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Delaware: for a slower pace Day trips from ocean city provide close look at history, wildlife


Although the post-Memorial Day crush has not invaded Ocean City, one can feel the pulsating energy along this narrow strip of land. But just a few miles over the Delaware line, it's a world of history, wildlife and serenity.

And it's so close. It can be done in a day trip from Ocean City, or can be split up into several short diversions.

The first stop, the Fenwick Lighthouse, is actually located a few feet from the Maryland border.

The Assawoman Wildlife Area, about 10 miles inland, is well-known to hunters in the fall, but in the spring and summer, it's a quiet refuge for bird- and nature-watching.

Also, consider visiting the boardwalk in Bethany Beach, Del., which is about seven miles from Ocean City. It's a nice change of pace from the liveliness of Ocean City's boardwalk. You won't

find towering hotels or amusement rides there.

Fenwick Lighthouse

The Fenwick Lighthouse was first lighted in August 1859, and you can learn about its folklore during open houses that are held twice a month during the summer (only the base is open to visitors). You will be able to view photos and hear turn-of-the-century tales of life in Fenwick Island, Del.

For W. Paul Pepper, 83, president of the Friends of Fenwick Lighthouse which is preserving the landmark, it is a quest to save neighborhood history and his own. His great grandfather was the third lighthouse keeper, and he raised his family in the adjacent house.

"People are giving up all historical places and just come in and bulldoze it down," says Mr. Pepper. "Like the lighthouse, once it's gone, it never comes back."

Inside the 87-foot lighthouse are faded photographs that chronicle the lives of another era. There are photos of sheep grazing in the fields surrounding the lighthouse, and plots of the religious camp meetings that were started in 1898.

The Friends of the Lighthouse finally acquired the lighthouse in 1981 after the U.S. Coast Guard closed it in 1978. Mr. Pepper started collecting items to put on display and surveyed his friends to find the photographs that are now on display.

"It was a job to get this together, because very few people had old pictures like this. We had to scrounge around to get them here and there. I thought it was nice to let people know what went on here, because most people don't have any idea what this was like," Mr. Pepper says.

The lighthouse is the main attraction in Fenwick Island, but take time to note the monument stone of the Transpeninsular Line located outside the lighthouse gate. Lord Baltimore and William Penn and then their descendants spent about a hundred years in an argument over the ownership of Fenwick Island.

Surveyors settled the dispute in 1750 when they marked the Transpeninsular Line, the east-west state line that separates Maryland and Delaware. The next year, the stone monument was put in place, where it still stands today, with the coat of arms of the Calvert family of Maryland on the south side and the coat of arms of the Penn family of Pennsylvania on the north side.

Also, check out an original wrought-iron salt pot located inside the lighthouse fence. Salt-making was big business in the area in the late 1700s. It was used locally and also shipped to Philadelphia.

Assawoman Wildlife Area

Assawoman, like much of Delaware, is understated. Visitors won't see a sign directing them to Assawoman until they've reached the entrance, but fortunately there are several signs for its neighbor, Camp Barnes, a summer camp for disadvantaged children.

Once you find it, Assawoman is a quiet place to bird-watch, see wetlands, picnic, fish or go crabbing.

"Rainy days at the beach mean people will be over here crabbing," says Robert D. Gano, fish and wildlife regional manager for Sussex County, Del.

New this year are free brochures for a self-guided car tour. By the end of the month, the brochures will be available at the entrance to the wildlife area.

Assawoman is home for migrating and winter waterfowl, white-tailed deer, bobwhite quail, Canadian geese, black and mallard ducks, in addition to an assortment of frogs and snakes. Be on the lookout for Delmarva fox squirrels, an endangered species that was introduced to Assawoman nine years ago.

Summer visitors are likely to see snowy egrets, which have distinctive yellow feet; black skimmers, birds that feed by skimming the water and plucking fish out with their lower bills; great blue herons, a long-legged wading bird that stalks water life along the shores; and osprey, large birds that catch fish with their feet.

Along the fringes of Assawoman's 1,700 acres are tidal marshes. From an observation tower that is open to the public, you can get a good view of the impoundments that were created by damning off tidal marshes to hold fresh water. This was done in the 1950s to control mosquitoes and attract water birds, Mr. Gano says.

An impoundment can be good for the environment if managed properly, says Mr. Gano. "The water levels can be changed. We drop the level down in the springtime to allow plants to germinate. It is slightly less salty than the marsh [and has] plants that are good for water birds," he says.

Assawoman isn't a state park, so recreational facilities are somewhat limited.

Bethany Beach

While Ocean City is gearing up for a frenetic summer season, its neighbor, Bethany Beach, is just starting to think about rousing from its winter slumber. Everything about Bethany is quiet and restrained.

The tidy boardwalk has a few modest refreshment stands and low-rise hotels and condominiums.

"We don't have any big bars or restaurants down here. It's more discreet," says Kay Anderson, executive director of the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce.

In 1894, a summer camp for the Christian Missionary Society of Washington was set up in Bethany, and the town was founded in 1901. The religious sentiments of the first settlers are still evident in modern times.

It took a lawsuit by a local restaurant owner that went to the U.S. Supreme Court before it was legal to serve liquor in Bethany Beach. The court case was originally brought by Arnold Brown, owner of the Holiday House restaurant in Bethany. Although it has been legal to serve liquor in restaurants since 1983, the town still does not have any bars.

Several homes of the first settlers are still inhabited. One is the Addy Sea, which was built by John Addy in 1905. At the time it was noted for having the first indoor bathrooms and plumbing and gas lamps. Located at North Atlantic and Ocean View Parkway, the 15-bedroom Victorian house is operated as a bed and breakfast.

Frances Gravatte, who has spent summers in Bethany since 1941, oversees the bed and breakfast for her son, Leroy T. Gravatte III, of Springfield, Va. Mrs. Gravatte says she has seen changes in Bethany over the years. "Only the cedar shingle houses were here in the '40s and there were dirt roads," she says.

But some things haven't changed. The town prefers to remain low-key. "We don't have a public relations office and we don't advertise for visitors," says Dean Phillips, town manager of Bethany Beach. "We think [people] will find us, and they have. We don't encourage it."

Delaware day trips

Fenwick Island Lighthouse: 146th Street at Light House Avenue; open June 9 and 23, July 7 and 21, Aug. 4 and 18; hours 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Assawoman Wildlife Area: From Ocean City, take Route 54 West, follow the signs to Camp Barnes (right on Route 381, at stop sign make right on Route 384, right on Route 363, right on Route 364). Hours 7 a.m. to sunset.

Bethany Beach: From Assawoman: Route 364, right on Route 363 and follow signs to Bethany. Make right on Route 361 and a right on Garfield Parkway into Bethany Beach. From Ocean City: Go north on Coastal Highway, which becomes Route 1 at the Delaware line. Located about seven miles from Ocean City.

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