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A golf vacation in Dela...where?

By Kiel Christianson, Equipment Editor and Senior Writer

WILMINGTON, Del. - When it comes to golf, Delaware hasbecome the little state that could. They have opened 10 new public coursessince the mid-1990s, and the state offers a surprisingly wide variety ofoff-courseattractions. The First State might not be the first choice for a golfvacation, but it would be an excellent alternative to some of the morewell-known (read: over-crowded) destinations, especially for denizens of theeastern seaboard from Boston to D.C.

On paper, Delaware appears underwhelming. Just 800,000 residents. Only threecounties. No more than a 90-minute drive from top to bottom, and never widerthan 35 miles from side to side. On the ground, however, this secondsmallest of states contains a diversity unimaginable to motorists onInterstate 95.From the old-money grandiosity of the DuPont properties in Wilmington to thefamily beach resorts of Bethany and Fenwick in the south, there's somethingto suit every taste.

And the same goes for the golf courses.

Northern Delaware (New Castle County)

Nearly three-fourths of the state's population lives in and aroundWilmington, and several of the best public courses can be found here. At thetop of the list are Back Creek and its sister course Frog Hollow. Both are owned by AllenLiddicoat (who also designed both layouts), and draw a lot of players fromthe greater Philadelphia area. Back Creek (par-71, 7,001 yards, $49-63) isextremely wide open, with expansive fairways and sprawling greens. FrogHollow (par-71, 6,608 yards, $49-63) is a bit narrower off the tee, withsome wooded holes and severely contoured greens. Although the residentialdevelopments on both detract from the aesthetics, the houses mostly remainout of play. Playing both in a day costs around $90, which is a fantasticdeal.

Altogether different tracks can be found at Three Little Bakers Golf Club (par-71, 6,748 yards,$47-52) and Delcastle Golf Club (par-72, 6,625 yards, $23-27 plus cart),where mature trees and unexpected elevation changes are the rule. ThreeLittle Bakers features dramatic vistas from the tees, and fairways thatyield few level lies. Delcastle represents perhaps the best value in thestate. Occupying land that was once a prison farm, this county-ownedEd Ault layout also offers elevated tees and greens.

Attractions in New Castle County are diverse. The architecture andatmosphere in the historic village of New Castle (www.visitnewcastle.com)hearkens back to colonial days. William Penn first set foot in North Americahere, and George Washington stayed here while attending a wedding. DelawarePark Racetrack and Slots (www.delpark.com) offers all the wagering yourwallet will allow, and is also opening its own Arthur Hills-designed golfcourse late summer, 2003. And for a little old-school entertainment, ThreeLittle Bakers Dinner Theater (www.tlbinc.com) features Broadway shows in oneof the top three dinner theaters on the East Coast.

Lodging and food are plentiful. For pure elegance, try the Hotel DuPont(800-441-9019, $270/suite) and its critically acclaimed Green Room, wherethe museum-quality art collection on the walls competes with the gourmetfare for attention. Just down the road from Delaware Park is the HiltonBrandywine Valley's Country Estate (302-454-1500), which offers golfpackages ranging from $98 to $143.

Perhaps the best victuals can be had in New Castle. Connoisseurs of NewEngland cuisine should not miss the roast duck and shepherd's pie at Jessop's Tavern (302-322-6111), and The David Finney Inn (302-322-6367) is alsoa cozy venue for a drink or a meal.

Central Delaware (Kent County)

The major city in central Delaware is the state capitol, Dover (one of fourstate capitols beginning with the same letter as the state). Golf coursesare rarer here than in the north or south, but a decent public layout can befound at Jonathan's Landing (par-71, 6,657 yards,$28-44). The Wild Quail Golf Club (302-697-4653) is private but extendsplaying privileges to members of numerous other clubs around the country.Wild Quail also partners with Dover Downs Hotel (www.doverdowns.com) inpackages for larger group outings.

