TThis is the latest in our bimonthly series on underrated destinations, It’s Still a Big World.
After months of staying close to home, being a socially distanced Jedi, and not feeling like a travel writer, I finally packed a rental car, my mask collection, and a stash of hand sanitizer for them. hands to hit the road solo. trip. After months of dreaming of faraway places, what would be my first destination? Surprisingly, Wilmington, Delaware.
Since President-elect Joe Biden’s victory speech at the Chase Center, Wilmington’s name has filled ledes and chyrons everywhere. In the past, Wilmington was just that mid-sized town off I-95, whatever you passed on your way to Baltimore or Washington. For many, it’s not a destination – it’s not even the first Wilmington to appear in a Google search. But those I’ve spoken to in Wilmington recognize the apparent counterintuitive of saying, “Hey, come to Wilmington.” After spending a few days in town, I agree: get off I-95 and explore Wilmington.
My trip was at the invitation of the It’s Time campaign, an effort to bring the community back to support local businesses in a pandemic recovery and to show Wilmington’s appeal as a local escape. I hadn’t been to town since I was a poor student in Philadelphia years ago. At the time, I was swinging around to visit adjacent Wilmington, Longwood Gardens – one of my few luxuries. I would bring a book on weekends where I would enjoy the warmth of the winter garden and the company of plant life during the colder months. On occasion that meant driving downtown Wilmington, but never much more than that.
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When I arrived this time, almost everyone I met recognized Wilmington’s recent history and its fight against crime and poverty. Owning this story is their strength. Each of them would also stress that Wilmington is a place to move forward, a place for tourism – especially for safer regional travel during the pandemic – and a great place to live.
For nearly two decades, Wilmington has worked to breathe new life into itself, seeking to retain the historic elements that make it what it is, while embracing a long-needed change. From my perspective as a visitor, this effort seems to be paying off.
The town still has its beautiful historic gardens and architecture which are primarily the legacy of the ubiquitous Du Pont family, including the Winterthur Museum and Gardens, which spans 1,000 acres of beautiful land, which is now an arts museum decorative pieces, the Hagley Museum. and Library, a former gunpowder works site that now houses gardens, a museum of American industry and research library, and Nemours Estate, 3,000 acres of equally stunning gardens and architecture. Plus, in Wilmington’s orbit is the ever-stunning 1000 acres of Longwood Gardens, whose architecture and horticultural art are breathtaking.
Much of the cultural memory is tied to places like these and is worth a visit, especially in April.
Likewise, the magnificent Grand Opera House, recently featured in Wally Koval’s book, Accidentally Wes Anderson, has been welcoming talent to Wilmington for over 140 years. Built by masons, the facade of the building is a painted cast iron structure with a pediment representing the Eye of Providence. In Wilmington, I had the chance to visit the three stages of The Grand: Copeland Hall, The Baby Grand and The Playhouse. All of them have their own unique personality, but it’s the blazing red of Copeland Hall, with its ceiling fresco of eight of the nine muses, that catches the imagination.
The Grand is also known for its wonderful acoustics, executive director Mark Fields tells me. Country singer Kathy Mattea says, ‘When you sing in The Grand, The Grand sings with you,’ he adds.
But signs of Wilmington’s efforts to change are showing strong in places like Riverfront.
The Riverfront, which began its revitalization in the late ’90s, is now an intersection for the city, its wildlife, and the neighborhoods that connect them. Along the Christina River, the Riverfront is an entertainment hub, restaurants (with terrace), hotels, the Blue Rocks minor league stadium, river taxis, and the Chase Center multi-purpose event space, where the president-elect gave his victory speech.
It is, in essence, the polar opposite of his previous life.
Like so many cities built around rivers – Cleveland, for example – these rivers and the surrounding marshes have served for decades as dumping grounds for industry, repelling wildlife in favor of the polluted soup of the brown fields. Once these industries closed, they left these spaces unusable and dangerous.
Wilmington rulers and governors recognized the need to change this and set out to restore the area. The marsh has been restored to become the Russell Peterson Wildlife Refuge, a beautiful 212 acre freshwater green space where you can come and enjoy the fresh air, wildlife and most importantly bird watching. This refuge is home to DuPont’s Environmental Education Center, which is worth a visit, but it’s also worth noting that DuPont has its own history of fixing its chemical contamination and pollution.
