It’s a seaside town that’s been attracting top chefs, COVID rebound vacationers and the notice of anyone paying attention to President Joe Biden’s comings and goings. But all of that is background noise in Lewes, Delaware. The biggest draws are the things that don’t change much: the beach. Bicycles. The mighty horseshoe crab.
Speaking of said critter with its Darth Vader-like armor: It’s the star of the “touch tank” (essentially a petting zoo for sea creatures) at the Cape Henlopen State Park nature center, where visitors are quick to learn that the Delaware Bay has the largest concentration of spawning horseshoe crabs in the world. That their 445 million-year-old fossils lend proof that the species predates dinosaurs. And that their blood—“something of a medical marvel,” per park staff—is used to test human vaccines for contamination (yes, including those vaccines). If you turn your head and squint at just the right angle, the 10-eyed buggers might even convince you of their charm, or something approximating charm.
Beyond the touch tank, there’s no squinting needed to appreciate tiny Lewes’ charm. The town’s delights are evident at first glance, from its sleepy canal and neighboring sand-duned state park to its walkable downtown lined with boutique shops, bike racks, cafes and Victorian architecture. Positioned at the mouth of the Delaware Bay, less than half a day’s drive from Washington, D.C., Lewes is sheltered from the Atlantic Ocean by the peninsular arm of Cape Henlopen. The calm waters that result are a lure for families more concerned with sandcastle construction than adrenaline production.
Given its scale—fewer than 3,500 people claim permanent residency in this beach town spanning 4.4 square miles—Lewes doesn’t attract the party swarms found in nearby Rehoboth and Dewey. But the popularity contest is relative, says Betsy Reamer, executive director of the city’s chamber of commerce. As COVID waned, stir-crazy families filled the town’s hotels and rental properties, she says, and new sea-to-table restaurants opened. The place can hardly be characterized as “undiscovered.”
Bikes are one of the best ways to get around, with an evolving and well-maintained network of trails that link Lewes to neighboring towns and beaches. President Biden occasionally drops in on Marine One for a stay at his vacation home in nearby North Shores, posting Instagram evidence of his own two-wheeled excursions.
Downtown Lewes, however, is best navigated on foot, if not for the shopping and pocket-size parks, then for a closer look at its rich past. The town was established in 1631 as a Dutch whaling post—as chronicled in the Zwaanendael Museum—and saw wartime action disproportionate to its size in the War of 1812. (Front Street’s appropriately nicknamed “Cannonball House” still displays in an upstairs exhibit how it got that name.) Shipcarpenter Square, a hamlet of restored 18th- and 19th-century homes, also features a travelers’ inn transplanted from rural Sussex County, three barns, a schoolhouse, a log home, a lighthouse and a replica of a historic green.
Cape Henlopen State Park is home to Fort Miles, a seacoast fortification built during World War II to defend the Delaware Bay against German invasion.
Of course, for summer fun, there’s always the sand and the water. Choose your own adventure, whether it’s among the kids clutching boogie boards, or in the company of stand-up paddleboarders, kayakers and lazily crisscrossing sailboats.
If you’d prefer to stay dry, a simple walk along the shoreline always satisfies. Just mind your step and watch for those horseshoe crabs. They’re friendly and essential. And, indisputably, they were here first.
If you go…
How to Pronounce
It’s LEW-is. Not LOOS.
Where to Eat
A burgeoning dining scene risks turning Lewes’ sleepy reputation on its head. Gems tucked into the postage stamp-size downtown include the Victorian house-turned-restaurant Heirloom (heirloomdelaware.com), which opened its doors in 2015 and has made a splash among locals and food critics. (Patio reservations for its 30 or so outdoor seats are released day of, and they go fast.) Bramble & Brine at the Buttery (bramble-brine.com), which opened around the corner in 2021, has earned similar acclaim for executive chef Paul Gallo’s whimsical twists on seafood and seasonal vegetables.
