Sussex County is so much more than just a summer beach getaway.
With summer long gone, it may seem like the time for sandy beaches and hidden ocean-front gems is all but over. But among the resort towns of Lewes and Rehoboth on the coast of southern Delaware, locals merely refer to this time of year as “second season.” Fisherman still fish, concerts ring loud, film-festival-goers flock to theaters, triathletes feel the burn, and polar bear plunge enthusiasts await February, when they’ll be ready to take their freezing cold swims.
It may seem odd that a cluster of beachside towns would not only survive but thrive throughout the Northeast’s harsh winters but Sussex County, Delaware is anything but ordinary. The Rehoboth Jazz Festival takes place in early autumn; the Sea Witch Festival, Rehoboth’s premier Halloween celebration, attracts the area’s biggest crowds outside of Independence Day; and restaurants and bars stay busy on weekends all the way until New Year’s Day.
With so much happening in an area that should seemingly die down after the last sunsets and burgers of Labor Day, one has to wonder: What’s so special about southern Delaware? Booking.com recently sent their first official Chief Booking Officer, Cameron Phillips, down to Lewes and Rehoboth to investigate what makes this area so unique.
The Dogfish Inn
On this trip to southern Delaware, Phillips stayed at the Dogfish Inn, a lovingly renovated fisherman’s hotel from the folks at Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales. Bought in 2013 and opened in 2014, this chic yet no frills establishment combines the comforts of a modern hotel with the supremely analog and “off-centered” touches for which Dogfish Head has become known. Built for both beer lovers and nature lovers alike, the Inn comes complete with Priority Bicycles cruisers which can be used to go to the beach, explore downtown Lewes, or venture deeper into the bigger nature preserves that border the city.
The Inn’s main Cottage Lobby is just as stylized as the beer bottles that put the name Dogfish Head on the map. Inside, you’ll find innkeepers who are almost akin to Lewes Rangers, offering travel wisdom, local tips, and whatever else you might need to help you relax and recharge during your stay. Also inside, you will find a seemingly endless pot of freshly-brewed Dogfish Head Chicory Stout iced coffee, which came in handy for Phillips and his crew.
The rest of the hotel is comprised of 15 canal-facing rooms (seven of which are pet-friendly), plus a “cottage sweet” for up to four people. Each room, designed by Studio Tack out of Brooklyn, New York City, comes equipped with Dogfish merch, playful artwork, Tivoli radios, Apolis tote bags, Woolrich blankets and retro American-made beach chairs. For added flair, local Delaware artist Steve Rogers created a treasure hunt by painting the historic Lewes attraction, the Lightship Overfalls, in various iterations for each room.
About a mile from the Dogfish Inn is the middle of Lewes Beach. Teeming with crowds during peak summer months, Lewes beach was pleasantly quiet during Phillips’ early-morning jaunt, a respite from the busier summer months. A perfect morning for taking in some sun among friends, Phillips and his crew traced this secluded area as if in meditation of the day ahead. A central part of the story of southern Delaware is the variety of scenes one can find oneself in, from bars filled with adventurous 20-somethings to the subtle stillness of a walk on the sand.
While walking to the shore, Phillips encountered some locals searching for beach plums. Known for their sweet taste, beach plums are most commonly used in jellies and jams, yet these end-of-season remnants are a bit more tart than their early summer counterparts. The public has been able to pick plums, fish and collect oysters since 1682, when William Penn granted Warner lands — now known as Lewes Beach and the Great Marsh — the ability to harvest its local specialities through the Warner land grant.
The Lewes and Rehoboth Canal
Mere steps from the Dogfish Inn exists one of Delaware’s three Inland Bays, the Lewes and Rehoboth Canal. A fisherman’s paradise and boating dock for commercial and pleasure vessels, the bay serves as a picturesque inlet for a romantic sunrise locale or, in Phillips’s case, a quick and well lit photoshoot. Bars and restaurants line the canal’s banks, with small traces of Delaware’s maritime history littered throughout.
The Dogfish Head Craft Brewery
While the Dogfish Inn is situated conveniently in downtown Lewes, the crown jewel of of the Dogfish family is actually in nearby Milton, where all roads seem to lead to the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. The 12th largest brewery in the United States, the Dogfish Head Brewery was opened in 1995 by Sam and Mariah Calagione. Although the craft beer company’s name pays homage to Calagione’s summers spent in Maine, the experimental brewer decided to open up shop in Milton to appease his Delaware-based love interest, Mariah. When they got married, the beer brewing future of Delaware was changed forever.
