Enlighten Me: Learning to love the hidden pleasures of living in the First State
Delaware may be a small state, but it has more to offer than even some natives know.
In this week's Enlighten Me, Delaware Public Media’s Rachel Sawicki talks with life-long residents and transplants to find out what drew them to the First State, what keeps them here, and how some less than favorable initial impressions of Delaware changed.
“I feel like something really common that people from Delaware experience is when you leave Delaware and people say ‘oh where are you from?’ and then you say ‘Delaware,’ and then they say ‘where is that?’”
That's Camille Myrie, a former Wilmington resident. It’s not an unusual question for Delawareans to hear from non-residents, and it's what Myrie heard for months after leaving her family in Wilmington and moving to Nashville, Tennessee.
But when Myrie left, she immediately felt like something was missing.
“As a Delawarean, you grow up eating water ice and soft pretzels, and then you leave Delaware and there’s no water ice and soft pretzels," she said. "I’m a first generation American, my parents are Jamaican, I can’t find any good jerk chicken out here, and I feel like that’s the bare minimum, like, can I at least get some jerk chicken? Also I love the water. I think I might've been here for like three months and people were having a conversation about going to the lake, and my brain just was like hold on, wait a minute, full stop, the lake? I want to be in the ocean.”
Now, she’s ready to move back home - and looking forward to that comfortable familiarity and community she once hated.
Even Liz Keller, Delaware Tourism Office director, couldn’t stay away. Born and raised in Milford, she moved to Orlando, Florida to work at Walt Disney World, where she realized even the most magical place on earth couldn’t compare to Delaware, and everything in its backyard.
“I just think there is something special about Delaware that when you’re not here, you really do miss the family atmosphere, the culture and the traditions,” Keller said.
Asha Williams, Middletown resident and mom of three, moved here from Philadelphia last year to continue raising her children, including a now 2-month old.
“This is everything that Philly couldn’t give me as a kid,” she said of Delaware.
From the Riverfront to the beaches, Williams says there is nothing she can’t find within Delaware’s borders for a fun day out with the family, but feels as though natives aren’t always as willing to travel outside their town.
“There’s a light show down in Milford for Christmas and we’ve done it for three years running, and the last time we invited people and they’re like ‘I’m not driving all the way down there,’ like what are you talking about? It’s like an hour. It’s not that serious, get in the car and just go," Williams said. "If you’re willing to move around you can definitely find everything that you want to do right here in Delaware.”
Keller says that’s what the State Tourism office is talking about when it says there are “endless discoveries” to be made in Delaware.
“The beaches are big, we have Firefly and NASCAR in Kent County, but you also have really great outdoor recreation," Keller said. "And the fact that we can focus on some of these hidden gems or hidden discoveries like kayaking along the Bald Cypress in Trap Hunt State Park or zip-lining in Lums Pond State Park or rock climbing in Wilmington, which a lot of people don't know, the state is really full of a lot of endless discoveries.”
And those endless discoveries are what made Wilmington resident Alexis Harris fall in love with Delaware when she first moved here three years ago.
Harris is originally from Raleigh, North Carolina, and came to Delaware after graduating with a degree in interpersonal communications from UNC Chapel Hill.
She says her first year felt like groundhog day and it was hard to find friends. Everyone Harris met seemed to scrutinize her decision to come from Raleigh. Even natives seemed bewildered that anyone would willingly choose to move to the First State. She followed her boyfriend, now ex, but decided to stick around and build her business, which was just six months old when they separated.
First State Destinations wasn’t anything special yet, but she knew what it could be.
“While I live here, I’m going to learn to love it. And I said in the process, I’m going to show the things I’m doing," Harris said. "So I’m going to find things to do, because I know there has to be stuff to do, I know it’s not that bad, and I’m going to show it in the process.”
Harris started from scratch with 0 followers on Instagram and TikTok, but built up an audience as she discovered local favorites like Agave in Lewes and Trolley Square Oyster House in Wilmington.
But she had to dig deeper for more unique, hidden gems.
A video featuring Colbie's Southern Kissed Chicken, a fast food joint in Newark, hit almost 90,000 views. Another featuring Brappin Crabs food truck in Dover struck almost 200,000.
“I just think there is something special about Delaware that when you’re not here, you really do miss the family atmosphere, the culture and the traditions,”Delaware Tourism Office director Liz Keller
Now, First State Destinations is Harris’ marketing agency, promoting businesses across Delaware that have something unique to offer.
“What are you guys talking about? That’s half the reason you’re saying you’re bored," Harris says. "It's because this is happening 30 minutes away [and you're saying it's too far.] Something I’ve noticed early on in the videos I’m sharing, people are commenting, ‘This girl in Sussex is about to drive to Wilmington to this,” and “I’m a Bear girl and I’m heading down to the beach this afternoon just to check this out,” so I feel like I noticed I was kind of breaking down that mindset of northern and southern Delaware. It’s just Delaware, it’s a state, but it is so convenient and small that to me, really, it’s a town.”
Harris spotlighted Delaware Picnics, a company that provides pop-up picnic experiences all over the state, and says it is an idea the owner originally saw only in California and New York. Harp and Hare also does luxury picnics, and said after Harris’ video spotlight, their online traffic skyrocketed by 87% and gained over 500 followers in just 48 hours.
In March of 2021, she visited First State Floats for float therapy, a method for relieving tension, aches and pains, and what Harris describes as a weightless experience. By floating in 10 inches of water, dense with 1000 pounds of epsom salt, floaters can disconnect from the outside world and reconnect to signals from within the body.
“It’s a lot quieter and I also think it’s a hidden gem. You never know that it’s here, but once you find out that it is, I think people kind of fall in love with the area.New Castle County native Darian Jones
Even the things that haven’t made their way to Delaware yet, like public rooftops and Topgolf, are often only a quick train ride away to Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C. or New York. Proximity to major cities is a perk that even the University of Delaware touts to attract new students. And Harris has made her fair share of Tik Toks detailing her Amtrak experiences to get there.
Darian Jones grew up around New Castle County and says as a child and a teenager, it seemed like everything she wanted to do was across the border. She moved to Southern New Jersey in her early 20’s for a change of scenery, thinking anything would be better than Delaware, but it didn’t take long for her to come back home.
“It’s a lot quieter and I also think it’s a hidden gem," Jones said. "Like you never know that it’s here but once you find out that it is, I think people kind of fall in love with the area. Like with Wilmington, it’s like a city, but it’s also not a city if that makes sense. It’s not on the same line as Philadelphia or Baltimore but you still get a city vibe with a suburban aspect.”
Jones found her love for Delaware at the dive bars in Wilmington like Dead Presidents and Union Street Pub.
“What I’ve wanted is right in front of my eyes. I just never really gave it the time of day," she said.
You can follow Alexis Harris and her adventures across Delaware on Instagram and TikTok at First-State-Destinations.
"One of my other viral topics is just really, my experience of living in Delaware and why I’m choosing to stay," Harris said. "I have it pinned as well, because it’s a common comment I get, the video says, “Why did you stay in Delaware after all?” and it has over 13,000 likes, over 1,000 comments, and I say ‘I caught a vibe.’”
More information on Delaware parks and recreation can be found at visitdelaware.com