The Other Side of Delaware’s Seashore

At the beach without a cloud in the sky and hot, I found myself forgoing the popular Atlantic beaches of Rehoboth, Dewey, Bethany, and Fenwick Island of Delaware in lieu of sipping a 300 year-old sample of local shipwreck rum offered by the gracious owner of a modest second floor maritime and artifact museum displaying once molten gold fingers poured by local buccaneers of the 18th century. The gold bars were two fingers wide and could visualize the owner hurriedly melting the metal at the beach to prepare for shipping while looking over this shoulder.

The wet sand at the water edge provided the firm finger-drawn depressions needed to quickly cool the gleaming liquid before smuggling it shipboard. Also on display were colonial coins, jewelry – some of which the Spanish government offered to purchase back, tales of Blackbeard visits and artifacts of the sinking of the pre-Titanic cruise ship R.M.S Republic. If customary beach activities in the mid-Atlantic get a bit old, many are unaware that this modest state has incredible seaside natural and cultural historical attractions – and lessons – when knowing where to look.

Many readers of older National Geographics may have read with fascination about Mel Fischer and his family’s passion for marine archeology, and finding the largest sunken treasure in history – the Spanish galleon Atocha. What made it even more intriguing is these passionate historians were neither affluent, materially motivated, nor professionals and learned on the job. My host and proprietor, Dale Clifton, was one of them and contrary to some misperceptions, dedicated his life to finding the living history behind the artifacts even to the point of reuniting them with their ancestors’ descendants. This stimulated the imagination even further as there are few of us who have not entertained such day dream scenarios.

Keeping the fruits of their labor even at the expense of some lost lives proved as difficult as finding the wreck but the Atocha team eventually succeeded and prevailed after years of litigation in the US Supreme Court when government agencies conveniently started paying attention and laying claim to their finds only when the treasure was actually found. But Dale was a modest kid-next-door with a fascination in history and pirate gold who grew up in the Delaware Atlantic beaches – honing his skill by actually finding coins and jewelry washed up right on the area’s most popular beaches and you can too.
My favorite tale was of his first treasure find not unlike an abbreviated version of the movie American Treasure rivaling Nicholas Cage. After stumbling across an old book in a Williamsburg, Virginia, antique book store as a teenager, he noted an inserted map and, after numerous readings, a code of strategically placed pin holes over the letters on the book pages. These letters actually spelled out directions for finding a chest of valuables hidden for future family investment by the writer. After months of accounting for changes in beaches, lighthouses and landmarks, he found one of the locations of the original book owner’s chests along with some of the local family history. This is a favorite museum display and five more chests remain to be found some day.
Dale’s self taught expertise from hunting relics above and below the water, chemically restoring them, and researching the many histories (even in Spain) and cultural lifestyles for clues so exceeded the expertise of book-learned scholars, a college professor actually asked him to teach one of his courses based solely in these abilities. Contrary to stereotypes of exotic Caribbean locales, the Delaware seashore provides one of the highest concentrations of washed up artifacts in the entire Eastern seaboard due to the unique combination of international shipping access to Philadelphia via the Delaware Bay as well as the improved preservation qualities of colder silty water.

The popular Atlantic beaches of the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia (Delmarva) peninsula have beckoned those in the Mid-Atlantic every summer by offering a plethora of enriching beach pleasures for every taste from families to retirees and party goers. But with all the crowds and concrete, it is easy to forget there are hugely under appreciated historical and natural resources as well as leisure opportunities highly concentrated in coastal Delaware. While I could not resist highlighting my favorite – Dale’s museum – there are many other unique worthy diversions along the Delaware’s coast.