So any decent visit to Wilmington should include The Riverfront and the annex refuge, but also bring a bike, as you’ll want to ride and pedal the Jack A. Markell Trail. Starting from a wide 2,300-foot wooden boardwalk that rises above the marshland, this well-maintained railway connects the New Castle neighborhoods to the Riverfront and downtown Wilmington. Trails like these not only allow a healthy lifestyle, but also easier access to employment.
And to be honest, if a city doesn’t have bike paths and green spaces, it’s not worth my time. A city is not really as beautiful as its surroundings.
But after these green spaces, it’s worth venturing downtown to see Wilmington’s restaurant revolution.
Nothing represents Wilmington’s transformation like the launch of The Cavalier at the Green Room – The Cav, in short. (Since this was my first dinner at a restaurant in months, I might have been a little too excited.)
“We opened on September 1 and it was pushed back from the original plan,” said Chief Tyler Akin. It is best known for its Philadelphia restaurants, Stock and Res Ipsa Cafe, the latter of which closed this month due to the pandemic.
The Cav is connected to the historic Hotel Du Pont, a five star luxury hotel which is also known to be the hotel of choice when the Bidens are in town. It was also my temporary home for this trip.
The link between Le Cav and the Hotel Du Pont has a long history. The restaurant space was originally The Green Room, a more formal restaurant that was a Wilmington institution, but which has spent years declining.
Now a neo-brasserie, the Cavalier menu is influenced by the flavors of North Africa and Provençe. This influence on the menu is seen in the Parisian Gnocchi, served with giant crab, caviar and lemon white butter, as well as wonderful Mediterranean dishes like Greek swordfish, with whipped feta and tzatziki from butternut squash.
Major renovations have also taken place. Some elements of the Green Room have been preserved, such as its Spanish chandeliers and oak paneling, but they lost the floor-to-ceiling draperies to bring in the light, opened up outdoor seating, and added a bar.
“I think it’s cool,” Akin says, “because it looks kinda timeless.”
But it was with the ground that they had their biggest surprise. They expected to find concrete poured under the carpet from wall to wall, but they found a beautiful mosaic terrazzo. Everywhere I went in Wilmington, the history of these floors was brought up in conversation.
“It was like discovering Pompeii!” an employee of the Hotel du Pont told me with a touch of bravado. The Cav clearly combines the best of old and new Wilmington.
New downtown restaurants like James Beard semi-finalists Bardea Food & Drink on Market Street live to surprise you. The atmosphere at Bardea is lively and I got to taste much of their menu – modern twists on Italian and Mediterranean dishes from Chef Antimo DiMeo, who was trained in a two Michelin star restaurant on the Amalfi Coast. . From Australian tiger prawns served with romesco sauce, coconut and spruce-tipped butter to fusilli lunghi with pistachio crema and miracolo di san gennaro, I left satisfied – and also a little comatose.
The Wilmington I knew was not the Wilmington I had met years before.
“Wilmington, Delaware,” Mayor Michael Purzycki told me, “has always been known as the business capital and the chemical capital of the world…. And with that, there was a kind of stiff shirt … that’s what the city has been forever. But, he insists, they are “redefining” themselves.
“At the end of the day, what makes a place attractive,” Purzycki says, “it’s mostly young people, it’s the bars and restaurants – it’s the nightlife that gets it all started. Young people live there if you have these things, and the more young people live there, the more these equipments will appear. “
Likewise, alongside the change in the city’s outdoor and nightlife, there is also this movement to change the city’s business image from those rigid shirts, mentioned earlier.
Coworking spaces like CSC Station, for example, are built in renovated buildings designed to have open spaces and foster professional ties and the sharing of ideas.
It was here that I met Patrick Callahan, founder and CEO of CompassRed, Inc, a data company that uses billions of data points and artificial intelligence to predict trends, even to tackle problems. complexes like COVID-19.
Callahan initially moved from Wilmington to Silicon Valley to start his business, only to return as a way to reinvest in the local community, which he sees as bringing the technology to Wilmington. His team is now growing with new talent who are now able to work in an area that is also in a more affordable location.
The change is therefore happening in Wilmington. That’s not to say Wilmington still doesn’t have a job to do – poverty rates are still high and the fight against crime is not being helped by the pandemic, for example. But if you’re wondering if you’ve been to all the must-see places in life, but still haven’t seen Wilmington, your list is too small. Get off I-95 and cycle through their green spaces or check out their nightlife.
As for my trip, before I left I returned to Longwood Gardens to say hello to my favorite plants and its wonderful architecture – and I was happy to find that it was still its amazing old self.
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