Ocean City

12:21AM April 8, 2007 3 Comments »

Introduction

Dismiss Ocean City if you feel so inclined. Look down on it with folded arms and tilted head, smirking at the all-you-can-eat rib joints and 1970s decor. Or leave your snobbery at home and dive in to the fun. If you do, you’ll realize that Ocean City has been slowly evolving from a boardwalk summer town into a more sophisticated year-round resort. Ocean City no longer dies in winter; it’s become a four-season destination, with cool new wine bars, spas, and boutique hotels.

Yet if you want to, you can also satisfy your urge for a true blue Ocean City experience. Thrasher’s Fries still shuns the ketchup in favor of apple-cider vinegar and Old Bay seasoning. High-school “Junebugs” swarm town post-graduation. Old-style bed and breakfasts have withstood the tides of gentrification. And loads of summer visitors still go “downey ocean” to chase white marlin or chase each other, creating the second largest Maryland city each summer weekend.

Why Go?

  • Work up a glorious tan basking on a ten-miles of white sand.
  • Test your lines catching trophy fish—or other trophies in OC’s countless bars.
  • Dig into thick, meaty crabcakes and fresh corn-on-the-cob.
  • Wander Victorian-era downtown for a taste of bygone days.
  • Kayak to Assateague Island, where wild horses run free.

How Far?

  • Three hours east of the National Mall — until the traffic.

Drawbacks?

  • Weekend crowds can turn OC into Disneyland east.
  • As the mercury rises, prices do, too.
  • High-school ‘Junebugs’ whooping it up, post-graduation.
  • Driving home Sunday with sticky sand in your swim trunks.

See and Do

Start with the obvious: Ocean City’s ten-mile stretch of beach. The expansive white sand lures millions of vacationers from the Eastern seaboard and beyond. Gently sloping toward the Atlantic, fringed by dunes, the beach is Ocean City’s prime asset, and is diligently tended by dozens of sand-smoothing groomers each night (no sleeping on the beach, folks). Get out of bed early for mesmerizing sunrises, and keep your eyes peeled for the area’s migrating bottle-nosed dolphins, which play in Ocean City’s surf come spring.

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At the southern end of the beach by the inlet, first opened by the 1933 hurricane that split Assateague Island from the peninsula, the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum is part Ocean City time capsule, part testimonial to the hearty gents who from 1875 until World War I plucked 7,502 survivors from more than 300 wrecks in the Eastern Shore drink. It’s worth a poke, but gets crowded on rainy days.

Running north from the museum, Ocean City’s three-mile-long boardwalk is, in essence, its Broadway, the great wooden way along which visitors stroll. Here you can find trashy t-shirts, tequila shooters, ice cream sundaes, and overpriced Coppertone co-existing in cacophonous harmony. Dating to 1902, the boardwalk began as a series of individual wood planks that were picked up nightly. The boardwalk became permanent in 1920, got whacked by the 1962 hurricane (sense a trend here?), and then was rebuilt in its current form. A cute tram (three rides for three bucks) runs its length, or you can rent a cruiser from
Mike’s Bikes
. Free beach volleyball courts at 4th, 7th, and 9th Streets draw feisty crowds, and so will you if you fly a dragon kite, courtesy of Kite Loft at 5th Street. Kids love Ocean City’s oldest boardwalk attraction, Trimper’s Amusement Park at Baltimore and First Streets. Trimper’s has weathered the storms and has been operated by the same family since the late 19th century. Among its 100-plus rides, you’ll find the clackety Tidal Wave roller coaster (with its trippy dips toward the ocean) or vintage 1902 Herschel-Spellman Carousel with 45 hand-carved animals (the frog’s a personal favorite).

To much neon for you? Escape the hubbub a block west of the boardwalk and tour Ocean City’s Historic Downtown. Ocean City incorporated in 1876, and if you wander through the neighborhood you’ll find remnants of bygone days. At Baltimore and Talbot Street, check out the Perdue House, the flashy Queen Anne Victorian mansion—the town’s largest–once owned by the chicken magnates. You’ll also want to see Henry’s Colored Hotel, a Jim Crow-era hostelry that hosted touring jazz giants like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington (101 South Division Street).

My two favorite landmarks can be found bayside: the row of old fisherman’s bungalows along St. Louis Avenue, where I used to summer (and am thrilled to report haven’t been paved over yet), and the Old Rail Road Bridge site at South Division, all that remains of the rail trestle built in 1876 to span Sinepuxent Bay and connect Ocean City to the mainland. The 1933 storm destroyed the bridge; legend has it that a train that was crossing the bridge during the storm lies at the bottom of the bay.