As for off-course action, this rather quiet section of "lower, slowerDelaware" holds surprises for those willing to look. Aside from the slots,horse racing, and NASCAR action at Dover Downs, morelaid-back diversions can be found at any one of several Amish countrymarkets, the largest of which is Spence's Bazaar (550 S. New Street, Dover).You have simply not tasted pie until you've tasted a freshly baked Amishpie.

Unlike the slots at Dover Downs, the food around Dover is a sure bet. Forfish with a flair, try Cool Springs Fish Bar & Restaurant in Dover(302-698-1955). For more traditional fare, try the Village Inn Restaurant(302-734-3245) in Little Creek. And if all you want is the best barbeque inthestate, check out Where Pigs Fly (302-678-0587) in Dover.

Southern Delaware (Sussex County)

Although the placid, windswept beaches of Sussex County seem a million milesfrom the hubbub of Wilmington, the two ends of tiny Delaware are less thantwo hours apart - as long as the summer traffic doesn't hold you up, thatis. The beach crowd here can be overwhelming at times, but the "quietresorts" of Bethany and Fenwick promise a modicum of solitude even duringthe peak tourist season.

One highlight of the golf scene here are Baywood Greens (par-72, 6,982 yards, $45-90), an Ault and Clark designthat is often referred to as "the Augusta of the North" thanks to itsimmaculate landscaping. This "exclusively public" course located in LongNeck even offers an outdoor swimming pool for use at a nominal fee bynon-golfing family members. Eventually Baywood Greens will be a 27-holecomplex, and the permanent clubhouse is now under construction.

Bear Trap Dunes (par-72, 6,835 yards, $40-110) in Ocean View is a superb 27-hole complex with an outstanding clubhouse restaurant. Course architectRick Jacobson, who apprenticed under Jack Nicklaus, moved a lot of soil inorder to create waste areas and fairways reminiscent of the natural duneslining the local beaches. The Black Bear-Grizzly combination of nines is the18 rightfully considered by the locals to be a Mid-Atlantic "must play."

Hotels are abundant in this summer vacation hot-spot, but golfers would have a hard time finding a more golf-friendly establishment than the Holiday Inn Express in Bethany Beach (302-541-9200), which has golf packages arrangedwith 27 Delaware and Maryland courses. For a special evening of fine dining,Nantucket in Fenwick Island (302-539-2607) serves up the best filet mignon in the area, and the various oyster and crab dishes leave your mouthwatering for days. During peak season this place is usually crowded,especially during "Men's Nights" and "Ladies' Nights," when folks of the appropriate gender receive half-off their entrees.

Besides the obvious and ever-present beach fun, off-course attractions include Delaware's only vineyard, Nassau Valley Vineyards. Proprietor andvintner Peggy Raley (who is also a professional jazz singer) is happy to share not only her wines with you during on-site tastings, but also the story of how she got Delaware's laws changed to allow people to make their own wine. "The soil and climate in Delaware are perfect for grapes," says Raley.

The single most mind-blowing, imagination-charging attraction in the entire state, however, is the Discover Sea Museum on Fenwick Island (302-539-9366, www.discoversea.com). Proprietor, owner, and curator Dale W. Clifton, Jr. is a renowned - and perhaps the most successful - treasure hunter in America.He was a partner in the salvage of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha off the Florida coast in the mid 1980s, which yielded $580 million in sunken treasure and artifacts. Dale is a walking encyclopedia of maritime lore, and he will share all of it with you for the price of the free admission. He might also share 180-proof rum salvaged from a 1733 wreck (and it is smooooth!). Rather than sell the 100-plus bottles at auction for $20,000, he decided to keep them to share with complete strangers!

Delaware, it seems, is full of surprises and treasures. Like the saying goes: Good things come in small packages.

Kiel ChristiansonKiel Christianson, Equipment Editor and Senior Writer

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Illinois. Read his golf blog here.

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