After the sun sets over Chincoteague Bay, after you've explored every dune crossing and absorbed your limit of sunlight and insect repellent, after you've sat through two consecutive showings of the crustaceans-eat-the-darndest-things slide show down at the nature center, a thought might occur to you (though this is by no means guaranteed).

"Gosh," you might say to yourself. "It sure would be nice to hear something by ZZ Top right about now."

Whatever. You have to go to Ocean City for it. Assateague is home to much wildlife, but none of the sort that, as a rule, boogies until it breaks something.

Yes. You have to go to Ocean City. And every summer, hundreds of thousands of us -- from such far-off, mystical metropolitan areas as Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, LaPlata -- descend upon Ocean City to pursue two major extracurricular activities:

1. Sunning ourselves during the day, so that we look great later, when we:

2. Go out.

Any of the following Ocean City nightlife possibilities will do. (Visit more than a couple from this sampling, and you should also consider taking one of the city's sparkling Coastal Highway buses.) FOR A QUIET DRINK AND/OR VIEW

B.J.'s ON THE WATER -- A quiet and comfortably tacky place, with two large bars, a screened-in area and an open bayfront deck. 75th Street at the Bay. 301/524-7575.

BONFIRE LOUNGE -- Where the older beachcomber goes -- possibly for the nightly bands, possibly because the bartenders wear suits. 71st Street at Coastal Highway. 301/524-7171.

FAGER'S ISLAND -- Probably the best-known of Ocean City's sprawling, indoor-outdoor bayfront restaurant-bars. You won't believe how many cars are in the parking lot. Or prime ribs on the plates. 60th Street at the Bay. 301/524-5500. HARRISON'S HARBORWATCH -- Best place to accompany your drink with a view of your favorite barrier island. Boardwalk South at the Inlet. 301/289-5121. FOR DANCING FOOLS AND OTHER OUTGOING TYPES

CAROUSEL CLUB -- Top 40 forever! (Or at least until we get some facial hair and our metabolism slows down!) A young crowd. 118th Street at Coastal Highway. 301/524-1000.

LOOKOUT LOUNGE -- Always a big show band (the Admirals, at the moment) up in this big eighth-floor room, almost always appreciated by well-dressed crowds. At the Fenwick Inn, 138th Street at Coastal Highway. 301/250-1100.

MARGARITA MAGGIE'S -- The newest addition to the hip college-crowd circuit. If you've been to the other MMs (in Calverton or Annapolis), you've already seen the sophisticated, multi-level playground layout, and the line out front. You've never seen so many early tans, though. 120th Street at Coastal Highway. 301/723-4200.

OCEAN CLUB -- The ocean and beach scene through the windows is real (as are the palm trees, though these have to be replaced every summer), and a real nice complement to the blonde wood and brass inside. Top-40 music most nights by bands who evidently listen to the radio much more closely than the audience, which will dance to anything. The terrace outside is a great place for an afternoon tropical drink. 49th Street at the ocean. 301/524-7500.

SAMANTHA'S -- The line here doesn't start forming until after 11 p.m., when much of the city's college-age population suddenly wants in -- to show off the new knickers, or hear some tight art-pop cover band from Baltimore, or just stand around and wonder who designed the waitresses' uniforms, in which the Jane Fonda Workout meets Pat Benatar. 45th Street at Coastal Highway. 301/289-BIXS. AND FOR SOMETHING DIFFERENT

For a rest from the usual top-40 cattle-call routine uptown, you really should spend some Friday night sticking close to Talbot Street and nearby downtown Ocean City, where nightlife expectations and pretensions, like much of the 50-year-old architecture, are just closer to sea level. The places to hit are the Angler and the Talbot Street Cafe, at the bay and boardwalk ends of Talbot Street, respectively, and the Purple Moose Saloon a half block north on the boardwalk.

For as long as most locals can remember, the Angler has been saying goodnight at 2:30 a.m. most summer nights to a casual, loud college-and-up crowd, and opening 2 1/2 hours later for its pre-cruise fisherman's breakfast. "I was in the business 25 years before I found out there wasn't any retirement plan," says owner Bill Bunting, who at 53 is the third generation of Buntings to run a business on the property. But he's about ready to give his daughters Julie, 28, and Jayne, 26, control over the restaurant -- the first, Bunting says, to open an outdoor bar and dining area area on a bayside deck 12 years ago, and profitably copied since. The younger Buntings already pretty much run the place, enough so that Bunting can concentrate mostly on the family's sportfishing and cruise operations. "We try to make it the kind of place we liked to go to growing up here," says Julie Bunting. "Nothing fancy. Just friendly." Thus after dinner, the salad bar becomes a beer bar, behind which Julie says she'll go through 30, 35 cases on a good Friday.

In summer, the Angler seems to share some of its jazz-blues-reggae-pop bookings with the Talbot Street Cafe up the street. What it doesn't share is a nautical decor -- thankfully. The Cafe's worn, dark wood walls subdued lights seem more in key with the note-bending blues, reggae and roots-rock acts appearing here year round. (Also, the Cafe's food is still simple and often terrific, chief evidence of both being its famous meat loaf sandwich.)

Just a guess here, but if you were a lifeguard, you'd probably frequent the Purple Moose. It is old and comfortably worn, and only about 15 steps from where you drag your big high-chair at the end of the day, on the boardwalk between Talbot and Caroline. There's nightly music -- with a definite bent for rollicking, guitar-heavy, "partying" rock 'n' roll. Plus, there's a whole boutique's worth of Purple Moose clothing and accessories tacked up on the wall, right next to the world's largest trophy case of softball awards. And if there isn't an Orioles game on the TV, there's probably someone standing next to you who'd say yes if you asked her to either the next home game or the dance floor back near the band.

You don't actually have to be a lifeguard to enjoy all this, of course. Looking like one will do.