At 27th Street, the boardwalk’s northern terminus, condos, and hotels claim the beachfront, and action diverts to the Coastal Highway, one block west. You can exercise your wallet along the 100 blocks to the Delaware border, but save some dough to cash in on Ocean City’s watersports scene. For gear,Paradise Watersports can hook you up. Skip those obnoxious, carbon-belching jet skis. Instead, rent a kayak and explore Ocean City’s three interconnected bays–Sinepuxent, Isle of Wight, and Assawoman (yes, Assawoman)–or split the difference and go parasailing above the bay. That long, undeveloped sandbar you see stretching south? That’s Assateague Island, the 35-mile-long barrier island of shifting sands and wetlands. Home to seven people (says the census) and two herds of wild horses (friendly, but feral, so don’t touch), the island is split into three separate entities: Assateague State Park and Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland, and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, across the border in Virginia. All offer hiking trails, surf fishing, crabbing, biking, and boating. You can camp on the Maryland side, but for the love of God, cover yourself with extra Deet.

Ocean City supports upstart golf and spa scenes, but the dual pinnacles of Ocean City’s activities remain surfing and sportfishing. To summit the mountaintop of Ocean City surfing wisdom, head to Ocean Atlantic Surf Shop, the temple of owner Dave “Doc” Dalkiewicz. Dave’s a local legend who’s been riding Ocean City swells since childhood, and hugely impacts the surf community. He heads the local branch of the Surfrider Foundation , delivers the Ocean City surf report, rents out boards and gear at his shop, and waxes on historic local sets, like those generated by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Need lessons? Bring yourself and a C-note to K-Coast Surf Shop, which holds twice-daily lessons at the beach by 35th Street. Prefer half pipes? Old-school bros and kids kick ollies at Ocean Bowl Skate Park, which is America’s oldest municipal skate park, dating to 1976. Take that, SoCal.

While surfing’s cornered the cool market, sportfishing delivers pure adrenalin in the ‘White Marlin Capital of the World.’ It’s ironic how Ocean City’s number-one phobia—hurricanes—spurred its top commercial activity. When the 1933 storm opened an artery (the inlet) from the Atlantic to Sinepuxent Bay, fisherman suddenly could launch boats from tranquil waters, not through the pounding surf. In 1934, the first white marlin was caught off Ocean City. A couple years later a slogan was born.

Ocean City anglers benefit from hundreds of acres of fishable waters as well as the Atlantic Gulf Stream, which draws schools of mako, yellowfin tuna, and dolphin fish, plus game fish like sailfish and white marlin (duh) who hang by offshore wrecks and artificial reefs. Each August, the White Marlin Open lures hundreds of Atlantic-based trophy boats eager to yank prizewinning fish; plebes can gawk at the crafts for free.

Tons of boats are for hire in the Ocean City Fishing Center, across the US 50 bridge in West Ocean City. Launching on a charter with the 5:00 a.m. sunrise is a killer experience, but you don’t need a boat to drown worms in Ocean City, thanks to its four public fishing piers, one on the inlet and three bayside. Locals hang at the Ninth Street one, probably because it has lights.

Restaurants in Ocean City: Eat Cheap

For all the body consciousness in Ocean City, a lot of eating happens here, and plenty of old-school options remain. Dumser’s Dairyland ($) is as old as my dad, who loves its classic American menu. He’s not alone. The Maryland fried chicken platters and clam baskets draw repeat visitors not just for nostalgia, but solid portions and a light touch with breading that doesn’t gorge you out. Breakfasts–cheddar omelettes, steak and eggs, cream chipped beef–are ample but are only served at the original 124th Street location (the newbie’s on 49th Street). Like everyone else, my mom digs Dumser’s ice cream, made fresh daily; her favorite is black raspberry with hot fudge.

Ocean City’s most famous snack, Thrashers Fries ($) are the real deal. My friends reared on the Eastern Shore love them, as do I; who can doubt a French fry strong enough to diss the ketchup? Cut from Idaho potatoes, fried in peanut oil, ladled out with salt and vinegar only in popcorn-sized 16-, 32-, and 53-ounce mountains, Thrasher’s are as Ocean City as the caw-caw-cawing of the seagulls who fight for your leftovers.

Among my other favorite local joints, Fish Tales ($$) is a fun bay-side eatery with outdoor dining and a playscape that lets parents cut loose while their kids do. Grab a table as early as 4pm for prime sunset viewing. Seafood and salads co-exist with pub grub; nosh on a scallop salad and grilled portobello with blue cheese, or mack out on barbecued pork shanks or the poached catch of the day. For quick eats (lines depending), hit Fat Daddy’s Sub Shop ($–$$), where surfers refuel on 14-inch buffalo chicken cheesesteaks and gravy fries. They’ll also deliver to your hotel room.

