Editor's note: This story was originally published on Sept. 10, 2021.
I haven’t lived in many places.
It was something I was proud of growing up, that my parents built our house and planted roots in our small Pennsylvania town. Every day, we could look out at the same rolling hills and corn fields in our backyard, and across the tree-line, you could see where my grandparents lived.
It was what I thought of – and still think of – as home.
I first moved to a new town when I settled into a college dorm room in Washington, D.C., and then an apartment that sat at the bottom of a steep hill leading to the National Cathedral. For a few months, I even lived in a stylish apartment building in Madrid, Spain, where residents’ open windows occasionally spilled out soulful Spanish music.
But then, after graduation, I was back on my family’s farm, sipping coffee on the back porch, wondering where my next home might be.
If you would have told me the answer was Delaware, I probably would have raised a dramatic eyebrow at you.
But here I was, in 2019, a new reporter, navigating the wild world that’s community journalism and learning everything I could about the town I lived and worked in. This clearly involved a lot of flailing about and trying to figure out how to be an adult and a reporter at the same time, but I learned something, too, which surprised me and stayed with me as I made my latest move earlier this year:
When you start somewhere new, and your job requires you to step outside of your comfort zone and talk to strangers who live there, it’s possible to feel deeply connected to a community you may have only just entered.
This was my first summer living in Lewes. And yeah, it was every bit as amazing as my friends predicted when I told them I was going to be living a few miles from the beach.
And no, I did not shrivel up in despair the first time I was stuck in stand-still traffic on Coastal Highway during a thunderstorm … OK, fine, maybe my forehead hit the steering wheel once or twice.
While I’ve still got a lot more to learn, only having lived here for about six months, life as a reporter means you can sort of hit the fast-forward button when getting to know an area. Don’t get me wrong, it can be a little weird. Because sometimes you’re meeting mayors and prominent business owners before you even say hello to your next-door neighbor.
But it’s also cool because I’ve heard stories from incredible people who I would have never met: the pastor who traveled from Georgia to Lewes as a young man to work at beach businesses, the Pennsylvania man who visits the Indian River Inlet to scuba dive each year, or the farmer who is opening doors for the next generation. There are dozens and dozens of stories.
I’ve discovered deeper stories and gems shining within these beach communities. And now that fall is quickly approaching, and we’re all reminiscing on those summer nights on the beach, I thought I’d break down the fourth-wall for a moment, and share some of what I’ve learned.
Lesson 1: Googly eyes and mustaches make life more fun
It was a hot summer weekend in July, and two of my friends were visiting from Washington, D.C.
(When you move to the beach, suddenly all your friends and family want to spend time with you...and your new apartment that is conveniently minutes from the ocean.)
In all seriousness, though, I loved showing my friends around – eating Nicola Pizza on the beach, dancing to an Elton John impersonator at the Bandstand, clinking glasses at Dogfish Head.
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At the end of the day, we were emerging from that sleepiness you get from baking under the sun for too long, and my friends only had an hour or two before their bus left for the city. So, I knew exactly where we needed to go.
Just outside downtown Rehoboth Beach, on Holland Glade Road, we pulled into Rustic Acres Farm Market – a little red metal barn with string lights stretched across the entrance and the unmistakable, savory smell of smoked barbecue drifting through the gravel parking lot.
Even thinking of it now makes my stomach grumble, but it was more than the food that made me a frequent visitor there.
When we walked through the doors that day, the first thing I noticed was the eggplant: It was looking right back at me with jiggling stick-on eyeballs! I then glanced around at the oranges, the sweet corn, the squash: every other vegetable and fruit in the produce section was sporting a set of googly eyes.
Just when I was about to nudge my friends and ask if they saw the eyeballs, too, I looked up to see the young staff member behind the counter. Was he wearing a fuzzy fake mustache?
I didn’t ask about the mustache or the eyeballs at first, but after we finished eating our messy, but oh-so-delicious, sandwiches outside at the picnic tables, we went back for some ice cream. This time, the full staff was there, and all four or five of them were wearing fake mustaches.
“OK,” I said, laughing. “I have to know. What’s up with the mustaches?”
After greeting us with a big wave, Chris Oliverio, who took over the market a few years ago, shrugged and cracked a joke like he often does. Then, he offered my friends and me our own fake mustaches from a pile on the counter.
We left Rustic Acres that day, full of ice cream, laughing and rubbing the spot above our lips where we had previously ripped off the adhesive mustaches.
