Soaking Up the Fun of Summer; Atlantic Beaches Ready for Seasonal Influx

Article excerpt


REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. - On a summer weekend, the traffic in downtown Rehoboth Beach makes it seem like Interstate 395 at rush hour. Even as you catch the first glint of sunlight reflecting from the ocean's surface, you're not as close as you think.

Cars are lined up bumper to bumper from Delaware Route 1 to the end of Rehoboth Avenue at the boardwalk, slowly circling the downtown area as drivers scan the precious few public parking spaces for signs one might come vacant. None of them is empty, of course, and the boardwalk seems tantalizingly out of reach as the odors of caramel corn and french fries mix with exhaust fumes and a cacophonous blend of country, heavy-metal and rap music from open car windows.

This is what happens when the Washington area empties many of its millions of residents on a small town. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the 1,495 people who live in the 1-square-mile area of downtown Rehoboth Beach are swamped each weekend with an average of 30,000 to 60,000 visitors. Even on summer weekdays and on winter weekends, the number of weekend visitors is at least three times the town's resident population.

The 35-mile-long stretch of Atlantic Ocean coastline between Cape Henlopen, Del., and the southern tip of Ocean City has for decades been the Washington area's most popular destination for beach getaways.

This year could be the busiest ever if the weather holds. Carol Everhart, president of the Rehoboth-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce, says her organization has seen a 45 percent increase in requests for information.

"That is the highest I can ever remember. If that's an indicator, we should have an outstanding summer," she says. "We already are seeing increased visitation."

Her optimism comes after a difficult season last year, when higher-than-average rainfall and colder-than-average water temperatures kept tourists away and storms washed most of the beach into the ocean. "Our concern would always be with the liquid sunshine," she says.

The National Weather Service predicts an even chance of normal temperatures and rainfall this summer, which leaves Rick Smith, manager of the Ocean Pier Rides amusement park in Ocean City, also optimistic about making up for last year.

"As long as Mother Nature gives us a chance, we're ready," he says. "It's looking promising right now."

Americans historically have been drawn to the beach. Rehoboth Beach was founded in 1873 as a Methodist camp meeting ground by the Rev. Robert W. Todd, who was inspired by what he called the rejuvenating power of the ocean. Nearby Bethany Beach also was founded as a religious retreat, in 1901 by members of the Disciples of Christ from Washington and Pennsylvania.

About the same time, prominent businessmen from the Eastern Shore, Baltimore and Philadelphia saw Ocean City's potential as a beach resort and began developing what was then a small fishing village. Ocean City became a town in 1875, the year its first hotel opened, and now attracts an estimated 10 million visitors a year, making it one of the largest beach resorts on the East Coast in spite of its tiny year-round population of just 7,173.

Even so, the soft ocean sand and stiff surf remained out of reach for many Washington-area residents until the first bridge spanning the Chesapeake Bay opened in 1952, replacing a two-hour ferry ride.

In the first half of the 20th century, the big resorts were closer to the city, along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River. In that time, the 135-mile trip by train and ferry from Washington to Ocean City took all day. Now it's about a three-hour drive by car - if you leave early enough to beat the summer rush.

Chesapeake Beach, Md., and Colonial Beach, Va., had gambling casinos, amusement parks and dance halls and attracted thousands of Washingtonians each summer. …