Restaurants in Ocean City: Eat Fancy

And now for some local history. When I used to live in Ocean City, my secret fishing spot was on the western shore of Sinepuxent Bay, along the rocky shoreline, where the twisted wreckage of those old railroad tracks crept into the sea. (I never did hook that mythical train.) Today, the tracks are gone, supplanted by waterfront McMansions in newly upscale West Ocean City.

Appropriately, Ocean City’s best new restaurant lives here: the Plantation House Bar & Grille ($$$–$$$$), a Southern-themed but modest place with tall windows, white linens, clapboard shutters, and some of the best cuisine in eastern Maryland. Come hungry for rich, hearty fare. Start with a cup of the blue crab corn chowder, creamy and meaty, or some smoky bacon-wrapped scallops before tackling signature dishes like the Eastern Shore burger (topped with imperial crab meat), or the pan-seared Kobe ribeye. The Plantation plates market catches like rockfish or red snapper too, expertly blackened to balance the heat with the meat.

The newest cool kid on Ocean City’s block, Liquid Assets ($$–$$$) is part upscale-casual package store, part bistro. Liquid Assets offers hundreds of international wines either to go or for pairing with a gourmet cheese board or California cuisine. It’s a great place to hang out, whether at the diamond-shaped bar in the main hall, or in adjacent dining room, where I paired plump, juicy pan-roasted scallops with an Australian shiraz, and grilled sweet Italian sausage with a Santa Barbara cabernet. Also lovely is the arugula salad—a real treat in a town that reveres iceberg lettuce.

For your requisite Ocean City crab feast, go fancy at Harrison’s Harbor Watch ($$$–$$$$), and couple some Alaska snow crabs and jumbo lump-crab cakes with salty Delmarva oysters. Or build your own surf and turf. Or you could kick back with locals at
PGN Crab House, ($$–$$$) that serves all-you-can-eat steamed and seasoned crabs, fried chicken, and Eastern Shore corn-on-the-cob for $20.

For sheer hedonistic nightlife, nothing in Ocean City tops Seacrets, the mid-island mega-venue with five stages, 17 bars, live bands, nightly balloon drops, full moon “Lunasea” parties, floating bay-side rafts, specialty drinks, a private beach, and who knows what else. You’ve been warned.

Restaurant Prices

  • $ = entrées under $10
  • $$ = $10 to $15
  • $$$ = $16 to $22
  • $$$$ = $22 and up

Hotels in Ocean City: Budget

Ocean City hardly lacks for lodgings; the trick is splitting the wheat from the chaff. Don’t be cavalier in your room search. If you’re careless, you’ll end up spending tons of money for a fairly pedestrian pad. There are some jewels here, though, in all price ranges. Here are some of our favorites.

One of Ocean City’s best values, the Flamingo Hotel ($$) stands out among the budget class. Too many of Ocean City’s lower-end properties phone in the service, treating you like a faceless commodity. The Flamingo works hard to deliver consistent quality, enhancing its offerings annually (as with its new wireless access in 2007). Cleanliness is a point of pride here. The hotel cultivates a familial feel among room attendants, who care for the property like B&B owners. Rooms aren’t huge, but all the parts function properly. Kitchenettes have toasters, microwaves, mini-fridges, and coffeepots.

Best may be the Flamingo’s liberal check-in policy, which allows you to relax at their indoor and outdoor pools while awaiting your room and use the changing room post-checkout to wash that last-minute sand from your trunks. It’s a nice bonus before that four-hour drive home. The entire hotel is smoke-free, with a no-tolerance noise policy, which tends to keep the dregs away. It’s located a few blocks from the beach, a small hindrance that’s easily remedied by taking the Ocean City bus. Families with kids: Make this your first choice.

Further north, Castle in the Sand ($$) also offers great value. A comfortable, multi-building compound at 37th and the Beach, the Castle occupies a full block but doesn’t feel crowded because buildings max out at five stories, near subterranean in these parts. Rooms are spacious. Oceanfront apartments have stoves and refrigerators. Beach cottages can fit two families, and the Castle offers summer arts programs and a huge western-facing swimming pool that’s perfect for catching late-afternoon rays.

Across the Route 50 bridge in West Ocean City, the Francis Scott Key Family Motel ($–$$) is a funky wooded compound that feels as much like Yellowstone as it does Ocean City. It’s super kid-friendly, offering three swimming pools (two indoor and one outdoor). a picnic pavilion, foosball, horseshoes, a playground, and fishing ponds. The Francis Scott also hooks up parents with an adults-only hot tub and poolside bar. Aside from spacious main lodge rooms, 46 standalone wooden bungalows are peppered among the pine trees, creating a fishing-camp feel in which neighbors swap stories and snacks on front porches. The service is top notch. At a friend’s rehearsal dinner here a few years back, a bridesmaid split a seam dancing (the horror!); staff rushed in with a sewing kit to defuse the pending in-law meltdown.

