Mosey On Over

'Slower, Lower Delaware': Behind the bustle of the beaches are towns, parks, farms and nature refugees that will reward the leisurely traveler in Sussex County.

May 02, 1999|By Reed Hellman | Reed Hellman,SPECIAL OF THE SUN

Standing on Route 1 near Rehoboth, Del., witnessing an ocean of people surge over acres of tax-free outlet stores, you'd never guess that the locals call this place "Slower, Lower Delaware."

Sometimes, even a well-mannered beach resort like Rehoboth can seem too hectic. Traveling a slower road through the rest of Delaware's Sussex County can fill more than one weekend with adventure. "Inland Sussex County is the Delaware you never knew," says Millsboro shop owner Pete Marconi. Eight years ago, Marconi's signature T-shirts first publicized the county's calmer approach to life. Today, every shirt, jacket and hat in his store proclaims the slogan: "Slower, Lower Delaware!"

Marconi acknowledges that Sussex is most noted for its wealth of beach activities on both the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay. But beyond the beaches wait Victorian towns, bustling antiques stores, state parks, tax-free shopping, specialty farms and wildlife refuges playing host to the Atlantic flyway's feathered millions. The people of Sussex have carefully regarded their piece of the Earth, realized their good fortunes, and are still most willing to share with the rest of us.

The Delaware 'prairie'

Though no place in Sussex is very far from anyplace else, taking a slower, better look at the other Delaware is best accomplished in easy overnight and weekend drives. Begin inland, in the county's northwest corner, traveling east through Greenwood on Delaware Route 16. The flat, agricultural topography stretches away on all sides to the horizon, broken only by isolated, weathered farm homes, wood lots and conifer tree lines. Buzzards wheel in the limitless sky. The land almost has a feel of the Western high plains, enhanced by a herd of 70 buffalo, grazing the Delaware "prairie," at the Colvine Bison Farm.

Colvine's owner, Bobby Collins, had to move his fences back from the edge of the road to accommodate all the people pulling off to stare at his herd. "We see a lot of people turn around to come back and take another look," says Carla Parker, Colvine's administrator. And the herd stares back, impassively watching any newcomers oon the grounds. Even behind the sturdy fences within Colvine's 100 acres of paddocks and buildings, the buffalo still manage to evoke a strong image of the wilderness.

Though raising the herd primarily to supply breeding stock, Colvine does produce USDA certified bison meat and is one of the only bison farms in the East with the USDA seal. Colvine's management "doesn't encourage farm tours," but its staff will conduct tours for groups with advance arrangements.

Continue south from Greenwood on Route 13 to Laurel. Proclaiming itself to be "what small-town America is all about," Laurel has 800 homes qualifying as part of the largest designated historic district in the state. Victorian accents and numerous parks and ponds invite travelers to stroll the tidy streets or dine in one of the many restaurants before continuing westward on Delaware Route 78 to the Nanticoke River and the Woodland Ferry.

Delaware's last operating river ferry made its first confirmed transit in 1792 (local lore claims much earlier). One of the nation's oldest operating ferries, the Woodland is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But, despite this long history of service, the Woodland Ferry has twice faced closure in recent years. Threatened by funding and maintenance problems, only an outpouring of local love and sympathetic state officials were able to prevent the loss.

One passage over the scenic Nanticoke is enough to explain the fierce local devotion. The low, forested banks frame a picturesque flow. The barge-like, 65-foot ferry rides a cable back and forth across the river. A captain and a one-person crew transport more than 200 cars a day and up to 400 in the summer months. On one recent transit, the sole passengers drove a pickup truck filled with noisy golden retrievers who amiably caught a ball thrown by the ferry's crew. The game had obviously been played before and the dogs, passengers and deckhand all knew each other well.

Woodland village on the west bank appears to have slid off of a picture postcard. Some of the waterside buildings were originally built as warehouses in the 1700s, but today, all are private homes. Leave your car parked on the east side and ride the ferry as a deck passenger. Exploring Woodland on foot preserves the scale.

Antiques Road

Georgetown lies east of Laurel on Route 9 the Antiques Road. In less than the 20 miles from Georgetown to Lewes, nearly two dozen roadside shops offer antiques, furniture or reproductions. The stores range from the gallery-style "Practically Yours," which displays wares from many dealers, to smaller single operations such as "Pete's Antiques" and the accurately named "Signs of the Past."

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