Lewes beckons with its kid-friendly beach, tax-free shopping & edgy cuisine

Posted: May 21, 2010

Lewes Beach, Del., is a hit with young families because of its gentle surf. "I don't have to worry about the waves knocking them down," said Desiree Henshaw, mother of 5-year-old Joshua and 2-year-old Addisyn.

That's the advantage of being on the Delaware Bay instead of the Atlantic Coast.

Historic downtown Lewes (pronounced loo-is) is a hit with day-trippers from the Cape May-Lewes Ferry because it's jam-packed with boutiques and restaurants, and doesn't saddle shoppers with sales tax.

That's the advantage of being in Delaware.

Granted, the tax advantage is small on beachy trinkets, but it's a kick to hand over exactly $3 for a $3 cone at the iconic King's Ice Cream on 2nd Street. Welcome to Delaware, pennies optional.

What you'll need if you drive to Lewes is quarters, and plenty of them. Parking at the beach costs $1.50 an hour, payable at meters. (The beach patrol building has a change machine, along with a spartan bathhouse.) Parking for the 2nd Street shopping district is 75 cents an hour, and the meter readers mean business.

It's worth the hassle if you're looking to expand your beach horizons beyond Cape May, but still within a reasonable drive. "We live in the Northeast, and it takes us two hours to two hours 15 minutes to get there," said Lori Matijkiw, who was drawn to Lewes by the beauty of nearby Cape Henlopen State Park and eventually bought a townhouse. "There's a lot of history there, too."

So many Philadelphians frequent Lewes that the lively Irish Eyes Pub & Restaurant (213 Anglers Road) is a Phillies bar, despite being situated in Baltimore Orioles territory. "You don't mention the 'B' word in here," said Irish Eyes host John Smith.

Restaurateur-about-town Matt DiSabatino, of the popular Striper Bites, Half Full and Kindle restaurants, turns out to be an Eagles season-ticket holder. "A bunch of us from Lewes go up to tailgate together," he said.

Ladies, prepare to shop

That's not to say that Lewes is primarily a sports guys' town - or even a guys' town. Of the two dozen-plus boutiques in the 2nd Street shopping district, only one is a men's store, Shorebreak at 115 Savannah Road.

The women's boutiques and home-decor emporia are so plentiful, on the other hand, that they tend to subspecialize.

At the Blooming Boutique (118 2nd St.), for example, everything is lightweight, packable and easily convertible from one look to another - the perfect spot to gear up for air travel in the age of the $25 checked bag. One highlight here is SwitchFlops, a versatile line of customizable sandals. The latest style, for summer 2010, is a slim rubber flip-flop with snap-on bling. The shoes are $24 a pair; the sparkly add-ons cost $12 a set.

Across the street, the Deanna's/Piccolino boutique (113 2nd St.) subspecializes within itself. One side of the store is Deanna's, named for owner Deanna Wagamon, who sells playful, cougar-ish clothes in missy sizes - ruffled stretch-taffeta trench coats from Samuel Dong, for instance. The other side, Piccolino, carries junior-size alt-girl lines like Splendid and is run by Deanna's daughter.

Then there's Wildflowers, a gift shop at 107 2nd St., which stocks more variations on the decorative paper cocktail napkin than you're likely to find anywhere on earth, including trendy polka dots and toile. Matching hand towels are available for the powder room.

Once you get to know Lewes, you'll laugh out loud at the store's tongue-in-cheek, "What Happens in Lewes Stays in Lewes" plaques.

Red-letter dates

What happens in Lewes is rarely scandalous, unless it's the price for organic radicchio at the Historic Lewes Farmers Market, held Saturday mornings on the grounds of the Lewes Historical Society (corner of West 3rd and Shipcarpenter streets).

The coming month's calendar of events includes the Taste of Lewes fund-raiser to benefit the Friends of Canalfront Park (June 6), the annual Lewes Garden Tour (June 19) and the Mid-Atlantic Sea Glass Festival (June 26-27).