Hotels in Ocean City: Splurge

Clearly the biggest fish in Ocean City’s sea of properties, the
Hilton Suites Ocean City ($$$$) splashed down amid major fanfare in 2000. It’s got the look and feel you’d expect from the brand: mod decor, muted earth tones, en-suite flat-screens, and DVD players. Glass walls in the lobby overlook the waterslide and fountain-laden kids’ activity pool, as well as the beach beyond. Sizeable rooms, all suites, are well-configured and nail the accoutrements: plush duvets, padded cherry-wood headboards, full kitchens with four-burner stoves and oversized refrigerators. Black and white wall photos of dunes and lighthouses evoke an Eastern Shore classicism without descending to the pastel-and-wicker tackiness so overdone in Ocean City. And if you’re mush without your macchiato, they’ve got the only Starbucks in beachside Ocean City.

What’s absent here is prompt service. The staff, while convivial enough, lacks that snap-to-it-iveness you’d expect at a Hilton. Truth told, speed of service is an issue throughout Ocean City, no surprise given the seasonality of its hospitality industry. Considering you’re at the beach, the pace might not be so bad. So if you’re game to gab with bellboys about surf conditions, you’ll be fine. But if you’ve got big-city notions of staff jumping to your attention, temper your expectations or risk a sure-fire letdown. Two gripes: the bland indoor pool, and lousy parking, often in adjacent restaurant lots.

To support the locals, I steer people seeking high-end Ocean City lodging to dual bayside properties: the Lighthouse Club Hotel$$$ and The Edge.$$$$ Operated by the Fagers Island family, famed in these parts for its white-linen/brass chandelier restaurant and odd ritual of playing Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture each sunset, these are Ocean City’s finest boutique lodgings, perfect for romantic getaways. Drawback? You’re off the beach. Benefit? Epic sunsets over the bay.

Looking like a gabled, turreted beacon from the roadside, the aptly named Lighthouse opens up in the lobby with an expansive skylight, three stories up. A grand spiral staircase leads to the 23 rooms, all suites, with high ceilings and sweeping westerly views of the dunes and Assawoman Bay. Marble bathrooms and hot tubs for two up the romance quota (request a fireplace room for added heat), fresh fruit platters, terrycloth robes, and evening turndowns round the mood out. Atmosphere aside, the service sets the Lighthouse apart; helpful concierges take pride in meeting your needs, making you feel like a valued guest, not a number.

Next to the Lighthouse, The Edge opened in 2002 and upped the ante with its 12 suites, all decorated with travel themes. The Parisian Left Bank suite has a four-poster queen, a 20-foot ceiling, and a French sofa overlooking the bay. The Orient Express suite has a king Japanese platform bed and red chaise. My favorite suite, Bali, is smaller and more intimate. Its carved Polynesian headboard, mounted antique wedding oars, and bay-side Jacuzzi feel exotic. Unlike some themed properties, the Edge avoids any gimmicky flaws, keeping the appointments understated and restrained. Amenities like gas fireplaces, in-room hot tubs, and floor-to-ceiling sunset-facing glass windows ice the cake.

Another of my favorite Ocean City properties is one of its quietest, and it has a great comeback story, too: An Inn on the Ocean$$$-$$$$, the best bed and breakfast in town. Fronting the boardwalk and beach in Ocean City’s old downtown, the inn has rebounded from the near-devastating fire of summer 2004, which started in the basement and gutted the ground floor. Big props to owners Vicki and Charlie Barrett for restoring the inn to pristine conditions. A two-story clapboard Victorian with a beach-side porch and cozy rocking chairs, the inn has just six rooms; reserve early for the Oceana Room and its balcony overlooking the ocean. Loaner cruiser bikes, beach chairs, and towels add to the homey touch. Breakfasts—heaping affairs—are adaptable to special needs. Lounging porch-side in rockers over strawberries Romanoff or orange-cranberry croissant strata, with buoys and seabirds singing and light morning breezes gently sculpting the dunes ranks among the most tranquil, sublime experiences you’ll have in Ocean City.

Hotel Prices

  • $ = standard double under $100
  • $$ = $100 to $200
  • $$$ = $200 to $300
  • $$$$ = $300 & up

Vacation Rentals

Vacation rentals can be tricky to navigate, but the payoff is huge. Whether you’re a budget traveler who can’t afford the double-whammy cost of hotels and restaurants, or a luxury traveler who wants seclusion and over-the-top grandeur, you’ll get more space and privacy for your money by booking a rental property. And you’ll have a kitchen too. Read our vacation rentals how-to guide to find our how, and where, to rent.