(The Wall Street Journal) By Caralee Adams

Tiny Delaware’s three counties line a sliver of the East Coast from the lower reaches of the Delaware River to the Atlantic Ocean. Sussex County, the one facing the sea, is a mix of farmland and quaint beach towns, where several times each week Barbara and David Patrick walk alongside a saltwater bay for its sights and serenity.

The bay’s inlet is a wintering area for herons and ospreys. “On almost any day in winter, there will be a thousand snow geese flying overhead,” says Mr. Patrick, age 72, who retired here with his wife in 2006.

Beaches, waterways and outdoor recreation have helped make Sussex County one of the most popular retirement destinations in the Northeast. It doesn’t hurt that the area is more affordable than surrounding states (Delaware has no sales tax) and that several major cities (Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia) are within a two-hour drive, if one needs a cultural fix.

Taking Their Time

There’s also the atmosphere of “slower, lower Delaware.” Since retiring in Sussex County from eastern Pennsylvania last June, Ron and Carol Weber have learned that no one is in much of a hurry.

“The first time I got my hair cut and highlights, it took three hours. Ron almost called the cops,” says Ms. Weber, 59, who found herself being wined and pampered. “They took all the time in the world to make it just right. Most places want to get you out.”

The Delaware shore has long been a magnet for families from the Northeast and Midwest on summer vacation. The state has preserved much of the Sussex County coastline for public use with boardwalks and bike trails. Birding, boating and crabbing, among other activities, have kept several generations of visitors pleasantly occupied.

Now, couples like the Webers, who first came here in summer, are returning in later life as year-round residents. While the county has 25 towns in all, best known are the communities along the 24-mile Atlantic seaboard—from historic Lewes in the north, to artsy Rehoboth Beach, to the quiet resorts of Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island in the south.

Gone are the days when the sleepy beach towns could turn off their traffic lights in the winter. Restaurants that catered to summer tourists are staying open, offering 2-for-1 deals in the winter, much to the delight of retirees. The county also is attracting chains, such as Harris Teeter supermarkets and BJ’s Wholesale Club.

Jay Pastore, 50, of Rehoboth Beach, still sees a lull at his art gallery in the off-season. But there’s enough activity to keep his doors open year-round, especially with events such as the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival each November.

Dr. Pastore left his medical practice in northern Virginia in 2007 to become a beach person and owner of Gallery 50. Since he arrived, six other galleries have opened.

Heading Inland

To find more elbow room, and more housing for their money, more retirees are settling inland.

“The closer you get to the water, the more expensive it is,” says Dottie Wells, branch manager for Long & Foster Real Estate in Bethany Beach. Individual beachfront houses, she says, start at about $1 million.

“Most retirees don’t want to spend that much money to live waterfront.” Just two or three miles off the coast, new homes can be found in the $200,000 range. The growing number of subdivisions has some builders marketing shuttle services to the beach.

Not surprisingly, Sussex County’s popularity is proving to be a mixed blessing. The population, thanks, in part, to the influx of retirees, has jumped 65% since 1990. As a result, the local infrastructure in some cases is struggling to keep pace.

Lewes, settled in 1631 and known as the first town in the first state, recently invested in additional electric lines, a new wastewater-treatment plant and major road projects, says Jim Ford, the town’s mayor. Still, “you can’t just keep paving and paving and widening and widening,” Mr. Ford adds. With that in mind, Lewes—where the average age is 59, and transplants now outnumber natives—is considering “green” options, including a park-and-ride shuttle service, possibly running on natural gas or electricity, that would take people to the beach, shopping, restaurants, museums and other points of interest.

Doctors Wanted

Changes are evident, too, in Beebe Medical Center, also in Lewes. The hospital recently added a wing with more beds and has expanded specialties such as cardiology and orthopedics to serve an older population. A Beebe clinic just opened in Rehoboth Beach, and new facilities are slated for the communities of Millville and Georgetown. But the area is having a problem recruiting primary-care physicians.

“We are short doctors, and we know it,” says Wallace Hudson, vice president of corporate affairs for Beebe. The slower lifestyle that attracts retirees doesn’t necessarily appeal to young doctors, who want shopping, good schools and cultural attractions.

Drew Davis, who retired to South Bethany Beach in 2007 from his job as a lawyer and lobbyist in Washington, acknowledges that there are some things he misses. (Among them: good ethnic food, including Korean barbecue.) But the 63-year-old Mr. Davis, who now works part time at Coastal Kayak as a kayak instructor and guide, says he doesn’t miss the crowds.

“People actually wave at you here,” he says. “They don’t avoid eye contact, like in the city.”

The Patricks, meanwhile, fresh off a walk on the bay, say they chose Sussex County because they wanted to simplify their lives. As a bonus, they add, they have made more friends in the area than they ever did in Silver Spring, Md., where they worked for years. Says Mrs. Patrick: “We are away from our families, so we’ve become our own family.”

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