Most are in outstanding and creative state parks and my favorite is Cape Henlopen State Park just north of Rehoboth – try the numerous guided nature appreciation walks and kayaking and do not miss the massive horseshoe crab spawning in the spring. For history, Fort Miles in the same park offers the best trip back in time to experience a completely intact and preserved WWII military installation with a massive big bore cannon to protect potential Nazi invasions (a real possibility then). Sign up for an evening lantern tour or some interpretive games for the kids including firing trajectories, code breaking and concealment. Delaware Seashore State Park to the South has an enriching wetland and estuarine inland bay pontoon boat tour and is a great place to learn crabbing and surf fishing for first timers. On the historic side, the park is home to the Indian River Life Saving Station built in 1876 – one of the last U. S. Lifesaving Stations in the country and precursor to the US Coast Guard.
Colonial history buffs will most enjoy walking through the small town of Lewes (pronounced Loo-iss) for a comfortable self guided tour of maritime history – pick up a map of the history trail at the Lewes Visitor’s Center – and finish the day watching the Lewes/Cape May, New Jersey, ferry load and unload everything from pedestrians to tractor trailer trucks. In the waterfront neighborhood see the Zwaanendael Museum – I learned here that the Dutch settled this first European colony before the English – and the Historical Society Museum with the 1812 cannonball in the wall. If lighthouses are your thing, then sign up in advance (they fill up fast due to guide boat only access) for a tour of the Harbor of Refuge or Breakwater East End Lighthouse which are also great photo opportunities. Include a tour of one of the last remaining Lightboats in Lewes’s waterfront.

Premium relaxing adult time can be found at many places away from the beach. Start with Baywood Greens – one of the nicest public golf courses I have ever seen. The 18-hole championship course is creatively sprinkled with outstanding landscaped natural areas and water features. Finish up at the elegant Baywood Restaurant or for something different, zip on over to a wine tasting at Delaware’s only winery, Nassau County Vineyards, founded by a visionary jazz singer after being told it would never succeed and include a self guided tour of the winery and its history. For the equivalent beer experience, visit the local Dogfish Head Brewery and Restaurant and alternate with the current show at Rehoboth Theatre of the Arts featuring concerts and Las Vegas style shows.

If more me-time is on order then visit the area’s renowned and competitive full service spa, Bad Hair Day, at either of their two locations – one at Atlantic Sands Hotel on the boardwalk and the other on Lake Avenue. My masseuse, Rudi, gave me the best massage ever and found knots in my muscles I never knew I had – her expertise and skill were so phenomenal, I went back to her again. At that visit I also put my hair in the hands of JC who gave me the best haircut (OK – and took out some gray also). She actually matched up the color with sample strips similar to paint charts at Home Depot – which I appreciated as a Tim Tayloresque connoisseur of hardware stores, power tools and home improvement. My hair not only rocked but I appreciated the 20 minute preliminary shampoo and scalp massage. The over the top customer service even included wine, tea, beer, coffee bar, water, and soda. Melody and Sara at the front desk were very helpful and helped me be at ease as I do not do “spa” very often. I confess I passed on the cucumbers, lotions and eyebrow waxing but hey, I am a guy and little steps – sorry – maybe next time.

One of my favorite qualities of the area are the more locally appreciated places to eat and socialize. As with many seasonal resorts, some of the more popular can be tourist oriented and while not necessarily a disappointment, one can do better if knowing where to look – especially when off season. A popular theme is the Happy Hour and winter specials on Monday so go ahead and explore on foot and try whatever suits your whims. Some suggestions to get started are the grilled cheese and tomato soup at Irish Eyes; flat bread concoctions at Porchinis; and Louis’ pizza by the slice. Sting Ray has an outstanding Asian and Latino cuisine and Confucius’s fare is excellent. For a new Thai restaurant, try Lilly and authentic fish tacos and marguerittas with hand squeezed limes are best at Agave.

Go Fish is great for authentic fish and chips and stuffing your face with the Sticky Toffee Taffy dessert. 1776 is not only a steak house but has the best lobster ravioli covered in crab meat and sherry cream. Include a side order of fresh baked rolls with honey butter and a glass of wine. In October, their annual beer fest features 20 plus international beers. For more mainstream fare, Nicolas has the best family pizza dining experience and Grotto is considered the taste of Delaware. For discerning tastes, Casa di Leo has one foot New York thin slices and Bono has Greek style. The absolute best authentic Mexican food is El Dorado with a Baja California menu followed by Dos Locos. Other comfort fare includes the local Thrasher fries and 5 Guys Burgers which ironically has the best hot dogs and Gus’s fried chicken to round things out.

Finally, do not miss the best free evening activity – an outdoor concert at the downtown Rehoboth gazebo on the boardwalk. If summer beaching is getting maybe just a little bit routine (admit it), this will make it exciting all over again.