Delaware Beaches with Families

rsz kidsde3You might decide to cross the Bay Bridge and head east on Rt. 404 instead of Rt. 50 on your next trip to Delmarva.

by Fran Severn

Summer at the beach means sand, caramel corn, and boogie-boarding. But for a different set of adventures, check out the Delaware coast. Away from the boardwalk, go-karts, and arcade games of Ocean City, families can get close to the feathered, finned, and web-footed residents of the region, try new water sports, take excursions into history (both real and imaginary), and relax with movies and bonfires on the beach.

Start at the Du Pont Nature Center near Milford. Families can easily spend two busy, interactive hours here. Located at the water’s edge, the Center has an expansive view across the marshes. Pick up a bird watcher’s checklist inside, and then go onto the deck to spot the waterfowl and shorebirds. Inside, “critter cams” give real-time peeks into other parts of the marshes. Even better, you’ll meet many of the local animals and amphibians in touch tanks and aquariums including the horseshoe crab, starfish, and terrapin. Check the schedule for the daily activities and information about the full-day, nature-focused day camps. (www.dupontnature.org)

Kids can become Junior Refuge Managers at the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge near Milton. Pick up a Junior Refuge Manager brochure at the visitor center, then answer questions about what you see and find on the “Boardwalk Trail.” When you turn in your answers, you’ll earn an official Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge Junior Manager pin. The Refuge has half a dozen other well-marked trails winding through the 10,000 acres. Be sure to slather on lots of sunscreen and bug spray and carry water. If you want to play with your digital cameras, the refuge has a photography blind overlooking a secluded pond that’s popular with birds and wildlife. (www.primehook.fws.gov)

Of course, beach time is important, and the public beach at Lewes is a gem. It’s on Cape Henlopen, so it is sheltered from the Atlantic waves, which makes it perfect for families with smaller children. It’s also very wide, quite long, and rarely crowded. There’s plenty of room to picnic, build sand castles, and toss Frisbees without feeling as though you’re in the middle of a beachgoers’ convention. You can watch the Cape May Ferry arrive at its dock at the end of the beach and count the massive cargo ships slowly moving up the Delaware Bay towards Philadelphia in the distance. There’s no boardwalk or concessions, although there’s a Dairy Queen just outside the parking lot when you need an ice cream fix. You can usually find a space in the metered parking lot and, yes, you must be diligent about feeding the meter.

You’ll probably get tired of hearing “It’s a Pirate’s Life for Me” after a cruise on the Pirates of Lewes Expedition cruise. It’s an hour-long sail aboard a ‘real’ pirate ship. Before the cruise, there’s face painting and costuming and crew ‘training’ on how to look, sound, and act like a pirate. There’s lots of firing of water cannon, reciting the pirate oath, and finding sunken treasure. Three trips a day; $25 per person; reservations required. 302-249-3538. www.piratesoflewesexpeditions.com. Follow up the make-believe pirate adventure with a visit to the DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum on Fenwick Island. Open daily 11-8, it’s full of real treasures found on real shipwrecks. And it’s free! 708 Coastal Highway, Fenwick Island, DE. www.discoversea.com.

Delaware’s State Parks are known for their amenities and activities. Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes probably has the most activities in one location along the Delaware shore. There’s camping, hiking, biking, swimming, and fishing. The Nature Center has several 1,000-gallon aquariums and touch tanks. That’s also the place to borrow a bike for free as part of the Park Pedal Program. You can rent kayaks, boats, and fishing gear at the park, too. There are full-day and part-day camps with age-specific programs. August features “Dolphins,” “From Pirates to Fishermen,” and “Animal Alphabet.” (www.destateparks.com)

At Fort Miles Historic area in the park, you’ll find out what those large concrete towers which dot the beach were used for during World War II. (Hint: They helped gunners aim at targets in the water.) The orientation building is open Tues-Sat, 10-4. It gives a peek inside the lives of the coast watchers during the war.  Check the schedule for guided tours by costumed docents of areas generally closed to the public, including a cannon that’s longer than a school bus. You’ll hear about a time when U-boats patrolled the ocean just off the beach. (The best story is about a boatload of surrendering German sailors who were taken to dinner in Lewes before being driven to jail.)

The busiest schedule of planned activities has to be at Delaware Seashore State Park south of Rehoboth Beach. There are two parts of the park: one near the oceanfront Life-Saving Museum; the other at the Indian River inlet and marina. There are at least two programs every day in August and something happening each weekend in September. Kids can learn how to go crabbing or help researchers collect data on the health of the inland bays on a pontoon boat tour. Nighttime adventures mean hunting for the shy, elusive ghost crab or making the rounds on an 1870’s-era life-saver ‘surfman’ patrol. During the day, you can tour the Indian River Life-saving Station and see the equipment the very brave forerunners of the Coast Guard used to rescue people trapped on foundering ships.

One of the most popular programs is all about squid. After learning how they live in the ocean and make their ‘ink,’ the squid is dissected and cooked up as calamari! Most of the programs are free or cost a nominal fee of about $4. Some which require supplies can be as much as $10 per person, but you can spend that much at the arcade in half an hour and not have as much fun. (www.destateparks.com)

At the marina, you can rent fishing gear at the “Hook ‘Em and Cook ‘Em” bait shop. They’ll clean your catch for you, and if you don’t have any luck, they have a seafood store where you can buy fish and indulge in the time-honored tradition of making up a great fish story about the one that got away. They also carry all the other necessary beach gear. (www.hookemcookem.com; 302-226-8220.) A fleet of charter boats based at the marina go out for half- and full-day ocean fishing trips.

For completely different fun, the Rehoboth Summer Children’s Theatre has a well-earned reputation for putting on shows that delight and occupy kids. This summer’s schedule features “Peter Pan,” “Snow White” (told from the dwarves’ point-of-view), and “Toad’s Escape,” from “The Wind in the Willows.” Performances are on Monday and Wednesday evenings and Tuesday mornings. Check out the age-specific workshops on Wednesday mornings. 302-227-6766. www.rehobothchildrenstheatre.org.

They’re not mixing up strangely-flavored Jelly Beans from Harry Potter’s world, but there’s a lot of good cooking at The Wizard’s Whisk Cooking School. The classes are specifically designed to introduce kids ages 6-16 to the fun and flavors of cooking. There’s a full, two-week course, but kids can join in for as many days as they want; each day has a different theme. There are morning and afternoon sessions. They’ll learn fun and tasty ways with fruits and vegetables, the best toasted sandwiches, and making things like chocolate chip and raisin bread pudding. www.thewizardswhisk.com.

Dewey Beach plans a lot of family-oriented activities. The littlest ones have their own time at the Preschool story hour at Books & Coffee in Ruddertown. Stories are read at 11, 1, and 3 every Thursday. Parents can grab a latte while the kids are entertained. (302-226-9959). On Monday nights, kid-suitable films are screened at sundown on the beach. Bring your own lawn chair and popcorn. On Wednesdays, it’s a bonfire with marshmallows to be toasted and campfire songs. Saturday mornings, try the free skimboarding class. (Parents welcome.) (www.beach-fun.com)

The most comprehensive on-line resource for Delaware coastal and southern Delaware attractions and events is www.visitsoutherndelaware.com. You might decide to cross the Bay Bridge and head east on Rt. 404 instead of Rt. 50 on your next trip to Delmarva.

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