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The weirdness of New Jersey has never been in dispute. The Garden State boasts a higher than average number of purported Mafia burial grounds, abandoned sanatoria, midget houses, and cosmic wormholes. Entire sections of turnpike become enshrouded in mist that can be dispelled only by repeated applications of “Thunder Road.” Bridge lanes close abruptly and for no good reason. New Jersey even has a magazine devoted to its strangeness. But what about its southern neighbor, Delaware? Leaving aside Joe Biden, it’s not so weird—or so we’ve been led to believe.
Funland (Harold C/Foursquare)
In fact, there are plenty of ways to have an enjoyably off-kilter summer trip down the Delaware shore, starting with the 85-minute ferry from Cape May to Lewes: a cheerfully '80’s affair of chrome, glass and blonde wood that occasionally hosts weddings in addition to beachgoers and their cars (no, you won’t be allowed to crash). How many times the wedding party gets to go back and forth in interstate waters is a mystery.
Once in Lewes—whose modest-to-the-point-of-Canadian motto is "You know it's the first town in the first state, right?"—it's best to begin with beer, academically speaking, of course. The Lewes Historical Society has wisely hitched their wagon to local suds star Dogfish Head Brewery, and the society's summer exhibition is all about beer: "History of Brewing in Delaware & 20 Off-Centered Years of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery."
Via the Lewes Historical Society (Facebook)
Follow the smell of malt to the Ellegood House and Blacksmith Shop. Next, wander over to the Zwaanendael Museum, a Delaware maritime and social history center in an adorable step-gabled brick house. There you'll find objects from the Dutch settlement of Delaware, as well as the Zwaanendael Merman, a piece of 19th century folk art meant to look like a Barnum sideshow freak. Once you've seen it, you might need to repair to the Irish Eyes Pub on the other side of the canal for a soothing draught of Pain in the Ass (half pina colada, half strawberry daiquiri), guaranteed to make you forget all your history in a hurry.
You might not want to sober up if you're planning on a bracing round of mini-golf: the Delaware shore specialty of cinema-themed golf courses is definitely improved by alcohol.
Fire Mountain Golf (Yelp)
Pick your movie genre: diminutive Captain Jack's Pirate Golf in Bethany Beach offers a variation on Pirates of the Caribbean, complete with ghost ship and skeleton crew, while Fire Mountain Golf at Rehoboth Beach's Midway Speedway Park is pure Indiana Jones, right down to the smoke-belching plaster volcano (complete with crashed twin-engine plane), and tiki snack bar. Want a boardwalk treat instead? Both Bethany Beach and Rehoboth Beach have outposts of Kohr Brothers Custard, a Delaware institution that offers peanut butter, mint, banana and dulce de leche flavors in addition to the standard swirl.
Skee-Ball & Scary Clowns
While you're on the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk, don’t pass up a visit to Funland, the old-school amusement park that has been a RB fixture for more than 50 years. Here you'll find skee-ball and whack-a-mole in spades, hair-raising classic rides (Gravitron!) at close quarters, and a kiddie park that features the most terrifying clown to be seen this side of a Poltergeist advertisement (strangely, the kids don't seem to notice).
No fan of thrills and chills? Hit the pinball-friendly Playland Arcade, and then wrap up the evening (or the morning—RB doesn't judge) at Gus & Gus Place, a boardwalk grill that serves up outstanding fried chicken, burgers and corndogs on paper plates. Eat in (how else will you keep the seagulls from poaching your food?) and admire the colonial wallpaper and dozens of framed family photos that are the only decorations at this formica-clad longtime favorite. Weird? A little. But definitely wonderful.
Elizabeth L. Bradley is the author, most recently, of New York a short history of and guidebook to the city from Reaktion Books. She writes about NYC history, culture and food, and is quietly obsessed with vintage Dairy Queen neon.