"Small wonder" is Delaware's motto, which seems apropos given the state has the best small town beaches along the mid-Atlantic coast. Rehoboth Beach, with its elevated, wooden boardwalk, saltwater taffy shops and amusement arcade, is a friendly, small-town beach experience - a favorite among Washingtonians for a beach weekend. While the beach can be crowded at the town center, just stroll down the beach and you can find your piece of sand and surf with just the right amount of companions. Rehoboth Beach is both gay-friendly and family-friendly. When I appeared on the Regis and Kathie Lee Show, she told me to look up her parents who operate a B & B here.
Cape Henlopen State Park, near the historic town of Lewes, is one of my favorite areas to get away from the beaten path. The many miles of roads and paths through this 2,500-acre park are best explored by bicycle. One of the most interesting experiences is to climb over the "walking" sand dune, which is nearly 80 feet in height and over a mile long. My kids love to tumble down the steep (leeward or advancing) side of the sand dune. You can feel how it moves on a windy day. Be careful to cover your eyes when the wind is blowing hard and the sand grains are flying. The dune is composed almost totally of quartz sand grains that are so hard that high sand-blasting winds can pit glass or take the paint off of a car in a matter of minutes. The Lewes dune is the third largest sand dune on the East Coast, only exceeded by Jockey's Ridge in North Carolina and the Provincetown dunes on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
The Delmarva (Delaware, Maryland and Virginia) peninsula shoreline has the same pattern of sand as experienced in New Jersey; the coarsest sand and hence the steeper beaches are found in northern New Jersey and Delaware, with the beaches southward becoming finer grained and more gently sloping. Therefore, the beaches drop off more suddenly at Cape Henlopen than Ocean City or Assateague Island further south, which can be a problem on big wave days. Large waves breaking directly on the beachface, especially at high tide when the outer bar is well submerged, can cause dangerous shorebreak conditions (see Beach Safety). Tidal currents can be apparent at Cape Henlopen beach near the mouth of Delaware Bay. This is not the best beach for children, but this undeveloped shoreline is a great area to explore.
At the south end of Cape Henlopen State Park, just north of Rehoboth Beach are two prominent World War II observation towers on the beach. They were built behind protective sand dunes at the time, but beach erosion has caused the sea to creep ever closer to these lonely towers (which are now closed). During the war, machine guns were sometimes fired at surfacing U-boats just offshore to no avail. Unfortunately, these German submarines took a deadly toll on coastal shipping at that time, and there are many shipwrecks just offshore all the major waterways (especially Delaware and Chesapeake Bays). Here the water is usually too turbid for good diving.
The best surfing beach in Delmarva is the north beach at Indian River Inlet. This designated surfing beach drops off fairly quickly. The offshore shoals (called an ebb tidal delta) of Indian River Inlet set up the right conditions for board surfing - big waves quickly encountering shallow sand bars, causing them to break into deep water shoreward. Inlets that sweep sand far offshore to form the lunate-shaped ebb tidal shoals often create the best surfing conditions along the East Coast, but one must be wary of the strong tidal currents and boat traffic.
Dewey Beach is known as a small-town party beach in the summer; it is essentially closed during the winter. While sailing, sail boarding, water skiing, and jet skiing are favorite sports on the bay side (Rehoboth Bay), the big attraction is skim-boarding on the ocean beach. Dewey hosts the annual skim-board competition, which is dominated by teenagers. Enthusiasts wait with their small circular boards to ride the leading edge of broken waves as they spread out to form thin smooth planes of water on the beachface. The trick is to hydroplane on a few inches of water across the sand surface (much like car tires on a rainy highway when a driver is in trouble). Too much or too little water, and it doesn't work. The flatter beaches in Florida make for easier rides. I once saw a guy at Destin Beach along the Florida panhandle jump on his skim board with his hands and then proceed to do a head stand. What a thrill! This makes a pretty good spectator sport as well.
Bethany Beach is known as the "quiet resort" as compared to rowdy Ocean City, Maryland to the south. North Bethany beaches are all private. The town itself, with its boardwalk and restaurants, caters to families. The state of Delaware has been replenishing these beaches, but occasionally the stone groins (some people mistakenly call them jetties) poke out into the beach face, indicating continued beach erosion. Be careful not to swim close to these underwater structures, which can be completely submerged at high tide, but still dangerous. My favorite place to stay in Bethany is the Addy Sea Inn, a Victorian era B&B right on the seacoast. There is always fresh lemonade and cookies in the parlor. I like to stay in this small town and walk to the state park beaches which bound most of the seaside resorts in Delaware.
Delaware State Travel Service
99 Kings Highway
Dover, DE 19901