Delaware is not a state that gets much hype, tourism-wise, and when it does, it's usually about the beaches (Rehoboth, Bethany), the Brandywine River Valley (Wyeth family, Longwood Gardens), or the City of Wilmington.
But here's the thing: Southwestern Delaware - or more precisely Western Sussex County, which includes the towns of Laurel, Seaford, Bethel and Georgetown - is shot through with so many rivers and rivulet's, creeks and streams, it is kayaking nirvana. And very few know about it.
This segment of Delaware is also a skydiving hotspot - very fitting, as DuPont opened the word's first Nylon plant here in 1939; pumping out massive amounts of the material used to make a significant number of the country's parachutes. Western Sussex County is also a Bass Fishing utopia, and full of local color - both visually and personality-wise. Read on for the best reasons to visit this little known part of the Small Wonder State.
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1. This middle section of the Delmarva Peninsula was once almost all swampland, until lumber companies in the 1700's cut down trees and drained the swamps. One of these drained swamps became the rainwater-fed lake at Trap Pond State Park (Laurel, DE), considered to be one of the Top Ten Bass Fishing lakes in the country (Bassmaster Magazine). Be sure to sign up for a Pontoon Boat Tour (offered throughout the day and even at night, in season), which winds through a Floridaesque setting, dense with the northernmost stand of baldcypress trees in the USA. These partially submerged trees form a ghostly landscape at night, a spookiness amplified by the sounds of winged creatures (heron, owls, other things) that shriek and moan in the dark. For the full effect, stay in a tent, trailer, or cabin by the water, and take advantage of a myriad of Trap Pond State Park programs, day and night.
2. One local story, that of the Swamp Monster, captures the essence of this swampland -a comfort-food version of a monster tale with a completely nutty twist. In 1963, the then 23-year-old Fred Stevens donned his Aunt's fur coat, picked up a bat, put on a scary mask and marched in the local Halloween parade. As a prank, Stevens (in full regalia) and a friend headed to the swamp where the friend captured the "Swamp Monster" on film, sent photos to the town paper, and thus a created a legend. Stevens kept his secret for 25 years, and when he revealed his true identity, the newspapers were all over it. In 2010, Brown University mistakenly sent Stevens an invitation to a 50th Reunion (supposedly, Stevens was Ted Turner's roommate). Stevens responded by sending a photo of the Swamp Monster and newspaper clippings about himself. Brown University published these as an "alum update" in its annual magazine and Stevens has been receiving Brown's publications ever since.
3. Annual Return Day repairs a fractious community. Back in 1791 (and every year since), farmers would travel to Georgetown DE to vote, then go back to their fields. Two days later, they'd "return" to hear the results of the election. Back then, and still now, the winning party parades through the streets ending in the town center where all who ran for office gather to "bury the hatchet," in a actual box of sand. As a community event, Return Day is one of the most civilized post-election proceedings in the country.
4. In 1608, John Smith and his crew rowed and sailed on the Nanticoke River from Chesapeake Bay to what is now Western Sussex, DE at the mouth of Broad Creek. Smith's 1613 map of the area remains pretty accurate to this day, in fact, as most of these major and minor ribbons of water haven't changed much in 400 years.
5. Take your love for a picnic at riverside Phillips Landing. You can just imagine John Smith paddling upstream at this dogleg turn of the Nanticoke, it is so pristine and untouched. This is one of the most romantic spots in SW Delaware, so pack some wine and cheese and leave your cell phone at home.
6. The Nanticoke and its tributaries are so tranquil and picturesque, kayaking here allows for true communion with nature. Countless creeks and rivers are relatively unknown, making the area enticing for recreational kayakers looking for new bucolic waterways to paddle. The best way to explore here is with knowledgeable outfitters. Learn to SUP on flat-water with Delmarva Board Sports and/or discover Stan Shedaker's favorite excursions. As owner of Adrenalin High Outfitters, Shedaker has investigated them all.
7. Skydive Delmarva (Laurel Airport) is serious about safety...and fun. They train the US Naval Academy Parachute Team, after all. But, the pros there are also about having a good time. Try a tandem jump for $225, and you might discover you just adore jumping out of a plane from 13,500 ft up.
8. The recently-open-to-public 18-hole golf course at Heritage Shores (Bridgeville) is peppered with 17 ponds, which ups the challenge and enhances aesthetics. There are so many water hazards in fact; the Golf Shop sells floating balls. If golf is not your thing, try Bocce Ball. Though small, Heritage Shores has one of the finest Bocce Courts in the land. After a round, head to the hip Sugar Beet Market on Heritage Shores property for a drink at the cool bar or to pick up some local cheese and crackers to enjoy on the deck out back. It's particularly beguiling at sunset.
9. For some down-home food, and for a real taste of Western Sussex County, find a Fish Fry being catered by My Turn To Cook (or hire this humble couple yourself). Watch fresh-caught fish turn golden brown before your eyes -fixin's include cooked greens and potatoes as well.
10. Chefs in the area "train each other" and a true culinary scene is "unfolding before our eyes," says one local. This farming community is smack dab between Bay and Ocean watersheds, so chefs (and eaters) benefit from nearby farms and fisheries. Right now, the best example of locally sourced cuisine is Abbott's on Broad Creek in Laurel. The exemplary food here can compete with the best restaurants in America's big cities. Chef Ryan Cunningham looks like a chill dude, but works magic in his kitchen, turning out delights like Grilled Octopus with Truffle Vinaigrette Tendrils, Mussels and Fries, Apple-Scrapple Flatbread, just-picked salads, and other tweaked comfort foods.