Sometimes there’s a bit of stress in the build-up to Christmas as you shop for gifts and for all of the different elements of your favorite holiday meals – perhaps with some worrying about travel conditions mixed in. Yet in the days following the big event many of us want to simply enjoy a sense of leisure and peace amid the lingering decorations. If you live in Delaware and are up for a road trip, you can also do some wonderful historical exploring through many small towns that are still done up in holiday finery as well.
There are so many, from Lewes to Milton to Newark to downtown Wilmington and the suburban towns in the Brandywine Valley to Berlin, just beyond the Maryland/Delaware line. Anchored by carefully preserved architecture, each town becomes a holiday postcard with plenty of restaurants and cultural sites welcoming visitors.
This week I’m spotlighting one of the most remarkable – the town of Old New Castle. It’s an hour and a half drive (or less) from the beach communities in Sussex County and only 15 or 20 minutes from Wilmington, with makes it an easy day trip.
Once you’re there you’ll find about 20 square blocks of beautifully preserved Colonial architecture alongside the Delaware River. It was founded by Dutch settlers in 1651 and prospered mightily from the 1700s through the early 20th Century.
It’s surely one of the largest and best preserved Colonial-era towns in the country, and was originally targeted by the developers of Williamsburg, Virginia to be a tourist destination built around replications of Colonial life. Residents and business owners rejected the idea primarily because although they loved their cobblestone streets and handsome homes and shops, they wanted to stay as they were – a small town where people live and work.
That said, Old New Castle’s residents and business owners do love to show off their beautiful town to visitors, and the town is never more beautiful than during the Christmas holidays. If you take a day trip this week you might enjoy the following:
The New Castle Visitor Center is located in what was once the town armory. It’s a grandly scaled Colonial styled building that features a gift shop and an 8-minute film about the town that’s narrated by actor Ed Asner. Once you’re there, you can get maps of the town, learn about special historical sites, restaurants and shops, and sign up for walking tours so you can experience gorgeous holiday decorations and learn all about the town’s history.
Amstel House was built in the 1730s by Dr. John Finney, and you can tell how wealthy he was once you see the fine brick exterior, gorgeous woodwork and grand central hallway. You can get details on tours by calling 302-322-2794.
Dutch House is a very different home – it’s tiny and preserved and fitted out as a working class home tied to the town’s maritime heritage. Some say it dates back to 1660, which would tie it to the first Dutch settlers. You can also learn about tours here or by calling 302-322-2794.
A fabulous lunch or dinner! There are some wonderful restaurants in downtown New Castle, many of which offer locally-sourced menus and more historic décor.
Jessop’s Tavern, which is 300 years old, is one of the most beloved, with servers in Colonial attire, and meals modeled after some of the most popular foods of that area. It’s especially beautiful with its decorations this time of year. If you’re especially hungry and want to warm up quickly after walking around in the cold, check out the Shepherd’s Pie and pot pies with chicken, beef or seafood.
If you’re loving this vibe you’ll also enjoy the Booth House Tavern. It’s also set in a lovely historic brick building and offers a wide array of wonderful meals.
If you’d like a spicier culinary experience and want to stay in the lovely downtown historic district, check out Nora Lee’s, which is a quaint dining room and a menu inspired by the most beloved dishes from New Orleans.