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Beach Patrol
Ocean City Meet Virginia Beach

By Carolyn Spencer Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 21, 1997; Page E11

If you look at one of those topographic maps that eliminate state borders, you might wonder if there's any difference at all between Maryland's Ocean City and Virginia's Virginia Beach. Both appear as sandy slivers of coastline amid a scattering of barrier islands straddling the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Both offer frontage to the Atlantic surf. Even closer in, there are basic similarities: Both offer hotels, boardwalks, restaurants and sun at (mostly) family-friendly rates.

Check things out closer, however, and the differences get bigger.

First, there's size. Ocean City hosts a whopping 8.1 million visitors a year; Virginia Beach only 2.2 million. Ocean City offers 35,000 places to stay, including hotels, rental houses, apartments and those godforsaken high-rise condos that stalk the beachfront. Virginia Beach has more than 11,000 units available, many of them in modest mid-rise hotels. While one-quarter to a third of the resorts' visitors are folks from the home state, relatively few venture over the state line to the others' surf turf. Indeed, more people from beach-deprived Ohio visit Virginia Beach than from Maryland.

But beyond simple body counts, there are huge differences in character.

Virginia Beach

Virginia Beach has all the expected beachside attractions, but everything seems efficient and modest and . . . contained. The hotels are low-rise but packed close to the beach, creating intimacy -- and a 3 o'clock shadow that hides the sun. The boardwalk is made of smooth concrete, easier on the feet (and more accommodating for bikers, in-line skaters and wheelchair-riders) than Ocean City's mostly plank version. A pathway is set aside for wheeled travelers at all times; during the summer, bikers are allowed at Ocean City only between the hours of 5 and 10 a.m. Virginia Beach has a small amusement park and a water park.

When I registered for my room at Virginia Beach, the rental agreement included eight rules I had to abide by, such as not having unregistered guests in my room and agreeing to control my noise output. These turned out to be legacies of the city's 1989 student-led riots, which caused the city elders to call for more order in the resort town. Today Virginia Beach is just as they hoped: peaceful, quiet, an orderly and pleasant place to get away. You get personal comfort, not personality.

But Virginia Beach is also the largest city in the Commonwealth, so also packs some of the amenities of a metropolitan area. Nearby are a range of historical, cultural and natural attractions that isolated Ocean City can't muster. The Virginia Marine Science Museum has dolphin-watching boat trips and an Imax theater; Norfolk, Williamsburg, Jamestown, Yorktown and Busch Gardens are all nearby. Jets swoop overhead from the Oceana Naval Air Station. You can be part of Pat Robertson's television audience while you visit.

Ocean City

Ocean City, by contrast, is what it is: A tenured, self-contained beach resort, separated from workdaday civilization and devoted almost exclusively to tourism. It's suffered hurricanes, beach erosion and a massive wave of condo overbuilding at the north end, but it's got character.

Ocean City's heart remains its boardwalk, which is equal parts scruffy, tacky and electric. Traveling from north to south, the blocks between 27th and 16th are residential, occupied for the most part by low-rise hotels less than 30 years old. At 15th Street -- anchored by the 1950s-era Harrison Hall, with its Ionic columns and porchfront rockers -- the neighborhood gets more interesting. It's Ocean City hip; an intermingling of low-lying condos and hotels line the beachfront, and the side streets are lined with salty old beach cottages -- the kind where fish are mounted on wooden plaques and where groups of families and friends have been returning for decades. At Third Street you hit "downtown," and the noise level rises, with pinball, Skee Ball and video games drawing crowds. There are a lot of families, couples, teenagers on the prowl. The Ocean Gallery is selling oil paintings for $19.98 -- and tonight, an additional 90 percent off!

But the center of the action are the Trimper's amusement park rides, which straddle both sides of the boardwalk. Very little has changed here in 30, 40, perhaps 50 years. The Himalaya, the Matterhorn, the Hurricane, the old-time carousel are all still here, just as remembered. The roller coaster has been updated to include a loop, but that's a minor concession.

An open-air teacup on the giant Ferris wheel soars over the town and the ocean. The briny breeze, the iridescent waves in the moonlight, and KC and the Sunshine Band on the music system . . . all of this is heady stuff. From your overhead perch you look down on the boardwalk's Great White Way, with its mass of strolling vacationers, and beyond, the lines of condominiums. You see a flashing comet in the black sky -- or is it a spotlight?

No, it's just another night in Ocean City.

Ocean City: 1-800-626-2326, Virginia Beach: 1-800-446-8038,

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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