For one, due to a Prohibition-era law that prohibited the making and bottling of beer in Delaware, it wasn’t legal at the time to do what Calagione would eventually become famous for. From palo santo to breakfast foods, Calagione had always been determined to make and champion wild flavor combinations and to give fellow Delawareans a place to drink. He eventually got the law overturned after meeting with lawmakers and, according to Dogfish Head tour guide Leah Toomey, “giving out a lot of free beer.” Calagione happily maintains that his restaurant, Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats, was the first state’s first brewpub.
Calagione has often called his brewing process “blissfully inefficient,” in that Dogfish gradually and imperfectly adds hops to its beer using a contraption referred to as “Sir Hops Alot.” Calagione’s “off-centered” approach to brewing is apparent in all of Dogfish Head’s decision-making, from its colorful sense of humor down to its kitschy art aesthetic. Outside the brewery stands the Steampunk Treehouse, a retro-futuristic sculpture designed in 2007 by Oakland, California-based artist Sean Orlando and the Five Ton Crane Arts Group.
Originally appearing at Burning Man and later the Coachella Music Festival, the Steampunk Treehouse “was made to explore the relationship between our rapidly changing natural world and the persistent human drive to connect with it and one another,” Orlando said. When Calagione first set eyes on the piece, he knew how well it connected to his overall aesthetic — and the rest, as they say, is history.
Cape Henlopen State Park
Just outside Lewes, one can wander around the expanses of Cape Henlopen State Park. Home to some of Delaware’s most pristine beaches, wild seaside forests and flowing dune landscapes, the park was established by William Penn in 1682 as one of the original American colonies’ first public lands. In 1941, the park would go on to house the military base of Fort Miles — a response to the fear of German troops invading Philadelphia via the Delaware River. Cannons, bases and bunkers are still hidden throughout the park today. One of the bunkers is currently being converted and refurbished into a military museum by a Fort Miles Historical Association volunteer group known as the “Bunker Busters.”
Gidget’s Gadgets is something of an anomaly in nearby Rehoboth. Opened in 2002, the shop has evolved since its first inception as a sort of “Kidrobot” or “toy store for adults,” Gidget’s founder Steve Fallon said. Fallon had seen success as the founder of the widely influential Hoboken, New Jersey, music venue Maxwell’s, a breeding ground for punk rock and indie bands in the 1980s and ’90s. According to Fallon, he and several other gay men from the Maxwell’s scene began coming to Rehoboth in the early ’90s. When Fallon left Maxwell’s in 1995, he decided to give Rehoboth a go.
Though Gidget’s Gadgets began as a toy store, it didn’t take long for Fallon’s past to catch up with him.
“When I first started bringing vinyl records into the store, which was about seven years ago, that kind of piqued my interest to see young people really getting back into vinyl and music that I liked during that time,” Fallon said. “I think if I didn’t do that, I probably don’t know where I’d be right now. I think that music sort of got me back into really feeling alive again.”
Gidget’s Gadgets currently carries a wide assortment of items, from novelty trading cards, toys and board games to rare vinyl from the early Seattle grunge movement — and even records recorded by Fallon and friends during their days in New Jersey.
Any trip to Lewes would be incomplete without stopping by nearby Rehoboth Beach. Fallon credits the area’s charm to its openness and mix of residents.
“I think at the time when I came to Rehoboth, the diversity was the thing that stuck out the most here,” Fallon said. “When I have friends from New York or Hoboken or really from all over the country who visit me, they would always ask, ‘Where the hell are we?’ when they were walking on the boardwalk, because they would see ladies in blue hair, drag queens, [transgender people], people with tattoos up [the wazoo] and families rolling strollers. It’s really [a] very [accepting] town. ...It seemed like a really perfect place to be and that’s why we came here.”
Fallon also attributes Rehoboth’s signature openness to Camp Rehoboth, a nonprofit community service organization dedicated to creating a more positive environment in the area and a pivotal resource for the city’s LGBTQ communities.
Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats
Of the many businesses Calagione and crew maintain in Delaware, the Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats restaurant in Rehoboth represents a fast-casual and nightlife-centric spin on the brewery’s off-centered approach. A family-friendly establishment with something for everyone, Brewings & Eats also touts a regular concert calendar that includes its upcoming November festival, Analog-A-Go-Go, with three nights of music featuring a performance by moody indie-rockers Japanese Breakfast.
The Lightship Overfalls
Lewes becomes a different place altogether at night, with its bustling bars and lights glowing along the canals. Perhaps the brightest of these lights, the Lightship Overfalls, is one of only 17 remaining lightships in the country. Docked just a few feet away from the Dogfish Inn, the Lightship Overalls is both a nod to Delaware’s history and a contemporary hangout, providing an example of the state’s signature styles and a stunning backdrop for a night in a beachside town — no matter what time of year.