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The Beach, by All Means

Thanks to my green dumpster view, I was already en route to achieving that goal. Because we were visiting during the off-season -- generally, anytime after Labor Day and before Memorial Day -- rental rates were already pretty darn low. I had also lucked into a reasonable unit at Sea Colony, the Bethany Beach resort where I spent almost all of my childhood summer vacations. A listing on the Internet had allowed me to directly contact the owner of a one-bedroom, 11/2-bath unit in Sea Colony's Annapolis building that easily accommodated four people and was a two-minute walk to the beach. The rate: $160 for the weekend, plus a $6 per person activity fee that gave us access to the private beach, pools, tennis courts and other recreation facilities. That worked out to $46 per couple (or $23 a person), per night. Score.

With a full tank of gas in our Honda Civic and $2.50 for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge toll, we set off on our money-saving seashore journey.

The boardwalks of Bethany and Rehoboth can challenge the budget traveler with temptations, from arcade games to frozen custard cones. (Photograph by Olivia Boinet)

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On our first night, we ate dinner during happy hour, where a super-stuffed chicken quesadilla at Mango's on the Bethany boardwalk cost $5. After a couple of $2.50 glasses of wine, we headed back to our condo for the ultimate in affordable evening entertainment: board games.

On Saturday afternoon, after three hours of lounging on Sea Colony's beach, the four of us walked to the town of Bethany, less than a mile away, to get lunch. Even in the off-season, it was nearly 90 degrees -- hot enough to make seaside breezes feel as refreshing as spray from a lawn sprinkler. By the time we had finished our hike across the dunes, shaken the sand from our shoes and headed up the boardwalk in search of cheap eats, we were starving and soaked in sweat. Fortunately, we soon spotted the Frog House Restaurant, an unassuming family diner where toy amphibians literally hang from the rafters. There were frog decorations everywhere, including a stuffed Kermit on the ceiling above our table. Here I consumed my cheapest lunch of the millennium: A grilled cheese sandwich with potato chips and a pickle for $2.95. And there's no sales tax in Delaware.

Less than 10 minutes later, however, I was sucking down a Coke float at the boardwalk's Shore Stop snack bar, where such carbonated, creamy treats cost $2.75. Hey, I had a cheap lunch, I told myself. I deserved to celebrate. Besides, that evening I made up for my ice cream indiscretion by eating dinner at Grotto Pizza on the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk, where Rob, Glenn, Angie and I shared a large, plain pie (no toppings, please) and a pitcher of Miller Lite. Cost for the four of us: $20.45.

After dinner, we stopped in a nearby Candy Kitchen (they're everywhere), and the store's sweet aroma soon set off an orgy of boardwalk-junk-food consumption. My husband and friends dove into boxes of peanut butter fudge, then followed it up a little ways down the boardwalk with Kohr Bros. frozen custard cones and $4.50 worth of funnel cake. Me, I kept my mouth shut and my wallet in my purse. I knew they couldn't stomach all that fudge and fried dough. When their appetites struck out, they'd need me to bat cleanup. So I did, snaking several licks of soft ice cream and polishing off the funnel cake without spending a dime. If you want to save money, mooch off others until you can mooch no more.

On Sunday, as the Honda carried us over the Bay Bridge and back home, I added up the costs of the condo, gas, tolls and various meals (including the brazen Coke float purchase) and discovered that I had spent $83.67.

With that, I turned to my husband and said, "You know something? Next time, I think we should spring for a full ocean view."

We rented our condo directly from the owners through 1st Choice Vacation Rentals (www.choice1.com); other options include Vacation Rentals By Owner (www.vrbo.com) and 10K Vacation Rentals (www.10kvacationrentals.com). Mango's is at Garfield Parkway and the boardwalk (302-537-6621); the Frog House Restaurant is at 116 Garfield Pkwy. (302-539-4500). Another very reasonable lunch spot: Gary's Beach Cafe (302-539-2131), across from Sea Colony in the Market-place plaza. For the carless, there are Greyhound buses that run from Washington and its suburbs to Bethany Beach, for about $75 to $95 round trip, but the travel time can be twice as long as the typical three-hour car trip. Check fares at www.greyhound.com.

Jen Chaney is the movies and theater editor at washingtonpost.com and a columnist for the Gazette newspapers.

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