Delaware's Atlantic coast extends for only 24 miles, but few similarly sized stretches anywhere on the East Coast can boast a more condensed mix of history, entertainment and activities, all set against a backdrop of spectacular -- including spectacularly undeveloped -- beaches. From Rehoboth Beach's teeming boardwalk to the isolated windswept dunes of three state parks -- everything beach-bound vacationers traditionally seek can be found here, and in abundance. And as all 24 miles are easily accessed from State Route 1, you can mix and match to your heart's content, even on the same day.
And that's not all: Roughly half of the Delaware Shore is bordered on the west by a trio of shallow bays that allows for a whole second set of activities, most notably kayaking, stand-up paddle-boarding, windsurfing and sunset-watching. Throw in the First State's tax-free shopping, and you've got an all-around family vacation only four hours south of New York City.
Both the Delaware Shore and Delaware begin at Lewes (pronounced “Loo-is"), which occupies the solid ground east of Cape Henlopen, at the mouth of Delaware Bay. Founded by the Dutch in 1631, the “first town in the First State” is a small treasure trove of historic sites and small town ambience, and thus an ideal option for that occasional less-than-ideal beach day.
Learn about Lewes' first settlers at the Zwaanendael Museum, a replica of Hoorn, Holland's town hall, whose most intriguing exhibit is its resident merman (admission free, 302-645-1148, history.delaware.gov). Next up is the Lewes Historical Society Complex, 12 restored and relocated buildings, including the 1665 Ryves Holt House, now a gift shop and the oldest structure in the state (guided tours $10, 302-645-7670, historiclewes.org). And for a most enlightening experience, step onboard the Lightship Overfalls, a retired floating lighthouse now permanently docked along the Lewes and Rehoboth Canal (suggested donation $2, 302-644-8050, overfalls.org).
DUNE JUST FINE
Covering 5,000 acres of shifting sand dunes and scrub pine forests, Cape Henlopen State Park is a constantly evolving masterwork of nature, guarded by the now-silent guns of Fort Miles and a chain of primitive statue-like, concrete WWII-era observation towers, one of which has been renovated for ascent. Swim, bike, hike or just take in the expansive views. And keep an eye peeled for dolphins.
Access to Cape Henlopen, Delaware Seashore, and Fenwick Island state parks is $4 a car for in-state plates, $8 a car for out-of-state plates. But your admission is good for the entire day at all three. Camping also is available ($30 to $38 for nonresidents; destateparks.com).
Most beach resorts have to fabricate tales of pirates to enthrall children. But some of the most notorious of the cutthroat fraternity -- including Blackbeard and Captain Kidd -- really were active here, and rumors persist about buried treasure. No pint-size buccaneer will return empty-handed from Pirates of Lewes Expeditions (302-249-3538, piratesoflewesexpeditions.com, $25), with its 70-minute interactive fantasy cruise on the Lewes and Rehoboth Canal, complete with a spirited water-cannon battle.
Founded in 1893 as a Methodist summer camp, Rehoboth (whose Biblical name means “room enough”) burst into the big time 60 years ago with the completion of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which eased access from the burgeoning Washington, D.C., area. Now billing itself as “The Nation's Summer Capital,” Rehoboth is the undisputed epicenter of the Delaware Shore, offering a full range of dining and entertainment options, and serviced by dozens of centrally located inns and hotels, supplemented by a string of chain motels along Route 1.
BOARDWALK FOOD AND FUN
Rehoboth Beach's mile-long boardwalk is classic Americana, and no shore sojourn would be complete without several circuits and multiple stops at some of its long-standing purveyors of beach treats such as Thrasher's fries, Kohr Bros. frozen custard, Grotto pizza and Dolles salt water taffy (each with multiple locations). And don't think for a minute that the kids will let you bypass the 19 rides ($.30-$1.50) at 50-year-old Funland Amusement Park (funlandrehoboth.com).
STROLLING THE AVENUE
For more substantial fare -- and more tourist shops than you could possibly visit -- head inland up perpetually populated Rehoboth Avenue. Among the more appealing culinary options are the Summer House (228 Rehoboth Ave., 302-227-3895, summerhousesaloon.com), the Cultured Pearl (301 Rehoboth Ave., 302-227-8493, culturedpearl.us) and Dogfish Head Brewing and Eats (320 Rehoboth Ave., 302-226-2739, dogfish.com).
