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Dawdlin' in Delaware

27 July 2001

By Catherine Poe

Let's face it, for most people Delaware isn't a destination. It's where you momentarily find yourself while passing through to somewhere else like Washington, D.C. or Philadelphia. Just ask Senator John McCain who refused to campaign in Delaware for its fistful of primary votes, saying that he only went to Delaware if he were on his way to New York.

Such snubs are not unusual for the tiny state that dangles like an afterthought between Maryland and Pennsylvania. Maybe that's why most of Delaware remains a bit behind the times and increasingly a refuge for the Amish and Mennonite communities.

The First State, as its denizens are always eager to remind you, was the first colony to sign the Constitution, no small honor in 1787. So it's fitting that it is the First State historically, while the rest of the country races madly into the 21st Century.

Sleepy back roads that meander through fields and woods, making you slow down to pass the occasional Amish horse and buggy on the way to market, and old Victorians towns, slumped in the late day sun, remind us of a way of life that has disappeared in most of America. Even the beach towns seemed to be struggling out of the 1950s, hoping to capitalize on nostalgia rather than discard it completely.

If you're looking for a getaway that reminds you of vintage Americana, complete with its kitsch, then consider dawdlin' in Delaware some long weekend.

Three to four days is probably all you will need, but start at the back door and work your way north to Wilmington and the Brandywine Valley. That means catching the ferry out of Cape May, New Jersey for an hour crossing to the old town of Lewes, founded originally by the Dutch as Valley of the Swans (800-64-FERRY or www.capemaylewesferry.com). These sleek, modern, ferries ply the saltwater passage of the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean, offering the atmosphere of a minicruise and a chance to spot dolphins that often greet and guide the ferries.

After debarking, if you have the time, meander the streets and shops of Delaware's oldest town (1631) or head out to the only vineyard in the state, the Nassau Valley Vineyards, for a taste of history and wine (302-645-WINE). If it's summer, spring or fall, make your base in Rehoboth Beach, just like the D.C. politicos do when they want to get away for a weekend. Rehoboth, which means room enough, was originally a Methodist camp meeting site, but don't worry, those days are long gone and Rehoboth has traded Bible thumping in the town square for roller blading on its boardwalk.

Today hip 40s motels vie with rambling Victorians and stucco condos for the best spot along the water. No wonder. The beaches of Delaware are magnificent and Rehoboth has had the good sense to make their town funky and fun, appealing to Gen X as much as to the soccer parents and their kids. One highlight you can't miss is the Sand Castle Contest sponsored by the Delaware State News each August. If you thought that the castle and moat you built when you were 10 was something to brag about, wait till you see the 100 or so sand sculptors of all ages compete in three areas of sand edifices, castles, animals and free forms. It's enough to make you want to dig out your old shovel and pail and start practicing for next year's event. Or if you're ready, enter this year (302-741-8204).

If you're hunkerin' down in Rehoboth, there's no dearth of places to stay, but be wise and book early for the summer. This place is popular. If you wish to splurge and indulge your taste for everything pink and Victorian, the Boardwalk Plaza Hotel (800-33-BEACH), smack dab on the beach, may be just what you're looking for, even if the tab can soar from $139 to $499 a night for a double at the height of the season. If you don't stay there, try to plan dinner ($25) or brunch ($15) in its three diamond restaurant, Victoria's, and ask for patio seating, just a few feet from the surf. If it's economy you want, the Atlantic Budget Inn-North (302-227-0401), about one and a half miles from the boardwalk, will fit the bill with rooms going for $65 to $99 a night during the summer. If it's a home-cooked breakfast, wraparound porches and elegant Victorian decor that you crave, then step into the past at the Sea Witch Manor Bed and Breakfast (302-226-9482), but also expect a bit higher tariff for all the pampering, $135-$170 a room.

POLYGLOT STATE

Too much sun and sea make you woozy? Head inland and north. Everything in this state is within two and a half hours, from one end to the other, so don't be afraid to wander or even get lost. Settled by the Dutch, the English, the Swedes, the Welsh, the Scotch-Irish, and even the Finns, Delaware didn't think twice about pushing the Native American population to near-extinction, although one tribe remains, the Nanticoke, who still hold pow wows. And if you ever wondered who was the clever soul who came up with the log cabin, look no further than the Finns, who brought that mode of abode with them, even though we think of the log cabin as American as Lincoln.

