Wilmington, the bijou capital of Delaware – city population just 71,292 – proudly claims to house the corporate headquarters of more Fortune 500 companies then does any other city, accounting for an amazing 60% of the total.
With its favourable tax regime and other incentives it sure is a good place to do business but, as of now, this pocket-sized US state barely figures on the tourism radar, especially among overseas’ visitors.
Bill Bryson, the renowned American travel author, once sardonically wrote words to the effect of: “Being born and bred in Iowa was all the incentive I needed to become a travel writer.”
Those who have never been there tend to hold similar disparaging views about Delaware. When I told American friends about my planned visit their response was: “But why?”
The only answer I could come up with at the time was: “Because Delaware is the only American state I have not yet been to.”
The unnervingly heavy traffic and the torrential rain that bucketed down as I headed south-east out of Philadelphia were not good omens but boy was I in for a pleasant surprise.
Small it might be, but good things often come in little packages and Delaware is packed with interesting and entertaining things to see and do.
It’s an ideal venue for an American fly-drive holiday and my own trip was greatly enhanced by the good offices of Holiday Autos (www.holidayautos.co.uk), the world’s largest car rental brokerage, and their pre-booked, pre-paid, no hidden extras service, with its ‘best rates’ guarantee. A no-charge upgrade to a fuel-efficient Toyota Prius hybrid was an unexpected bonus.
Set in the picturesque Brandywine Valley, Wilmington might be one of the key hubs of the nation’s economy but at face value it’s archetypal laid-back small town America, a town especially renowned for its distinctive and friendly neighbourhoods. Not that it does not have a vibrant social whirl – the calendar is red-ticked with arts, cultural and sporting events.
My visit coincided with the centennial celebrations of the magnificent DuPont Theatre, the ‘Art Is 100’ exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum, the 25 Clifford Brown Jazz Festival and the 375 anniversary of the New Sweden colony.
It was in 1638 that the sailing vessel Kalmar Nyckel arrived at The Rocks, a natural landing on the Delaware River, to establish the first permanent European settlement in the region. The 1690 Hendrickson House and1698 Old Swedes Church survive to this day while at The Rocks you can board a replica of the Kalmar Nyckel.
Those in the know love Delaware for its string of little-known-to-overseas-visitors seaside towns and superb, well-tended beaches.
I was amazed at not having previously heard of New Castle. With its mellow waterfront, red brick streets and elegant 18 Century townhouses it’s like a classic English town of the period – preserved in aspic on the other side of the Atlantic.
The local taverns specialise in traditional Colonial cuisine of the Georgian age, and mighty hearty fayre it is.
Here’s a town to rival Virginia’s far better known Williamsburg, presenting itself in a far less theatrical, wholly neighbourly “take us as you find us” fashion.
Throughout the year the five grand historic houses of nearby Odessa open their hearts to visitors but are especially magical at Christmas time when illuminations, carollers, carriage rides, Santa Claus walking the cobbled streets, and maybe a sprinkling of snow, create a true winter wonderland.
If you have time, such historic communities as Newark, Middletown, Delaware City and Claymont – the latter having been inhabited by Native Americans since as far back as 1600 BC – are well worth a visit.
Amazing DuPont family
For me, though, Delaware’s premier attractions are its stately mansions and spectacular gardens, most of them the legacy of the amazing DuPont family, who fled the French Revolution’s guillotine to make their fortune across the Atlantic through, first, gunpowder and then all manner of chemicals and man-made fibres, including, notably Nylon.
Sadly, I only had a morning to spare where I could easily have filled a week, so I concentrated on magnificent Longwood Gardens, a horticultural masterpiece featuring spectacular fountains, trees, shrubs and 11,000 varieties of plant in a space bigger than New York’s Central Park, and Nemours Mansion, the majestic home built by Alfred I DuPont, creator of the fabled family’s chemicals’ fortune, an exquisitely furnished palace surrounded by the finest French-style formal gardens in all North America.
Studying the local guidebooks and brochures, I quickly realised I had only brushed the surface of this fascinating little state.
So, why go to Delaware?: The answer is simple – because it’s brilliant!
It was with reluctance then that I set my wheels spinning down the state’s verdant spine to the dramatic bridge and tunnel system that would take me across the mouth of Chesapeake Bay to beckoning Virginia. It’s a spectacular way to arrive in Norfolk – the world’s largest naval base.
Set on the Elizabeth River at its confluence with the vast Chesapeake Bay, as a gateway to the Atlantic Ocean, Norfolk has 144 miles of shoreline so it’s no surprise that, as well as providing a safe haven for the American fleet, the area has a wealth of watersports' opportunities.
There are naval and military museums and monuments, one of the most striking of which is to General Macarthur, the man who was eventually destined to take the Japanese surrender at the end of World War Two.
Visit the historic Ghent and Freemason districts, with their antique shops and galleries and tour the mighty 887 ft long, 45,000 tons USS Wisconsin battleship. A guided visit to Naval Station Norfolk is a must.
There’s an active arts and theatre scene too, with Virginia Opera, Wells Theatre and Chrysler Hall three of the superb venues, while the 255 acres of the botanical garden and the 53 acres of the Virginia Zoological Park will enthral the old folks and the youngsters in turn.
Cradle of the nation
From Norfolk it’s a very easy run to the Williamsburg and Jamestown area, the cradle of the American nation, site of the first English settlement in the New World when 104 immigrants arrived in 1607, some 13 years before the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Provincetown, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Cars are discouraged from central Williamsburg. It’s all eminently walkable and when you get a little weary there’s a regular trolley bus that takes a circular route to bring you within a few steps of anywhere you want to go.
Fro starters you’ll want to begin your day by taking the half-hour Colonial Williamsburg Orientation Walk (www.colonialwilliamsburg.com). There’s just so much to choose from.
