Residents of the nation’s second smallest state often trade Dela-where? stories.
“You’re from where?” asks the barista in Seattle or the shopkeeper in London. “Delaware. Hmm. Is that somewhere near New York?” is how it commonly goes.
As a native-born Delawarean, I can contribute my own Dela-where? story. Shortly after moving to Dallas in the early 90s, I was in a JC Penney’s picking up a few things and I paid by check. The clerk asked to see my driver’s license but didn’t think it was real because, as she said, “Delaware is part of Pennsylvania.”
Well, yes, a long time ago it was. But since 1776, when William Penn got rid of the “three lower counties,” Delaware has been on its own. And mostly ignored, except when the multitude of businesses incorporated here stop by to have an annual meeting and the Wall Street Journal takes note.
But now that Joe Biden is vice president, Delaware is on the map. Or so many Delawareans think. In the first months after Obama and Biden were sworn in, the state tourism office was in a tizzy about the expected onslaught of visitors to Joe’s backyard. But it’s been more than a year since the inauguration and I’ve yet to see roads clogged with out-of-state license plates.
So is Delaware worth a visit? Frankly, if Joe Biden and Delaware had been in a beauty pageant against Sarah Palin and Alaska, Delaware would have been decimated. Sandwiched in the middle of the East Coast, halfway between New York and Washington, Delaware doesn’t have glaciers, grizzlies, or humpback whales. Alaska boasts Mt. McKinley, at 20,320 ft. the highest mountain in the U.S. Delaware’s highest point is a road that soars to a dizzying 448 ft. (only Florida can claim a lower highest elevation).
Nonetheless, Delaware is worth a weekend visit with your family, or a full week if you plan to hit the beach. If you’re lucky enough to have kids who appreciate art and gardens, head to northern Delaware, where Biden has a house (he still returns many weekends). If you’re into swimming, birding, boating and other outdoorsy stuff, focus your visit on southern Delaware.
Northern Delaware – Fine art and flora
Northern Delaware’s top-notch museums and gardens include 300-room Winterthur Museum, Nemours Mansion and the Delaware Art Museum. Just over the state line, in Chester County, Pa., you’ll find the Brandywine River Museum (aka the Wyeth museum) and Longwood Gardens, which deservedly calls itself one of the world’s premier gardens. Joe Biden lives in the midst of what’s dubbed “chateau country,” west of Wilmington. It’s full of old du Pont mansions and new mansions, but no McMansions. This is strictly the real McCoys here.
If you’re a museum or garden fanatic but your kids aren’t, time your visit around a kid-friendly special event. For example, family concerts at Longwood Gardens include Stevesongs on July 30 and Roger Day on August 13. Be sure to check out the BeeAmazed Children’s Garden and three spectacular outdoor treehouses.
Southern Delaware – Scrapple sandwiches, NASCAR and great beaches
You know you’ve crossed the Mason-Dixon line once you go over the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. Folks down here ride in pick-ups, not the Range Rovers found in chateau country. “Yes ma’am” and “no sir” is how you’re apt to be addressed. And the house special at local restaurants is usually chicken & dumplings or scrapple sandwiches. Scrapple, for the uninitiated, is a fried pork product that has been described as “everything but the oink.”
Plenty of people who don’t crave NASCAR and country music do flock to southern Delaware, usually for its stretch of sandy beaches that line the Atlantic. The upscale beach towns of Rehoboth, Dewey and Bethany have been frequented by the Beltway crowd forever — a sign at the entrance to Rehoboth declares that the town is “The Nation’s Summer Capital.”
Autumn can be the very best time to enjoy the Delaware beaches. The summer crowds are gone but the towns are still lively with film festivals, a Halloween “Sea Witch Festival,” triathlons, charity bike rides and sidewalk sales.
Indian summer weather tends to be the norm, not the exception, in recent years. Last October, it got so warm, I took a swim in the Bellmoor Inn’s outdoor pool one weekend afternoon. If your budget allows, stay at the Bellmoor, which features two pools, an elegant breakfast room, and spa and salon. In 2005, Michael Eisner was in nearby Georgetown for a court trial, resulting from a Disney shareholder complaint about the hiring of Hollywood agent Michael Ovitz. But Eisner chose to commute from Rehoboth, where he took over the entire concierge floor of the Bellmoor.
Where to dine? In the summer, there are a slew of good options to satisfy the pickiest Beltway politico; in the off-season, it can be tougher, unless you’re a fan of Applebee’s and the like, which clog Highway One leading into town. But southern Delawareans are friendly folk, so it’s not surprising that during the Disney trial, Chancery Court judge William B. Chandler III told those assembled (which included, at various times, Dominick Dunne, Roy Disney and Sidney Poitier) to check out Blue Moon and Fusion, where according to Chandler, “any table by the fireplace is good.”
Beyond the beaches, there is world-class birding (if that’s your thing) at Bombay Hook and Prime Hook Wildlife Refuges. Even if it’s not your thing, try it once. Delaware is smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic Flyway, that highway in the sky that starts in the Canadian Maritimes and ends around the Gulf of Mexico.
During the peak waterfowl migration months of October and November, thousands of Canada geese, snow geese, mallard, black duck, pintail, American widgeon, wood duck and other birds feed in the marsh and meadow land of these refuges. They’re stopping in for a quick bite before getting back on the flyway – and their rest stops here are a heck of a lot more attractive than any I’ve seen on the Turnpike.
–Margo McDonough (In the interest of full disclosure, McDonough reports that she currently lives in Pennsylvania – however, just 2.5 miles north of the Delaware state line.)