For event info, maps, tourist brochures and guidance, stop at the visitor's bureau, tucked away behind the Zwaanendael Museum at 102 Kings Highway. (Say it Zwan-an-dale. It means valley of the swans.)

Lewes was settled by the Dutch in 1631 - initially as a whaling outpost that was wiped out in an Indian massacre - and people take their history seriously. Right now, the Zwaanendael is showcasing artifacts from a highly unusual archaeological find on Lewes Beach.

In 2004, a beach-replenishment project pumped sand from beneath the Delaware Bay up onto land. Soon, shards of 18th-century pottery and objects like the bowls to antique pipes started to poke up through the replenished sand - belated flotsam from a shipwreck offshore in the 1770s.

"Fortunately, a lot of people who found things gave them to the state," said Historical Society executive director Mike DiPaolo. Between the townsfolk and Delaware state archaeologists, nearly 56,000 artifacts from the shipwreck have been recovered.

Boats of note

Along with its Colonial history, Lewes has a pirate past, including visits from Blackbeard and other A-list scalawags, DiPaolo said. At one point, Colonial authorities essentially arrested the whole town for paddling out to do business with Captain Kidd when his boat was anchored offshore.

Pirates of Lewes Expeditions (302-249-3538) offers pirate adventures on the Delaware Bay for kids, involving a battle at sea with water cannons. The pirate ship Sea Gypsy sets sail from Anglers Road. Tickets are $25, $10 for children under 3.

The more dignified tall ship Kalmar Nyckel sails from the Cape May-Lewes Ferry terminal from July 25 to Aug. 14. Three-hour trips around the bay cost $60 for adults, and $40 for kids 17 and under. Call 302-429-7447 for reservations.

You can book kayak trips around the bay through Quest Kayak (302-644-7020), which also runs the "Pints and Paddles" river trip to the Dogfish Head microbrewery in nearby Milton ($65). No worries about paddling while intoxicated: A shuttle bus returns you to Lewes.

Still thirsty? The Inn at Canal Square (302-644-3377) offers a weekendlong beer lovers' package. For $765 a couple, you're housed for two nights in the Brewmaster's Suite, stocked with a six pack of Dogfish Head beer and accessorized Dogfish Head-style, including beer shampoo.

The package includes a tour of the Milton brewery and a canal voyage aboard the SS Dogfish to the Dogfish Head restaurant in Rehoboth. The inn sends you off with a $50 gift certificate for dinner and pays your cab fare back to the beer suite.

Where to stay, what to eat

Posted rates for a regular room at the inn start at $235 a night during the summer. Lewes also has two boutique hotels: Hotel Blue (posted rates starting at $250) and Hotel Rodney (starting at $140, for a very small "executive" room). The Beacon Motel near Lewes Beach is a midrange option; posted rates start at $95 in June and $155 in July and August.

Lewes also supports a serious foodie scene. Within the DiSabatino dynasty, you might try the blackened-rockfish BLT at Striper Bites (107 Savannah Road) or the Atlantic sea scallops over sweet corn and edamame at Kindle (111 Bank St.).

Café Azafran (109 Market St.), Besame (142 2nd St.) and Agave (137 2nd St.) are other restaurants with adventurous menus.

The Buttery, a white-linen Victorian landmark at 102 2nd St., serves a Sunday brunch featuring pastries from its on-site bake shop, fresh seasonal fruit, entrées like eggs Benedict, and a Bloody Mary, mimosa or glass of champagne, all for $19.95 a person.

Irish Eyes has an outside deck on the canal. So does Gilligan's (134 Market St.), tucked away near the Inn at Canal Square.

Gilligan's is said to be more mellow - and it has a wall of blue ribbons from the Rehoboth Beach Chocolate Festival, so leave room for dessert. At Irish Eyes, "there's a reason they call it happy hour," a waitress from another restaurant confided.

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