We didn't have the address of our hotel in Bethany, but it wasn't hard to locate. It was the only lit sign in town.Known as the "relaxed" Delaware costal resort by summer, it's downright catatonic in early spring. If you seek the sound of the ocean surf undisturbed by so much as the slurp of suntan lotion; if solitary confinement sounds more like a prize than a punishment; if you've always dreamed of having resort community residents act as though you are doing them a favor by visiting, then a midweek trip to the Eastern Shore during the next few weeks is your utopia.
A midweek visit to the Eastern Shore and its ocean resorts in the off-season does require advance phone work -- not to locate a room, but to find a hotel that's open on a Wednesday night. In our case, the Bethany Chamber of Commerce (a woman working out of her living room) was a fount of information. "Try the Bethany Arms. They should be open," she advised sagely. A phone call produced no answer that night. The next day a kindly man told us rooms were available (in fact, any room we wanted) but he couldn't give us a discount because we were only staying two nights. As a result we would be paying a whole $38 a night for an apartment which included two double beds, a sofa bed, a kitchen complete with utensils, a bathroom, porch and panoramic view of the building next to ours. (In fairness, we were right next to the beach, could hear the waves and even catch sight of them when standing in just the right corner. The more desirable beach front units were still boarded up for the winter.)
The Wednesday night drive from Washington to Bethany was marred only by a minor tangle with the Beltway rush hour and indecipherable Delaware road signs. But within three hours the only beacon in Bethany led us to our lodgings. As for dinner, a 20-minute drive to Ocean City got us an instant table at Phillip's Seafood Restaurant, usually renowned as much for its eternal waiting line as for its fresh catch. After dinner, road weary and oyster filled we fell asleep clutching copies of Michener's Chesapeake.
An early morning walk through Bethany the next morning revealed a dramatically isolated waterfront . . . until 7:30 a.m. Then sounds of hammering and sawing echoed among the abandoned buildings as workmen proceeded with the annual fix-up campaign the precedes every summer's onslaught of tourists.
Heading south through Ocean City we discovered more spring cleaning: it was the annual ghost town reincarnation. The shiny new white paint of one empty hotel reflected the shiny new pink paint of another.
The Boardwalk never was more beautiful and it was ours. We strolled a full hour along this Baghdad-on-the-Atlantic without spending a single penny -- couldn't buy a salt water taffy if we wanted to. Almost every shop was closed. The proprietor of a pinball parlor consulted with a smartly dressed sound-system salesman. He needed the noise from within his shop to project onto the Boardwalk, where it would complete with the rock music from a nearby T-shirt shop.
But for now, no rock music, no flashing lights and electronic squeals from pinball machines, no screams from the rollercoaster. The ocean waves drowned out all but the creaking of huge plywood boards as they were pulled from display windows. When the chill drove us back to our car, we headed farther south for Assateague Island. We had few dreams of glimpsing the legendary ponies which run wild on the island, but in the off-season even the animals seem more responsive to tourists. Just across the bridge on the Maryland end of the island, grazing along the edge of the road, stood one of the famous small shaggy ponies. There are signs warning not to feed or pet these wild creatures who have been known to bite and kick. This fellow obviously hadn't read the signs. He walked over to the car, nuzzled the windshield and emotionally coerced us into petting him. He was about as threatening as an overgrown Muppet.
We drove on, through Chincoteague and onto the Virginia side of Assateague. Here the ponies eluded us, but there were flocks of fowl and even deer along the quiet trails and roads. A cemetery stop in tiny Princess Anne, Maryland, rounded out the day as we attempted to decipher the lineage of this historic town's more venerable families.
For dinner we traveled north of Bethany to Rehoboth Beach, another resort in off-season midweek hibernation. The Seahorse Restaurant was surrounded by bulldozers and excavation, but on the inside the kitchen was in working order, and the dining room was filled with locals attired in sports jackets and dresses.Apparently accustomed to tourists no matter what the season, they gave us a reasonable table despite our bluejeans and sweaters.
Upon returning to the Bethany Arms, we found that even our familiar beacon, the hotel sign, had been extinguished. The hotel was pitch dark and the parking lot was empty. The proprietor had apparently taken the evening off, so we were now the sole inhibitants of Bethany's only occupied hotel. It was delightful.
The next morning was checked out (no line at the cashier's desk) and headed west for Oxford, a charming old fishing village -- a visiting highlighted by lunch at the Robert Morris Inn. This establishment, now famous on the Eastern Shore for its dining and lodging, is most appealing in off-season when there are fewer elbow-jostling diners vying for tables. And biking around town is more relaxed when the slower-paced natives make up most of the drivers. The Oxford-Bellevue ferry stood waiting for us as we proceeded toward another Eastern Shore landmark, the community of St. Michaels. No lines to board the ferry and no traffic on the Bellevue-St. Michaels Road. And a classic, cluttered Eastern Shore antique shop along the way. At first glance, the eager eye reveled in bargains galore. Closer scrutiny revealed that even here, in the heart of rural discountland, almost every item was a modern copy.
In St. Michaels, the Maritime Museum had already closed so instead we watched the watermen unload mountains of oysters into city-bound trucks. We suppressed our appetites long enough for a high-speed race south to the very tip of Tilghman Island, where we had a clear view of the sun setting into the wind-whipped Bay. Starting at the western shore we were reminded that our midweek weekend was coming to a close.
On the way back to Washington we stopped for dinner at Easton's Tidewater Inn. A mix-up in our drink order resulted not only in profuse apologies (an impressive off-season feature) but an extensive after-dinner tour of the inn's first floor. Our waitress told us the history behind each of the beautiful murals that go practically ignored in one of the lesser-used dining rooms. We were able to leave only after final apologies from the waitress over the mix-up in drinks and a coerced assurance from us that we would return someday.
And we really will. Next off-season.
BETHANY ARMS -- In Bethany, Delaware. Phone: 302/539-9603.