If time is tight, then skip the Brandywine Valley with its lush gardens, magnificent DuPont estates, the Wyeth Museum, and even Winterthur, because these places deserve their own weekend. Instead get a sense of old Delaware by visiting the historic houses of Odessa, owned by Winterthur, and maybe having tea. My main stop, however, would be Newcastle, one of those little towns that time forgot, leaving it like a bumblebee in amber. Newcastle was once a Dutch hub, but the English took it and gave it to William Penn after he first set foot there, adding it to his thousands of acres that later became Pennsylvania. The Quaker town flourished and prospered and produced two signers of the Declaration of Independence. In the last century, the railroad was rerouted through Wilmington, leaving New Castle behind and its seclusion ensured that its 18th Century buildings were never torn down. The centerpiece is the 1732 Courthouse anchoring the town square, as imposing today as when it was the capital of Delaware and a seat of revolutionary fervor. For blocks around, Colonial, Federal and Georgian architecture dominates, making a walking tour along the cobblestone and brick streets a living museum. Be sure to stroll on the Strand and see the houses and shops that abut the Delaware Bay. You can easily imagine Penn striding down to the docks for the latest word from England.

Hungry? I suggest you head into Wilmington, less than half an hour away, to the Hotel Du Pont and its Brandywine Room (302-594-3156), either for one of the most extensive and delicious Sunday buffet brunches you will encounter anywhere or for a sumptuous dinner. The room itself is worth the price of a meal, which is not cheap at $25 a head, but the gargantuan ceilings, the wood paneling, the ornate carvings, the Wyeth and Brandywine artists, all make the room as impressive as the food. Afterwards explore the newly renovated hotel, a museum in itself, and see why it is worthy of the DuPont name. If you have time, try to get tickets to the latest Broadway-bound show in The Playhouse, a 1913 theatre tucked deep into the DuPont Hotel (800-338-0881).

DOVER DOWNS

However, you may want something simpler to do and if rambling down country back roads is much too simple, I suggest you stop in Dover. It has history and it has slots. First the history. As the capitol of Delaware, Dover is proud of its Federal buildings and the nearby square of Federal homes, looking for all the world like a little corner of London. Do stop at the governor's mansion, Woodburn, a handsome Georgian mansion, built in 1709, and once a famous station on the Underground Railroad. Even though Governor Thomas Carper resides there, tours by appointment are given. More amazing is how accessible the house is, minus the fences, guards and trappings that usually accompany such a home. It is symbolic of just how modest Delaware really is.

For kids and parents, a trip to the Delaware Agricultural Museum and Village is a living history program and not as dry as its name may indicate. Two hundred years of Delaware rural life are celebrated, including one of the original log cabins and an 1890s village. Even though Delaware's Underground Railroad was highly successful whisking slaves out of the deep South, there were still those who held on to the old life and ran plantations. One that you can visit without charge is the John Dickinson Plantation, just outside of Dover. The owner was renowned as the Penman of the Revolution for his tracts supporting the Revolution and for helping to draft the Articles of Confederation. To wander the grounds and tour the house is to visit another century.

By this time, your dogs are probably barkin' and you're ready for a sit-down in some place with air conditioning and cool drinks. Then it's time to head for Dover Downs Slots (302-674-4600), where their slogan is "Where the Best Keeps Getting Better." Taking a Mediterranean garden as its theme, the casino brags about its ceiling of blue skies, floating clouds and 24 hours of sunshine, not that I saw anybody noticing. They were all fixated by the 2000 state of the art slot machines that offered games from blackjack to keno to draw poker to the garden variety slots. One ring of slots presented a 2000 metallic green Toyota RAV4 as its jackpot. Other weeks it's a boat or cash. Open 363 days a year from 8am to 2am most days and from 1pm to 2am on Sundays, the place is always hopping.

Not only does Dover Downs Slots resemble an Atlantic City casino, like its bigger and ritzier brothers, it has a waterfall bar, two gourmet restaurants, and monthly concerts. The headline artists include such big names as Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Gladys Knight, Wayne Newton, and the Temptations. In June and September, NASCAR comes to town and the 125,000 seat speedway stadium that looms over the casino adds to the excitement, making this a Mecca for racing and gaming fans.

By the end of the day, it's time to drive back to Rehoboth and spend a balmy evening on the boardwalk, sampling the famous saltwater taffy of Dolle's as you meander the beach.

If you're like me, at the end of the day you may find yourself thinking about that Finn who chopped down a stand of trees to build the first log cabin. What would he make of today's Delaware with its curious mixture of Amish buggies and slot machines?

Catherine Poe
Catherine Poe is a novelist, screenplay writer, and essayist who just loves to travel. You'll note that all her travel pieces are perfect for those who wish to combine some kind of gaming entertainment with their otherwise mainstream vacation plans.