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.
Why go to Delaware?
Beaches, shopping make it a magnet for millions
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