It was at that moment that I realized why I loved this place so much. It wasn’t the melt-in-your mouth barbecue. Or, the rich, creamy ice cream – and I’m telling you, the banana cream pie ice cream may be the best I’ve ever had. But it was the way the people here made you feel part of their family, laughed with you, remembered your name and asked about your friends.
It was that sense of belonging that makes a town feel like home. My friends, and I believe everyone who walked in those doors, could feel it, too.
Lesson 2: Sunsets and sweat are good for the soul
Yep, you read that right. This summer, I finally found a fitness community that has motivated me to sweat it out.
If you’re not into working out, that’s totally fine. You do what works for you. But establishing a more consistent workout schedule was a big goal of mine for a couple reasons, especially to meet people outside of work and take care of my mental and physical well-being.
It was completely worth it.
I found Salt Fitness in Rehoboth Beach early this summer and have been going at least twice a week since. While some days I look at my three flights of stairs and wonder “why in the world” I decided to push myself so hard in cycling class, most days I leave feeling empowered and motivated after being around other people who are also crushing their goals and going about their days.
A favorite memory from this summer was an event that Salt Fitness hosted at Hyatt Place in Dewey Beach.
I logged off from work for the day and boarded a stationary bike on the Hyatt’s outdoor porch facing the bay. We put on “silent disco” headphones, so the people wandering the beach and small boardwalk area wouldn’t be disturbed by the loud music, and rocked out on our bikes as the sun began to set over the water.
It was a beautiful moment, the world turning orange and pink, as I remembered how grateful I am to be living and working here.
(Not going to lie, it was also ridiculously funny to watch people look at us with puzzled faces when they couldn’t figure out how we were all cycling to the same beat in silence).
My advice? Don’t forget to find some time to catch some sunsets and sweat – and let your worries and fears of what other people might think, roll away, too.
Lesson 3: Each beach town has a sweet spot
As much as I tease my friends and family for dropping in at my apartment, it’s been a highlight of my summer being able to explore the beaches with my people: trying new restaurants, meandering through the farmers markets, scouting out the best place to sunbathe at Cape Henlopen.
Oh, and I ate some really good food this summer. When they call it “Delaware’s culinary coast” that isn’t an exaggeration. Recently, I treated myself to a lobster roll from Matt’s Fish Camp while eating out with my sister and our long-time friend, and it lived up to every expectation.
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But the dish I’m still dreaming about to this very minute is the blueberry stuffed french toast I had at Honey’s Farm Fresh Gourmet Kitchen in Lewes: thick slices of bread with light, sweet blueberry cream slathered in the middle and blueberry compote on top. Oh. My. Gosh.
Beyond food, my siblings and I found some unique spots in downtown Lewes, too. My brother, a big fan of records and vintage clothing, may have gotten a little lost in The Vintage Underground. My favorite, though, was a related store in the same building just one floor up – a cozy book shop called Biblion that could capture my attention for hours.
I found a lot of great reads there, many of which I enjoyed while sprawled out on the beach. One definite perk of living here: Heading to the beach after work with a packed dinner and book in tow.
Now, after a summer full of adventures (and hard work, of course), I wander the narrow streets of Lewes, the bustling downtown in Rehoboth or the colorful corridor in Dewey Beach, and I see more than shops and buildings.
This summer, I learned more about the people that make up these beach towns, too. Each town has a different character, and the people that make up those neighborhoods will fiercely stand up for their communities when it matters.
I saw that in Dewey Beach when the town came together to support a business owner who was seriously injured in a moped crash. I saw that throughout the pandemic as restaurant workers stepped up to help businesses survive throughout staffing shortages. And I saw that in the kindness of strangers as people found a reason to celebrate and smile through difficult times.
As I head into my first fall at the beach, my heart is drawn to these communities, and I hope I can keep learning more of their stories and help people feel a little more connected.
Because the biggest thing I'm learning is that each story has a sliver thread of joy, or maybe a stitch of hope, running through it – you just have to know where to look.
Your turn: Did you discover something new while visiting or living at the Delaware beaches this summer? Or, maybe you returned to a tried-and-true experience or restaurant? Do you have photos of some of your favorite summer memories? We want to hear and see it all! Please send photos and brief stories to firstname.lastname@example.org
Emily Lytle covers Sussex County from the inland towns to the beaches. Got a story she should tell? Contact her at email@example.com or 302-332-0370. Follow her on Twitter at @emily3lytle.
This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Reflecting on summer memories at the Delaware beaches? I'll go first