Built to impress, the Governor’s Palace was home base for seven royal governors whose purpose in life was to project British wealth and authority. Marvel at the huge display of period swords and other weapons and the ornate grand ballroom.
You can visit the blacksmith’s shop and public armoury and witness an array of 20 trades being practised with 18 Century methods and tools.
Mock court sessions take place every day at the courthouse, while Revolutionary City Street Theatre is a dramatic live programme of large-scale streetscape events and multiple simultaneous vignettes covering the tumultuous period from 1774 to 1781.
Colonial Williamsburg is home to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum – the oldest institution in the United States that is dedicated to the collection and preservation of American folk art – while the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum houses an outstanding British and American collection from the 1600 to 1830 period.
The scenic 23-miles long Colonial Parkway picturesquely links Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown – the latter the site of the bloody battle that settled the War of Independence, or The Revolutionary War as Americans call it.
For its part, Jamestown was virtually abandoned after a 92-year run as the Virginia state capital, from1607 to 1699. The Historic Jamestowne Visitor Center houses a fascinating museum highlighting the interaction between the native Powhatan tribe, the English settlers and black slaves shipped over from West Africa.
On-site attractions include reproductions of James Fort and a native Indian village as well as a recreation of one of the three ships – the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and Discovery – that arrived at these shores in 1607 to establish America’s first permanent English colony.
The strategically critical peninsula that encompasses Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown later gained even greater importance as a cockpit of the bloody American civil War, figuring in a number of key battles on water and on land. At www.civilwarwilliamsburg.com there’s an extensive list of battlefield sites worth visiting.
This whole area reeks of history and they take their heritage very seriously. A high percentage of Williamsburg residents wear period costume on a daily basis and there is meticulous attention to detail. You will see the British flag flying all over town: not our modern one, mind you, but the pre-1800 Act of Union design which would have fluttered over the town back in Colonial times.
When to go
This region of America’s East Coast is a year-round destination with four distinct seasons. Summers can be swelteringly hot and humid and winters severe but both seasons have their charm while the famous blossoms of spring and multi-coloured leaves of autumn are divine.
How to get there
Within a three-hour drive of a full third of the American nation’s total population and set midway between New York City and Washington DC and around 100 miles from each of them, Wilmington is less than 30 minutes south of Philadelphia International Airport, with its frequent flights to Europe.
80 trains a day stop at Wilmington Station, including Amtrak’s high-speed Acela Express.
How to get around
You will need a car to visit Delaware’s mansions and gardens. Bookable before you go, Holiday Autos (www.holidayautos.co.uk) has a 25 year history of yielding the best car rental deals, from 30,000 locations worldwide. Today the world’s biggest rental brokerage, the company was the first to offer fully-inclusive, pre-paid car hire and provides the best prices from the leading brands, with positively no hidden extras.
Getting around Norfolk is exceptionally easy, thanks to the 7.4 miles of the ultra-modern The Tide light rail system.
Williamsburg is flat and easy to walk, plus there’s a bus service that circles the historic centre and other buses will take you to Williamsburg and Jamestown.
The area is also well served with multi-lane highways. Check www.wilmingtonDE.com for further information. Bridges and tunnels across the mouth of Chesapeake Bay connect the southern tip of Delaware to Norfolk, Virginia. Revolutionary and Civil War sites are easy to access via the extensive interstate highway system and a web of well-paved country byways.
Where to stay
Wilmington: Hotel Sheraton Wilmington South – Located by the regional airport, close to historic Newcastle, but there’s no noise problem. Public areas are vast and rooms are spacious and well furbished, if the décor style is rather dated by European standards. A site just seconds from I-95 makes for a quick and easy getaway in the morning.
Norfolk: Sheraton Waterside – the only hotel right on Norfolk’s atmospheric waterfront. From your room, watch the might of the US Navy glide majestically past. Perfectly situated for river cruises and al fresco entertainments.
Williamsburg: Williamsburg Lodge – old fashioned, in a very stylish way, the décor is a mix of warm woods and colourful fabrics. They boast of “The benefits of country living with the conveniences of being in town.”
Rooms are generously proportioned, with first-rate amenities. Leave your car with the doorman – you won’t be needing it. It’s just a short stroll to the heart of things, or you could take a horse-drawn carriage. A tip: the bar food is super, with very generous portions, www.colonialwilliamsburg.com
What and where to eat
There’s all the usual American junk food of course but this area can also offer a plethora of fine dining experiences/
In Wilmington, the welcoming Green Room at the Hotel du Pont (www.hoteldupont.com) has a magnificent signature dish of seared Alaskan halibut with hen of the wood mushrooms, Highland Orchard figs, Hudson Valley fois gras, fingerling potatoes, pinot noir syrup and chive oil.
In more modest fashion, I also ate at the British pub-style Jessop’s Tavern & Restaurant (www.jessops-tavern.com) in New Castle, where the fish and chips and shepherd’s pie were almost as good as the real thing.
American influenced Italian cuisine can be savoured at The Vineyards’ (www.thevineyardstrattoria) two locations, in Norfolk and nearby Newport News, while in Virginia Beach, also close to Norfolk, there’s a branch of Captain George’s (www.captaingeorges,com) with its amazingly generous seafood buffet, much of the catch coming straight from Chesapeake Bay.
In Williamsburg I dined with local factotum Jim Bradley at the King’s Arms (www.colonialwilliamsburg.com) – a classic English pub, in all but location. The pies were outstanding, the conversation scintillating as my host filled in all the history and the heated politics of the Colonial period. There’s been a hostelry on this site since 1772.
What to speak
English (with an American bias)
What to spend (and tip)
US$. Better leave a 20% gratuity or the waiter will pursue you down the street!