Three-Ring Circus by The Sea
It's the essential paradox of Ocean City that it is simultaneously PG- and R-rated: chock-full of classic kids' rides and mini-golf and wide, free public beaches (and good restroom facilities) and yet addicted to the crudest of T-shirts and baldest of double-entendres, the loudest of beach bars and most artery-clogging of junk foods. (Is there anything that soars more temptingly over salt air than the scents of caramel popcorn and barbecue?) High-rise hotels and boardwalk views. Carousels and spinning heads. Espresso bars and bloody mary bars. Not to mention all-you-can-eat, morning and night, vs. -- well, raw bars and smoothies.
It's the same with boardwalk bodies: bikini-worthies and wetsuit wonders vs. undershirt strainers and elastic waists. Teens in tiny shorts, teens in droopers. Hungover twenties and hearty morning-walk seniors. Goths getting pierced and soccer moms getting tattooed. Guys with golf tans and guys with fishing burns.
Frankly, Ocean City's a circus, and it's the one you might as well run away to. If you can't find somebody, or something, to love in Ocean City, you have neither romance nor remorse in your soul.
7:30 p.m. Head straight to Fager's Island (60th Street and the bay; 410-524-5500) for the ritual sunset playing of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," just as the cannon fire, and natural fireworks, subside. Grab a basket of free popcorn and a drink and a spot on one of the decks. Although someone stole Stumpy the deer off the gazebo roof a few years back, its angelic replacement does assume a somewhat more impressive presence when backlit by flame.
9 p.m. The newly expanded Liquid Assets (93rd Street and Coastal Highway; 410-524-7037), with its nonsmoking Tuscan-look dining room and more casual bar tables, lets you either pick from the wines-by-the-glass list or browse the shelves and choose your own bottle. Best bets: the day's artisan cheese choices, spicy calamari salad and scallops over risotto.
11 p.m. Cool off with a last round on the deck at Jive (82nd Street and the bay; 410-524-1111), the coolest retro-Rat Pack lounge south of Wildwood, N.J. Remember, olives are one of the primary food groups.
Midnight Head to the south end of the boardwalk and indulge in Ocean City's most unabashedly romantic ride, the giant Ferris wheel (410-289-3031). High above the glittering water on the pier, the nostalgic array of lights magically softens the crasser surfaces of the boardwalk and gives it a tinted-postcard aspect. (As it should; even though it's not the original pier building, the current structure is 80 years old.) Take a spin on Trimper's 1902 Herschell-Spillman carousel (South First Street) with its fine hand-carved menagerie of perches, and maybe even giggle through the old-fashioned haunted house. Finish the evening with a last-call soft ice cream at Dumser's original stand or Thrasher's fries with vinegar near the pier entrance.
8:30 a.m. Doughnuts are a beach staple, but skip the mass-market conveyor belts and head for the hometown heroes at the Fractured Prune (28th Street at Philadelphia Avenue; 410-289-1134, and Route 611/Stephen Decatur Highway and Sunset Avenue in West Ocean City; 410-213-9899). When you walk in, the staff drops fresh dough into the oil; you have a minute or so to decide on the glaze (16 choices, including peanut butter, banana, mixed berry and caramel), topping (eight choices, including Oreo cookies and butterscotch morsels) and sugars (powdered, granulated or cinnamon). The name is a tribute to Prunella Shriek, who once owned much of the land around 46th Street, where the first stand went up. A feisty septuagenarian athlete who continued to compete against younger rivals, mostly men, in such sports as tennis and ice skating -- she was the county ping-pong champ in 1895 -- she frequently had to resort to crutches or even wheelchairs at contest's end, and friends began to call her "Fractured Prunella."
9 a.m. Miniature golf is just as much a tradition as the doughnuts, and Old Pro has seven themed courses -- medieval, Lost World-ish, piratical, even underwater (and that's indoors) and more -- on the main drag between 23rd and 136th streets, with the largest one at 68th Street. Get a $12 pass, and you can play any of them for as long as you want between 9 and 5.
This might be the time to get into the bus-riding habit, which not only saves energy and parking annoyances but might come in handy later on, when no one wants to be the designated driver. The bus runs 24 hours, every five to 10 minutes (15 to 20 in the weeest hours), from the inlet to the state line at 146th Street. Each ride is $2, exact change required, or get a 10-ride coupon book from the driver for $15. (Seniors 60 and older can get half-price passes; call 410-723-1607.)
Noon One of the eternal burning questions of beach life is, surf or turf? The first name for one is Phillips, which has been serving crab cakes and fried shrimp for 50 years; and for the other it's the Bull on the Beach . The Phillips Crab House at 21st Street and Coastal Highway (410-289-9121) is the most fun -- it looks like a giant sand castle -- but there's a branch at 141st Street (410-250-1200) as well. The Bull on the Beach network is only half as old, but the bull market is still strong (Second Street and Boardwalk, 410-289-2855; 94th Street and Coastal Highway; 410-524-2455; and Route 50 in West Ocean City, 410-213-4744). The original mascot's "portrait" was painted by Randy Hofman, now best known as the sculptor who creates the biblical scenes every day in the sand near Second Street, but it was destroyed when the building was torn down.
1 p.m. Prime tanning time, and the smaller children have pooped out, so it's only you, the mad dogs and Englishmen on the beach. Grab a kite or Frisbee at the Kite Loft (Boardwalk at Fifth Street; 410-289-6852) and tack down the towels.