Now for Something a Little Bit Different

By Tracy Grant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 16, 2008

As much as kids know that the 3 R's define the school year, they also know that summer is all about the 4 S's. That's right: Sun, surf, sea and sand are about all kids need for a memory-making family vacation.

Of course, a week at the beach also means arcades, thrill rides, water parks and Thrasher's fries. But if you find that, by day four or five, you're looking for something a little different, something a little special that might mean new memories, you're probably not alone. Here are a few favorite excursions. Some take a full day, others just a few hours, but regardless of where you're staying, they're worth the effort.

Assateague Island National Seashore

It's amazing how many regular visitors to Ocean City or Rehoboth Beach never make it to this sandy gem. Granted, it's about as different from the hustle and hubbub of the boardwalk as you can get, but it's not without its thrills -- many of them natural instead of man-made.

From the southern end of the Ocean City boardwalk, you can see the island in the distance. What you can't see from there is that the island is home to about 300 wild ponies and just as many species of birds that find its beaches, pine forests and salt marshes the perfect oasis.

The ponies were made famous in Marguerite Henry's 1947 book "Misty of Chincoteague" and the annual pony penning, during which horses swim from Assateague to Virginia's Chincoteague Island the last Wednesday of July. But the Maryland side of Assateague (the state line runs through the middle of the island) is wonderful to discover any day of the summer.

The visitors center is always a great place to start. (Some kids, and adults, love to collect the National Park Service brochures.) It has aquariums and exhibits on marine life, and it's a great place to pick up tips on biking, shell collecting and seeing the ponies.

And let there be no doubt, you will see ponies -- very possibly close up, perhaps even more close up than you want. They cross in front of your car, wander on the side of the road grazing and walk in herds up and down the beach. The horses are no doubt more accustomed to people than the people are to them. Seeing the horses so near will delight many kids, but these are not like ponies they may have ridden at birthday parties. These are wild animals, but with very little fear of humans, and have been known to bite and kick. They have also been known to eat picnic lunches spread out on the beach!

But what a wonderful opportunity to show kids animals in their own environment and remind them to behave as they would as guests at someone's house. The National Park Service describes the animals as "beautiful, tough and wild" and says feeding or petting them is "detrimental to both visitors and horses."

If your kids insist on something more than a "look, don't touch" outing, Assateague has much to offer. Visitors can leave with as much as a gallon jug of shells. (Unoccupied ones, please!) Family-friendly hiking trails lead through various habitats. And of course, there's the beach -- but it's a beach that feels more than a world away from Ocean City.

GETTING THERE By car, the island is about an hour's drive from Ocean City and a little less than two hours from Rehoboth.

HOURS The Maryland side of Assateague never closes, and camping is allowed. For information on camping, visithttp://www.recreation.govor call 877-444-6777.

FEES There's a $15 fee per car that allows you to go in and out for seven days. There's no fee for walking or biking onto the island.


Frontier Town

Think you can't get a taste of a Wild West town while at the beach? Think again. This trip back to the 1860s includes rides, bank holdups, cancan shows, ceremonial Indian dances and of course a re-creation of the gunfight at the OK Corral.

There's nothing politically correct about this place. The cowboys carry guns that look real and are really, really loud. (When the train gets "hijacked," some toddlers have been known to cower under their seats in fear; but it's just edgy enough for most 5- and 6-year-olds.) Cowboys and Indians are played out to their more stereotypical extremes, but families have been coming to this place that time forgot for generations. There are very few places where a father can say to a son, "I first saw the cancan show when I was your age," and therein lies the reason that Frontier Town is worth a stop.

It's also worth noting that Frontier Town also has a mini-golf course (not as fancy as those you'll find closer to the beach but very tricky) and a water park (again, not as thrilling as others but a great way to cool off).

GETTING THERE About a half-hour drive southwest of Ocean City, off Route 611 in Berlin, Md.

HOURS Western park, water park and mini golf open 10 to 6 (mid-June through Labor Day).

FEES For Frontier Town, mini-golf course and water park: $22, ages 4 to 10 $18, free for kids 3 and younger. Separate admissions available.


Bike the Boardwalk

Whether you're staying in Ocean City or Rehoboth Beach, the boardwalk will probably be part of your experience. There are arcades, tattoo parlors and T-shirt shops galore. Between noon and midnight, parts of the boardwalk may be shoulder-to-shoulder with people.

But in the early morning, the boardwalk is the most unlikely of tranquil spots. The sun sparkles low on the water; the only other people out are those who know the secret of these sacred hours. There is an unspoken camaraderie among early morning boardwalkers, one that allows you to scoff at those still asleep. (Hey, who are we kidding here? The kids are up at 6:30 anyway, so why not do something a little different?)

The 2.7-mile Ocean City boardwalk allows bikes only from 6 to 10 a.m. (After 9, it's so crowded that it can become dicey for younger, less-experienced riders.) The mile-long Rehoboth boardwalk welcomes bikers from 5 to 10 a.m. Its shorter length makes an early morning excursion seem less daunting for younger riders or for parents who haven't been on a bike since their teens.

The important thing to remember about a bike trip on the boardwalk is that it truly is about the journey and not the destination. Bike rental shops are staples along the boardwalks. Rates are hourly, but most give up to 10 minutes of grace time. Many rent tandem bikes or ones with child seats.

In Ocean City, consider biking to the southern point of the boardwalk to check out the famous shark display. The town also has several tot lots right on the beach with climbing equipment in the shape of pirate ships, etc. Consider parking your bikes there and letting the kids climb while you and your significant other marvel at the way the sun glints off the ocean while drinking coffee and sitting on a bench. It really is worth the early wake-up call.

GETTING THERE The Ocean City Boardwalk begins at 26th Street on the north end; the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk stretches from Lake Avenue on the north to Queen Street on the south.

HOURS Early morning!

FEES An hour rental for a standard bike costs about $6.

Rehoboth Summer Children's Theatre

It's raining at the beach. You know what that means: Everyone heads to the cineplex to see "Speed Racer" or "Prince Caspian" or "Kung Fu Panda." Not that there's anything wrong with that. But since we're in the spirit of doing things just a little bit differently with the kids at the beach, why not check out a live drama?

The Rehoboth Summer Children's Theatre's lineup includes nothing but old favorites: "Peter Pan," "Snow White," "The Emperor's New Clothes" and "Puss in Boots." Matinee and evening shows are staged in Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach, Lewes and Bethany Beach, so if your beach destination takes you to the First State, it's worth checking out.

GETTING THERE, HOURS To find out what's playing when and where, visit

FEES $8. (Gee, just about what you'd pay at the multiplex.)

Cape Henlopen State Park

So, say the untainted beauty of a place like Assateague appeals, but the idea of two hours in the car with the kids doesn't. Go north, just a bit, to Cape Henlopen State Park.

With broad, sea-grass-strewn beaches, enormous dunes, open spaces for picnicking and the aquariums and exhibits at the Seaside Nature Center, the park is firmly rooted in the natural world.

A three-mile paved trail, perfect for walking or biking, loops the park and highlights its changing habitats. There are also seaside or pineland nature trails that let you explore different environments side by side. Climbing to the top of either the World War II observation tower or a former military bunker offers beautiful views and the oh-so-important "I did it!" sense of accomplishment.

There are also basketball courts and an 18-"hole" disc golf course for those who need to feed their competitive spirit.

GETTING THERE Cape Henlopen is in Lewes, Del., about a 20-minute drive from Rehoboth Beach.

HOURS Open from 8 a.m. to sunset daily.

FEES Free.


View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company