must for couples searching for a memorable atmosphere. Standout menu items include their regional cheese boards, artisanal cocktails and fresh-off-the-boat jumbo scallops with asparagus and crispy pancetta. The Buttery also offers a reasonable wine selection and decadent desserts. Perhaps the coolest thing about this place however, is how they are able to provide a high-end dining experience in an elegant atmosphere that still feels a bit like home.

All in all, I would say this little seaside town on the southern coast of Delaware is a hidden gem more seasoned beachgoers need to put directly on their travel radar. Whether you are looking for a place to spend a long romantic weekend, go shopping with the girls or take some time away as a family, you’ll find something here to suit your vacation needs.

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