Delaware may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of “beach town,” but that may change soon. Positioned in Delaware’s rapidly growing Cape Region, Lewes (pronounced like the name, Louis or Lewis) is a small but vibrant town on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Not only is Lewes a historically rich town in a state equally rich in heritage, but it is also fast becoming a destination for beachside and nature activities.
History of the Firsts
Lewes began its existence all the way back in 1631 when a group of Dutch settlers founded a colony named Zwaanendael, which means “Swan Valley.” They chose this name because of the abundant wildlife and beauty there. The colony did not last long, however, and it was destroyed in a conflict with a Native American tribe.
The Dutch tried again some years later with a Mennonite settlement at the Hoernkills, the area around Cape Henlopen, but this settlement met the same fate as the previous one. However this time it was destroyed by the colonizing English. Over the next few years the town and nearby areas were renamed time and again, but eventually, the famous William Penn was given ownership of the land and renamed it Lewes, after a site back in England.
Since the settlement that would eventually be known as Lewes was the first to be established in the state of Delaware, and since Delaware was first to ratify the United States Constitution thereby making it the “First State,” Lewes considers itself the “First Town in the First State.”
Over the years, Lewes played several key roles in the shaping of America including being a vital stop on the Underground Railroad that ferried slaves to safety during and before the Civil War. Lewes was also the site of one of the largest and most heavily armed coastal defense installations in the united states, Fort Miles. This fort protected the Delaware River and the nearby oil refineries from Nazi U-boat incursions and other threats for over 50 years.
Geography and Climate
Lewes, Delaware is of course located on the Eastern Seaboard, and as such is more or less flat. There are wooded areas and some marshland around, but few hills to speak of. The beaches are sandy and without rocky outcroppings, making them popular destinations for swimming and other leisure activities.
The climate of the area is also conducive to waterfront revelry. Lewes, Delaware’s weather is temperate and subtropical, with distinct seasons. However, being farther south than New England coastal towns, Lewes enjoys warmer and more humid summers as well as milder winters. Lewes gets around 200 days of sunshine a year, with average highs in the Summer of 80 degrees Fahrenheit and lows of about 28 degrees in the Winter. Only about 70 days of the year does Lewes experience and measurable precipitation.
Things to See and Do
Lewes is a prime destination for history buffs and those interested in American heritage, but it is also rapidly developing into a nature and leisure destination. Its proximity to large East Coast cities has made Lewes a popular weekend getaway spot with plenty to fill your days with. There are several different types of activities for discerning vacationers.
Exploring One of America’s Oldest Towns
Being the “First Town of the First State,” Lewes has a wealth of historically significant sites, structures and artifacts within it. Museums and heritage sites are sure to be a substantial draw for those with a desire to learn and experience more about America’s earliest days.
- Zwaanendael Museum: This quaint little museum is a recreation of a Dutch town hall and is chock full of artifacts from America’s colonial past. Their main source of displays is a shipwreck of the British military vessel Debraak that foundered off the coast of Delaware. A great place to learn about colonial America and admission is free!
- Lewes Historical Society: This museum is actually a collection of historic buildings, sites and displays. It includes the oldest house in Delaware, a museum chronicling the entire history of Lewes up to WWII and even an old lighthouse. A great way to get a feel for the past of the town, and it is also free!
- The Cannonball House: Keeping with the theme of Lewes, this is also a nice little museum that tells about the time during the British rule as well as Lewes’ long connection with the sea. Most interesting of all is the cannonball that gives the house its name. During the War of 1812, the British bombarded the town of Lewes to little effect. One cannonball, however, became lodged in the foundation of the cannonball house and stayed there for generations and can be seen in the house today.
Nature by the Sea
For the nature lovers and outdoors folk, there is a growing number of attractions, amenities and activities.
- Cape Henlopen State Park: Lewes, Delaware is home to Cape Henlopen State Park, a paradise of nature trails, biking, birdwatching, beach going, fishing and camping. It has parking and amenities for ease of access and a concession stand in the summer. The water off the beach is calm due to its proximity to Delaware Bay, so it is ideal for family outings or leisurely swimming. Camping and fishing are available with the appropriate permits.
- Lewes Beach: Away from the hustle and bustle of the more crowded beaches in Delaware like Rehoboth, Dewey and Bethany beaches sits Lewes beach. The calm and shallow waters are ideal for small children or people who just want an easy and relaxing swim. This beach receives high marks for its year-round cleanliness and easy access. Parking is limited and only free for some time of the year so plan accordingly.
- Tours and Cruises: Lewes has several companies offering tours of the area both on land and sea. One of the more popular service providers is Cape Water Tours & Taxi. They offer cruises around the waters of Lewes to see the lighthouses and seaside wildlife habitats. Great for checking out the scenery.
Here are a few notable attractions that don’t fall into either of the previous categories.
- Cape May-Lewes Ferry: If you are looking to get to the Jersey Shore from Lewes without too much driving or if you want a fun and scenic boat ride, this ferry is a must. Traveling from Cape Henlopen to Cape May, the ferry offers fast, friendly and clean service. At both terminals of the ferry, there are also scores of shops, food stalls, cafes and places to get a drink. Not just a transit system, it’s a whole day event in and of itself!
- Hopkins Farm Creamery: This little dairy farm is a popular attraction for those who love sweets. Considered by many to make the best ice cream in Delaware, this farm supplies its own cream and makes all the ice cream on site. You can even stop in and say hello to the cows who are quite friendly but also they smell, well, like cows.
Where to Stay
There are a few inns and hotels in and around Lewes, but not too many large resorts or luxury hotels. However, there are plenty of quaint bed and breakfasts in the area at reasonable prices. The neighboring towns have accommodation of their own and are a short drive from Lewes proper. If you’d rather rough it, there are plenty of campsites around.
Fun Facts about Lewes, Delaware
Some interesting tidbits about Lewes:
- Residents of Lewes lit a single candle in the top floor window of their homes during the civil war to signal that they were stops on the Underground Railroad.
- Fort Miles, the now decommissioned heavily armed coastal defense installation, fired its guns only once, for target practice.
- Lewes is in Sussex County Delaware. There is a Lewes in Sussex county England and the two towns share the same seal.
- According to a news report, on August 21, 2013, a helicopter released $10,000 in different denominations over Lewes Harbor in order to fulfill the last wish of an anonymous deceased local resident. The police were aware of the stunt and were dispatched to ensure there was no fighting over the money.
- Legend has it that Lewes was the site of several pirate battles and was visited by the infamous pirate captain, Captain Kidd.
See Where It All Started
The Jersey shore and other East Coast beaches are famous for their crowds of people and less than clean grounds. If you want to avoid all of that and relax in nature on a well-kept and mostly quieter beach, then Lewes may be for you. If you are looking to explore a piece of some of America’s earliest history, then Lewes has you covered there too. Best of all, these idyllic sights and historical gems are a short drive or pleasant ferry trip from urban hubs. If this sounds good to you or you are just in the area, you owe it to yourself to take a look.