First and Foremost Delaware: It's so close we take it for granted, yet so far out of the ordinary that the rewards are many for simply stopping by.

August 23, 1998|By Lara M. Zeises | Lara M. Zeises,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I have ridden a cable car into San Francisco's famed Chinatown on a gorgeous, pre-spring night. I have seen leaves turn the most magnificent shades of red and gold during a maple-sugared fall in Vermont. I have washed down sweet beignets with strong, chicory-laced coffee and people-watched on a sticky August morning at the Cafe du Monde in New Orleans. And I have stood with thousands, clutching a dripping white candle in a nighttime vigil of awesome proportions, waiting to pay my respects to the King of Rock and Roll in Memphis, Tenn.

But of all the places I've seen, stretched from the East Coast to the West, there's only one I'll always return to, one I'll always call my home: Delaware.

I spent my entire youth scheming of ways to escape the First State, but I've discovered I can never leave for long. I'm not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the line I lost my heart to the Home of Tax-Free Shopping, and now it looks as if there's no turning back. You can take the girl out of Delaware, but you can't take Delaware out of the girl.

I think of Fourth of July at the stone tower in Wilmington's Rockford Park, and of stretching out on the sloping hills under a fury of fireworks. I think of cautious strolls along the brick-lined sidewalks of Old New Castle, trying not to trip over the patches that have been pushed up by centuries-old tree roots. I think of munching Grotto's pizza amid the buzz of a baseball-hungry crowd at the Blue Rocks stadium; no, they're not the O's, but they're ours, and we love them fiercely. I think of these things, and I am filled with a sense of how wonderful the Small Wonder truly can be.

If you've been to Delaware at all - not just stopped through or passed by but really been to Delaware - you probably came for the beaches. Everyone loves our beaches. And granted, the beaches are nice.

But Northern Delaware - my Delaware - offers sand-less sights inspiring enough to rival nearby tourist traps such as Philadelphia. And you'll rarely need to pay for parking.

Old New Castle: Proof that there's more to Delaware than DuPont

No place is more quaint and comforting to me than historic Old New Castle, a town marked by its old-style architecture, lush foliage and one remaining cobblestone street. Its timeless look has made it an ideal location for shooting period films; "Dead Poet's Society" and the coming adaptation of Toni Morrison's "Beloved" are two.

It's a small spot with only a few crisscrossing streets, but one rife with both history and beauty. Built upon the Delaware River, New Castle was established in 1651 by Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch governor of New Netherlands, and originally served as a military post. The land changed hands a few times before it was given to William Penn in late 1682. To this day, his Guest House (206 Delaware St.) serves as a charming bed and breakfast.

Cost of lodging aside - the B&Bs run at least $100 a night - the splendors of Old New Castle can be had for an extraordinarily low price. Start your day by touring the trio of preserved houses open to the public (a combination ticket runs $7 and is well worth the price of admission).

The most humble of the three is the Dutch House (32 E. Third St.), which stands as the oldest structure in Old New Castle. Built in 1700 by early Delaware settlers, the house typifies colonial Dutch architecture. But it's the functional furniture, tools and even decorative objects - along with the animated tour guide's narrative - that tell the story of what life was like for the middle-class family that lived here.

Next, head to the Amstel House (Fourth and Delaware streets), a study in contrasts. Built in the late 17th century, the house began as a two-room brick dwelling. But later owners added on to the property, turning it into a fine example of 18th-century Georgian architecture. And, as the plaque on the side of the building boasts, George Washington attended a wedding there in April 1784.

Make the Read House and Gardens your last stop on the tour. George Read II commissioned construction of the 22-room mansion in 1801, but like today's homeowners, Read's staff didn't know the meaning of the word deadline. That, in addition to Read's sporadic lack of funds, kept the house from full completion for several years.

When Read died in 1836, he was still deep in debt and the contents of his magnificent home were auctioned off. The

furniture now filling the rooms is antique, but not necessarily what was owned by Read.

Nonetheless, the attention to detail is astonishing. All of the woodwork is hand-punched and gauged; the original wall stencils, discovered under layers of paint and paper, have been perfectly re-created.

After your morning history lesson, head back to Delaware Street, where you'll find a variety of antiques stores and mom-and-pop shops. Hungry? On the weekends, the Opera House Antiques Center (308 Delaware St.) turns one corner of its facility into a Victorian tearoom, complete with finger sandwiches and scones.

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