CHEATING THE TAXMAN
Even if Delaware had a sales tax, the 130 stores of Tanger Outlets (three separate malls along Route 1, hence the name Mile of Style) would be a lure for bargain hunters (tangeroutlet.com/rehoboth). But it doesn't, so what are you waiting for?
As late as 1938, Dewey Beach, which abuts Rehoboth Beach to the south, was characterized as “a straggling group of small summer cottages.” These days, the official state travel guide describes the compact, laid-back community of two block-long streets that dead-end at a surprisingly wide and wide-open beach as “spring break for adults all summer long.”
So what happened in between? Well, the sport of skimboarding (a small, finless surfboard, launched from the beach) originated here in the 1950s and Dewey Beach now annually hosts several champion- ship competitions. As a result, Dewey attracts a young, active clientele that routinely migrates from the beach to high-energy nightspots such as The Bottle & Cork (302-227-7272, bottlencork.info), The Starboard (302-227-4600, thestarboard.com), and the Rusty Rudder (302-227-3888). If you want to give skimboarding a try yourself, rentals and lessons are available from Alley Oop (302-227-7087, alleyoopskim.com), and East of Maui Surf Shop (302-227-4703, eastofmaui.com). For less active family fun, there are free movies and bonfires on Monday and Wednesday nights, respectively.
The narrow, six-mile-long, undeveloped isthmus that begins just south of Dewey Beach belongs to Delaware Seashore State Park. Halfway down is the ornate Victorian-style Indian River Life-Saving Station, dating from 1876, but furnished the way it would have been in 1905 during the tenure of legendary keeper, Washington Vickers. A self-guided tour explains the life of “surfmen” and the perils they faced (admission $4, 302-227-6991, destateparks.com).
Bethany Beach, S. Bethany Beach, Fenwick Island
Sandwiched between Rehoboth-Dewey and equally boisterous Ocean City, Md., these three low-slung and minimally commercial communities of primarily for-rent vacation homes and condominiums (many in private, gated communities) pride themselves on being “the Quiet Resorts.“ As such, they are ideal for more sedate beachgoers or families with small children, especially since the gentler offshore slope means smaller waves and safer wading. When not playing in the sand or strolling Bethany Beach's recently rebuilt and substantially more genteel boardwalk, visitors can take in (but not climb) 87-foot-tall Fenwick Island Lighthouse (free, fenwickisland lighthouse.org) or the DiscoverSea Museum (708 Ocean Hwy., 302-539-9366, discoversea.com), a personal collection of treasures from pre-1865 shipwrecks (donations accepted).
DELA WHERES AND WHEREFORES
The Delaware Shore begins at Lewes, and extends 24 miles south to the Maryland state line. Lewes is about 200 miles from Long Island via the Garden State Parkway and the Cape May-Lewes Ferry (800-643-3779, capemaylewesferry.com, $36 or $44 one-way for a standard-size car and a driver; passengers are $4-$10 extra) or 220 miles via the New Jersey Turnpike and the Delaware Memorial Bridge.
Parking is always a problem in Rehoboth, so if you can't walk to the beach from your hotel, consider using DART (Delaware Resort Transit). For $7 a carload, each of the occupants can ride DART's buses all day, and not just to and from the shuttle lot off Route 1, but to Lewes and Dewy Beach as well (800-652-DART, beachbus.com).
WHERE TO STAY
Rehoboth might mean “room enough” but summertime visitors -- and especially weekenders -- are going to have precious few options anywhere along the Delaware Shore if they wait until the last minute. Choices range from the award-winning Bellmoor Spa (6 Christian St., Rehoboth Beach, 302-227-5800, thebellmoor.com, doubles from $349 midweek, $459 weekends) and The Boardwalk Plaza (Oceanfront at Olive Avenue, Rehoboth Beach, 302-227-7169, boardwalkplaza.com, doubles from $304 midweek (two-night minimum), $324 weekends (three-night minimum) to chain hotels along Route 1 (doubles beginning at roughly $100 midweek, $189 weekends). For complete listings, including weekly rentals, contact the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce (800-441-1329, beach-fun.com) and the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce (800-962-7873, thequietresorts.com).
For more on all the towns, contact the Convention and Visitors Bureau for Sussex County, Del.; 800-357-1818; visitsoutherndelaware.com.