For Mexican, you can’t go wrong with Agave (agaverestaurants.com) formargaritas,
jalapeño-cheese cornbread and sweet ancho ribs. At Touch of Italy (touchofitaly.com), a destination for wood-fired pizzas with a floor-to-ceiling display of red wines, a pie and a glass can be had for less than $20, but don’t skip dessert. Chubby cream puffs and eclairs beckon from its well-stocked pastry display.
Speaking of sweets, set aside at least one night for King’s Homemade Ice Cream
(kingshomemadeicecream.com), where nostalgia rules courtesy of a checkerboard floor, to say nothing of the floats, malts and packed waffle cones. Edie Bee’s Confection Shop (ediebeeslewes.com) is a feast for the eyes, with rainbow displays of rock candy and shelves stacked with candy jars that are the stuff of fairy tales.
Craving lighter fare? Tuck into coffee, avocado toast and lump-crab omelets at Eggcellent (eggcellentinlewes.com), or hit Nectar Cafe & Juice Bar (cafenectar.com) for fresh-squeezed juices and brunch dishes. The town’s Saturday morning farmers market finds local chefs serving up cooking demos at George H.P. Smith Park. Visit historiclewesfarmersmarket.org for a list of market vendors.
Where to Shop
Independently owned shops are the pride of downtown. The Bungalow on 2nd (thebungalowon2nd.com) stocks a thoughtfully curated selection of women’s clothes, accessories and bath products, while The Vintage Underground (undergroundlewes.com) sells vintage vinyl, cassettes, CDs and fashions that warrant perusal. At Lewes Gourmet (lewesgourmet.com), the merch includes off-the-beaten-path British foods and tea sets, plus puzzles and mind teasers. And for any items you may have forgotten, Lewes Variety (lewesvariety.com) carries hats, beach toys, umbrellas and flip-flops, along with wicker furniture and decor.
If you’ve got trunk space to spare on the trip home, the Tanger Outlets (tangeroutlet.com/rehoboth) are a seven-minute drive from downtown Lewes, with some 100 discount stores and brands such as Calvin Klein, Levi’s, Coach and Nautica.
Where to Stay
For an excellent bed-and breakfast experience, The Blue Water House (lewes-beach.com) is known for its funky decor, friendly staff, quiet rooms, porch swings and complimentary bike rentals. Just over the canal, the Dogfish Inn (dogfish.com/inn) caters to beer lovers and adventure-seekers with modern furnishings (think white linens and blond wood), backyard cornhole, an outdoor activity package and complimentary 32-ounce growlers for guests to fill at Dogfish Head brewery.
What to Do
To know Lewes is to bike it, and a ride along the winding boardwalk of Cape Henlopen State Park (destateparks.com/beaches/capehenlopen) is a must for wildlife sightings. In peak season, bikes can be rented for free for up to two hours from the park’s Bike Barn. At Fort Miles (destateparks.com/fortmiles), stop at Battery 519, a 15,000-square-foot fortified underground chamber housing World War II memorabilia. The park’s Seaside Nature Center is where kids can touch Delaware’s unofficial state arthropod, the horseshoe crab, while also gazing upon stocked aquariums and an osprey exhibit. The nature center organizes family-friendly events all summer long, from squid dissections (for the not-so-squeamish) to nocturnal ghost crab hikes. Register at destateparks.com.
For a change of scenery, the Cape May-Lewes Ferry (cmlf.com) departs several times a day for its 85-minute cruise to New Jersey, where shuttles connect visitors to downtown Cape May’s welcome center for $6. Those seeking more bustle can drive 15 minutes to Rehoboth Beach, home to a mile-long boardwalk teeming with arcades, taffy shops, carnival rides and a T-shirt for every person on your list.
Cape Water Tours & Taxi (capewatertaxi.com) offers dolphin-watching, full-moon tours and lighthouse excursions, all of which can be booked online. Kayaks and stand-up paddleboards can be rented at Quest Adventures (questkayak.com). There are no Jet Skis to be had, but Jet Skis have never been the lifeblood of Lewes and, with any luck, never will be.
Susan Anspach lives in Vienna, Virginia, and grew up seeing the shores of the Delaware beaches.
This story appears in the July/August issue of Bethesda Magazine.