Editorial Producer Chris Abell takes us on a tour of his favorite summer stomping grounds.
When people think of great American beaches, their minds probably take them to Florida or California, homes to Miami Beach, Daytona Beach, Venice Beach, and Huntington Beach. Maybe they think of Cape Cod or the Hamptons. But most of us don’t think of Delaware.
Delaware’s southern coastlines stand up to almost any in the country when it comes to soft sand, ample beachfront, and swimmable surf. The state’s beaches often fly under the radar nationally, but plenty of beachgoers from the DC, Baltimore, and Philadelphia areas flock to the Delaware shore every summer. The best known is Rehoboth Beach (where this author’s parents met, setting in motion the composition of this very piece), a 40-minute drive north of Ocean City, Maryland. But nestled in between the two is the small, charming, family-friendly resort town of Bethany Beach. I’ve been going since I was weeks old, and it might be my favorite place in the world.
Here’s how to do it right:
Where to Stay
Bethany is, primarily, a home-rental town—and that’s one of the things that makes it so nice. There's no huge spread of hotels brimming with tourists and college kids, making Bethany more family-friendly than nearby Dewey Beach (where you’ll find lots of bars and rowdy nightlife) and quieter than Rehoboth and Ocean City. There’s just enough action to make it relaxing but interesting.
Your best bet, if it’s doable, is to rent a house in one of the private developments north of town (places with names like Ocean Village, Gull’s Nest, and Pelican’s Pouch). This is where you’ll truly find “the Quiet Resort,” as Bethany likes to call itself. The private beaches are far less crowded than the ones in town, and the homes are spacious. The developments are a walk or bike ride away from the center of town. Try Crowley Real Estate for rentals.
Hotel and inn options do exist. The Addy Sea ($175-$375) offers bed-and-breakfast charm right on the waterfront and just a few blocks from Bethany’s main drag. The Bethany Beach Ocean Suites Residence Inn (prices can go above $500 during peak season) opened only a couple of years ago and offers a Marriott experience in the center of town; it looks like a small townhouse row and is by far the biggest hotel in Bethany proper. Sea Colony, south of town, offers a wide variety of residence options from condos to resort-style rental homes.
What to Eat
Crabs. You’ll “shell” out (sorry) for good ones, but the price is worth it. Order for pick up from Steamers, just a few minutes inland on Route 26, or head to Mickey’s with a festive group. Have fun cracking away with the crab mallets (ask your server for crab-picking tips), and pair with plenty of beer and Old Bay. Call ahead for pricing and availability.
Now that we have the most important cuisine out of the way, you can think about breakfast. For a true local scene, head to Ocean View Family Restaurant, which serves regional delicacies like scrapple. Another play is to grab some delicious pastries from the Beach Break Bakrie & Cafe and some produce from the farmer's market in town, specifically peaches. You can even pick your own at Bennett Orchards, about six miles inland from the beach.
Plenty of lunch options exist, but here are the two that really matter. Surf’s Up makes a heck of a cheesesteak—my favorite in the world, in fact. (Disclosure: I may or may not have worked at Surf’s Up one summer in high school.) They have plenty of other sub options, as well as fresh, hand-tossed pizza. And speaking of pizza, go to Grotto. Something about the thin crust and the blend of cheeses makes it delicious and unique.
You'll have plenty to choose from dinner-wise. Patsy’s is a charming, Key West-inspired seafood joint right in town, and it offers some of the best and freshest fare in the area. It's great for date night or a casual but intimate night out. Try the whole snapper or soft shell crab and the double chocolate ganache cake. Another good option is Sedona, which has a slightly upscale American menu. Blue Coast, about a half mile outside of town and just across Route 1, offers more great seafood options (including a market) and lovely bay views (particularly mesmerizing at sunset).
Dessert is everywhere. Dickey’s Frozen Custard serves creamy, decadent, ice cold custard. It’s like soft serve ice cream but better (owner Dick Heidenberger also runs Mango’s, a boardwalk restaurant with ocean views, and Bethany Blues, a barbecue joint). Get your fill of saltwater taffy, fudge, and other sweets at Candy Kitchen. Grab coffee and a pastry at the Artful Bean.
I’m not a huge shopper, but I do have three sisters and a mother who know their way around a sale, so I’ve got the scoop. Japanesque offers women’s clothes, gifts, and jewelry. For funky, sometimes wild, antiques, try the Beach Plum—it’s a unique spot with a garage-sale feel, and the display of miscellany outside is impressive. Pitter Patter offers all types of things for children. And, of course, the town's main drag boasts a plethora of beachy shops hawking kites, tee shirts, souvenirs, and more. Two places I do enjoy perusing are Bethany Beach Books, a charming bookshop with a high-quality selection of titles, and town staple Bethany Beach Surf Shop. In addition to some serious knowledge and equipment for all things watersports, they have great tee shirts, sweatshirts, bathing suits, and shades.
For major deals, make the drive to Rehoboth to hit the Tanger Outlets—it’s a great way to spend a rainy day, and the amount of stores is astounding.
What to Do
Beach, and beach hard. But for a break in the routine, bike around town and the surrounding neighborhoods, or stroll the main drag for some of the aforementioned eats and shopping. Take the kids to the arcade or putt-putt (that’s mini golf), and for real golf, try the 27-hole Bear Trap Dunes or the par-3 course at Salt Pond.
The beach and town should keep the kids happy, but for a change of pace, you can’t go wrong with a 20-minute drive to Rehoboth’s Funland. It boasts enough rides, games, and treats to keep young ones busy for hours. For a distinctly Mid-Atlantic adventure, take the family crabbing—this is one of the few places in the world you can do it, and you might even catch your own dinner. A drive down eclectic Route 26 offers variety, and Ocean City, Maryland, is just a 20-minute drive south.
For a night out, head to Dewey Beach, 15 minutes north of Bethany. It's wild, and that's all I'll say here on that. But all you really need for a fun and relaxing vacation is Bethany Beach. I've got a lifetime of experience that says so.
Chris Abell is an editorial producer at Travel+Leisure. You can follow him on Instagram at @buildingflavors.