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Fenwick Island

If false advertising perturbs you, then you need to know something about Fenwick Island, Del., before you visit: It's not really an island. "The Quiet Resort" -- as promotional brochures have dubbed this diminutive peninsular community - is nestled between Ocean City, Maryland and Bethany Beach. Though Fenwick shares many of the same attractions as other Atlantic coast beaches, it has a distinctly different ambience.

Spread out: Fenwick's low-key beach is great for families who want to relax. (Photo by Patrick Swoboda, Special to SunSpot)


While Ocean City is jam-packed with attractions and amusements as far as the eyes can see, Fenwick Island is comparatively laid-back and low-key. Its most bountiful lodgings are picaresque bayside houses, which replace the high-rise hotels and motels that populate the areas due south with a more residential, small-town feel. (It reminds one of New England and has approximately 200 citizens who call it home year-round. During the summer months, the population swells, reaching 10-12,000.) Fenwick isn't the kind of place where youthful thrill-seekers come to celebrate their high school graduations, get a body part pierced or revel drunkenly on the sand after midnight. This is part of its draw.

Fenwick appeals to beach-goers who like Ocean City's sun, surf and sand, but don't particularly care for its hustle and bustle. Just north of Ocean City, where 146th Street ends, Fenwick (and Delaware) begins. Fenwick duplicates some of Ocean City's popular stores and eateries, and what it lacks is accessible a short drive -- or a brisk walk -- up the road. If you've rented one of Fenwick's cozy cottages for a week and are looking for entertainment on a rainy weekday, don't pout. Fenwick may lack a video store or an eight-screen movie theater, but you can find both nearby at the northern-most points of Ocean City.

Familiar flavor, different digs

One-stop shopping: Sunsations is the place to go for everything you need for a day at the beach. (Photo by Patrick Swoboda, Special to SunSpot)


Like its southern cousin, Fenwick Island has a boardwalk. But unlike Ocean City, you may be inclined to use air quotes when referring to it. Where Ocean City's boardwalk stretches on and on with stores, restaurants, arcades and a scenic view of the Atlantic, Fenwick's boardwalk consists of a small strip of eateries bayside of Coastal Highway. Pretzels, funnel cakes, pizza, French fries, ice cream and Fisher's Popcorn are all available for noshing. And that's about it.

Although the boardwalk doesn't contain any retail outlets per se, you can satiate your shopping needs elsewhere in Fenwick Island. The nearby Village of Fenwick offers 15 stores in a quaint, convenient retail area, including the print/poster/picture hut Ocean Gallery, which can also be found on Ocean City's boardwalk with spectacularly tacky architecture that makes some passers-by stop and gawk. That Fenwick's Ocean Gallery is a pleasant, small-scale shop appropriately summarizes the difference between the two resorts.

Fenwick's shopping doesn't cater to just one taste. For every Seaside Country Store (a yesteryear outlet that features homemade fudge, antique collectibles and Victorian furnishings), there's a Sunsations, that staple of beach retail that hawks important necessities like towels, T-shirts and sunglasses. If there's something you're after that you can't find, Ocean City, with its everything-and-the-kitchen-sink offerings, is right next store. But remember, the perk to shopping in Fenwick is that -- as with all of Delaware -- it's duty-free!

Dining out and soaking up

Eats: Shark's Cove provides a cool place to grab a bite or a drink. (Photo by Patrick Swoboda, Special to SunSpot)


Aside from the tax break, Fenwick is probably most well known for its dining and diversions. Those in the mood for a seafood delicacy can visit the Fenwick Crab House, where the specialty is a sumptuous crab cake that will make your mouth water. Its bar offers a range of original drinks with odd names you may be hesitant to try -- like the Suffering Seagull and the Flaming Fenwick. Harpoon Hanna's is another popular restaurant, sort of a toned-down version of Ocean City's Seacrets. Sailors famished after a day on the water can dock at the site's piers and stop in to dine while they watch the sunset from its Tiki Bar.

Like other Atlantic beaches, Fenwick is popular with water sports enthusiasts. The Fenwick Island Surf Shop offers all the accessories and outfitting you'll need for a day on the water. The west side, which borders Assawoman Bay, is nice for sailing, rowboating or kayaking. Stop by Skeeter's Skirts, located in nearby Frankford, for a nifty mesh covering that will keep bugs and other sea critters from infiltrating your kayak.

Catch a breeze: Sailing is just one of the many activities available at Fenwick Island State Park. (Photo by Patrick Swoboda, Special to SunSpot)


The Fenwick Island State Park, a three-mile barrier island that lies between Bethany Beach to the north and Fenwick Island to the south, exists for like-minded folks. Before the site was converted to a park in 1966, its area was part of Delaware's coastal defense system during World War II. A concrete observation tower still stands near the northern boundary. Now, however, the park's 344 acres are used for activities such as swimming, surfing, fishing, sailing, windsurfing, clamming, crabbing and bird watching.

A town with an identity crisis?

Although it is a small community -- compared to the larger beaches of Rehoboth, Bethany and Ocean City -- Fenwick Island has its share of interesting landmarks, not to mention a past with a bit of an identity crisis.

History: Lookout towers, like this one in Fenwick, dot the Eastern Shore in World War II. (Photo by Patrick Swoboda, Special to SunSpot)


The town is named for Thomas Fenwick, a wealthy Virginia landowner who purchased the land in 1686. During the late 17th century, a dispute arose between the Calverts and the Penns over which state -- Delaware, Maryland or Pennsylvania -- could claim Fenwick as its own.

When King Charles I granted the Fenwick area -- and, subsequently, the entirety of Delaware -- to William Penn, it seemed as if the issue had been resolved. But the tug of war to claim Fenwick continued between Delaware and Maryland. In 1730, the king of England granted the Penns the eastern half of the Delmarva Peninsula north of Cape Henlopen. An error was made in an early map of the Fenwick area, which resulted in land intended as part of the Calvert's plot going to Penn and remaining a part of Delaware. Twenty-one years later, the Transpeninsular Line's placement marked Delaware's southern border against Maryland, and it closed the debate once and for all.

Today, tourists can revisit this history at the Fenwick Island Lighthouse, erected in 1858 and one of the area's most popular contemporary attractions. It is there that the Transpeninsular Line monument stone rests. It is the oldest man-made object between Delaware's Indian River inlet and Maryland's Ocean City inlet, its north side bearing the engraved coat of arms of the Penn family and its south side featuring the Calvert coat of arms.

Unique attractions

Get in the hole: This menacing dragon looms over miniature golfers at Viking Golf. (Photo by Patrick Swoboda, Special to SunSpot)


The Fenwick Lighthouse operated as an official navigation aid until 1978 and was initially constructed because Fenwick's dangerous shoals jutted out some five or six miles from the coast, creating a hazardous shipping environment. Its unusual structure -- the external brick tower is conical, while the inner tower has a steady eight-foot diameter -- can be explored firsthand on one of the state's summertime tours.

Perhaps Fenwick's most unique attraction is the DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum. Located above the tchotchke shop Sea Shell City, the museum offers a fascinating preservation of the Delmarva Peninsula's maritime history. It opened in July 1995, with about 20 years of research put into its displays, and is funded solely by contributions and donations. With text and visual artifacts, the museum tells the stories of area shipwrecks, like the mysterious sinking of The Juno and the reported 23 tons of silver she was carrying home in 1802. We knew Fenwick Island was culturally rich. Perhaps somewhere along the ocean floor, there are real riches to be found as well.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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