Come summer, Mt. Lebanon clears out and heads for the beach. The names are familiar: Stone Harbor, Hilton Head, the Outer Banks. While a day at the beach will soothe the savage beast and toasts the season (and you), a shoulder- or off-season visit can be far more relaxing. Expect to have these beaches to yourself this spring or fall.
At the southern tip of the Delmarva (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia) peninsula is lovely Chincoteague Island, whose ponies were memorialized in the children’s classic “Misty of Chincoteague.” You won’t see many ponies these days but if you rent a bike and pedal into the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, you will spot migrating shorebirds including snow geese and too-cute piping plover. Trails traverse the many marshes and groves that dot the refuge and while an eagle eye will catch (you guessed it) a bald eagle, remember to look ahead, the better to spot mating turtles at trails’ edge. The Assateague Lighthouse is a red-and-white confection standing sentinel amid tall sea grasses while the Assateague Island National Seashore may be one of the most beautiful and unspoiled beaches on the east coast. Absent any development, miles of sand and placid surf allow you to reconnect with family and self.
If kids are in tow, sign on for the Captain Barry Tour, a four-hour fun-fest with the most affable sea captain in town. Climb aboard a pontoon boat that seats six and prepare to raise traps filled with crabs, snag a flounder (name him Freddy) and referee a snail race. Children will giggle throughout and learn more than they ever imagined. More adventure can be had alongside Dave Burden, whose team at Southeast Expeditions on Cape Charles hosts sunset kayak and clamming expeditions. Put in aboard a one- or two-person kayak on Cherrystone Creek, home to Cherrystone clams and akin to a pristine mountain lake. Mid-paddle, everyone stops in shallow water and digs for clams, which are transported to a dock where they’re steamed and served with a crisp Virginia chardonnay. Don’t be surprised if you return the next night and do it all over again—the trip is that memorable.
The Refuge Inn on Chincoteague Island is a 73-room lodging where rooms are individually decorated and creature comforts include an indoor/outdoor pool and hearty continental breakfast. Lucky you if you’re traveling with a group, the better to snag one of the half-dozen Lodges at Kiptopeke State Park in Cape Charles. These six-bedroom, three-bath beach bungalows feature pine furnishings, cathedral ceiling and a tall fireplace in a great room that overlooks a spacious deck with outdoor grill. The lodge sleeps sixteen and the park has plentiful diversions (bike/hike trails, rambling play structure) for everyone. Mealtime will be savored at Woody’s Beach BBQ, housed in a couple of unassuming buildings on a traffic circle in the center of Chincoteague Island. The stars of the show are falling-off-the bone ribs and you can pair them with homey sides including baked beans and sweet slaw. More southern comfort comes in the way of cooked-to-order fried chicken you can pair with mashed red bliss potatoes. Owners Larry and Gail Parsons know how to cook and they make everything, including dessert, from scratch.
At the northern end of Delmarva is Rehoboth Beach, a sixties-era kitschy destination reborn as a stylish enclave filled with trendy boutiques, home furnishings stores and a slew of restaurants drawing urbanites from D.C., Philly and Baltimore. The simple pleasures, however, have stood the test of time: a mile-long boardwalk paralleling the Atlantic is still home to Dolle’s, where chewy morsels of saltwater taffy have been cranked out for nearly a century. Next door is Kohr Brothers Frozen Custard, in business since 1919 and serving swirls of creamy goodness in a cone or a cup. Snug beside is Thrasher’s Fries, where you’re wise to douse your bucket o’taters in malt vinegar and there’s no ketchup in sight. It’s no surprise that folks line up from three states over – the fries are that good.
Renting a seaside cottage? buying one? Shop till you drop at Mod Cottage on Rehoboth Avenue and Boxwood on Baltimore Avenue and your home, or home-away-from-home, will be a showplace. Similarly, visits to South Moon Under and Tickled Pink will have you looking like a million bucks. Wear your new look to dinner at Blue Moon, an understated room inside a restored blue and yellow Victorian where the chestnut-apple soup is prelude to a Maine lobster and seared scallop risotto that will send you dancing into the autumn night. Espuma serves a Mediterranean-inspired menu featuring the local bounty while the fish tacos at Striper Bites in nearby Lewes sport lightly-fried mahi inside a flour tortilla that’s draped with slaw, fresh tomato salsa, cheese and sour cream and is arguably the best dish around.
The beaches of southern Delaware begin with Lewes, the “oldest town in the oldest state” and wend their way through Rehoboth and on down to Dewey Beach (surfer paradise) and Bethany Beach and end at Fenwick Island, whose lighthouse dates to 1858 and where the trans-peninsular marker out front makes it possible to stand in Delaware and Maryland at the same time. Get close to nature at Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes, a triangular stretch of land between the Atlantic and Delaware Bay. The park’s “Borrow a Bike” stand points to a three-mile trail from which you can stop to climb a World War II-era observation tower, take in the waves at the Great Dunes Overlook and pause to play several holes of frisbee golf (discs loaned out at the park’s Nature Center). The nearby Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge encompasses ten thousand acres set aside to protect waterfowl on the Atlantic flyway. Explore Prime Hook Creek via canoe as you take in great blue heron, bald eagles, osprey and more.
Board sports have soared in popularity along the Delaware coast and stand up paddle boarding could be the king of ‘em all. Calling to mind the seafarers of Hawaii, you’ll proceed from kneeling to standing on an egg-shaped board in two minutes flat in the hands of George Markopoulos of DelMarVa Board Sport Adventures. Former CPA and current windsurfing champ George is the perfect, patient teacher for adults and kids and a two-hour class will go by far too quickly. Equally facile with kids since he isn’t much older himself is Jason Wilson of Alley-Oop Skim in Dewey Beach, where skim boarding – think surfing on small boards at water’s edge – can be learned during daytime lessons as well as week-long camps. Spending much of his life in the water is deep-sea diver Dale Clifton, whose DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum on Fenwick Island includes loot hauled up from the remains of the sunken Nuestra Senora de Atocha off the coast of Florida in the 1990s. Prepare to be dazzled by hulking bars of gold nearly four centuries old and a gleaming wedding chain that once belonged to the Queen of Spain.