Along Delmarva's coast the cardboard signs on snack bar doors tell as true a tale as one devised by a fisherman who spent all night throwing bait at waves. "Closed 'til Spring" they say -- but don't you believe it. Eternally welcoming, the beach stays open all winter.

Just don't expect it to be like Labor Day: hot, hectic, high priced.

Every boardwalk carnival and taffy stand is closed up tighter than a clam with an anxiety attack. T-shirt artists have gone the way of ospreys: south or simply elsewhere. Gone, too, are parking problems, crowds and noise. Instead you'll find bright or ghostly air, wild beauty and a sort of solitude that can stand company if you care to take a friend or lover. It's a different shore now.

Beachcombing is never better than after a three-day storm that brings the sea swirling up the face of outer dunes, leaving driftwood high and drying for next year's bonfires. Every tide carries its cache of curiosities: the monstrously toothed jaws of angler fish, shells too heavy for summer waves to push ashore, and odd artifacts that run the gamut from jet fuel tanks to bits of wooden ships -- even a tusk dropped by some litterbugging mammoth 10,000 years ago.

Quicker animals haunt the swale and ponds behind the barrier dune: deer, raccoons, even otters if you care to track them down. In the hour surrounding sundown on my latest trip, I was investigated by one muskrat, 22 sika deer, a whitetail, uncounted squirrels and one red fox (actually, she wasn't a bit interested but trotted past my car like gymnast Mary Lou Retton late for practice).

The winter action has little to do with strangers or new-found friends. (If you want companionship, a new book or old wine, bring your own.) But the birds abide. Sanderlings race the surf's wash up slopes of wet sand made shorter and steeper by harsher waves than summer's. Multitudes of Canadas and snow geese, brants and swans patrol the marshes and make the sky loud with honking song. Sea ducks not seen here in summer bob beyond the surf where pelicans now scout, collapse their wings and crash, to come up gulping.

There may still be fish too -- sea trout, spot, flounder -- and if no fish, then fishermen nonetheless. Where I'd seen one solitary surfer the day before, at dawn two thermal-clad surfcasters worked a break in the curling wave, waiting for a school of mullet to lure big blues in over the bar.

If fauna isn't your game, go for est air imaginable and the sort of pace that makes clocks and calendars disappear. Why feel pressed to swim and fish, learn to windsurf, rent a sailboat, take a guided nature walk, host a clambake, attend an auction, write a dozen postcards, try that new seafood house or read "Ulysses" and get a tan -- all in one visit? Winter beach trips last two or three days -- not weeks -- and short days at that, though memorable ones.

For example, my wife and I have trouble remembering which New Year's Eve we drank a Chateau d'Yquem in black-tie elegance and first met two of our now dearest friends in town. And did we throw the party in '80 or go out with the Smiths? The last nights of most years blur. Except for the year we ended at the beach.

At a varnished table we dined on oysters and crab-stuffed flounder. The wine was a sort that many shoreside houses offer, something chaste of pretense.

Back at the motel by 9, Mary watched Pavarotti via cable (which is de rigueur in every coastal hamlet though we still can't get it in Chevy Chase) and finished making my Christmas gift, the pieced quilt now in our son's nursery. I wallowed in the luxury of a hardback thriller. We did some justice to the champagne we'd wisely brought from home and were happily asleep before Guy Lombardo oiled the night with "Auld Lang Syne." Next morning we were up at dawn, out and about in glory. Thus began a vintage year, though it's a fine way to start any week in winter.

Browsing the nearby coast again just weeks ago, we found the towns dark, empty and inviting. A bartender in Virginia Beach put it this way: "See the flashing yellow lights on Atlantic Avenue? They won't turn red until Easter." Caesar's Restaurant had crossed its Rubicon that Sunday evening, the Riverboat looked beached, the Aloha had waved a last hello/goodbye, the Waves had ebbed for winter. Even one McDonald's was boarded up, though a score of bright motel signs offered such freebies as "FRIG HBO."

Despite a dozen summer visits to this town, I'd never been inside the Maritime Historical Museum hard by the beach, a gem of an old Life Saving Station that celebrates the storm-tossed rescues of yore. (It also displays oddities, like the mammoth tusk someone found a year ago.) Somehow I'd never taken the time to stop in when the sun baked the beach until cocktail hour. But in winter, when beachfront towers cast cold shadows across the sand soon after lunch, seeing indoor sights makes sense.

Up in Delaware, Henlopen Park's Jack Goins brags that "our sun goes down on standard time," since there are no high-rises to block its shine. The almost pristine beach aside, a most intriguing man-made thing to ponder here is offshore: the salvage vessel bringing up a fortune in gold coins from a treasure ship sunk in 1787. (But ponder from afar; the crew doesn't welcome visitors.)

For an absolutely pristine beach, try the remote barrier islands of the Virginia Coast Preserve, which boasts no greater development than a long-abandoned Coast Guard station. Crossing the open water calls for a sound boat and a captain who's wise to the shifting bays. It's bound to be an uncomfortable trip (perhaps a dangerous one) for the inestimable reward of virtually virgin shores. Even the Nature Conservancy, which owns and administers the preserves, does not take people there this time of year. But who knows what you might find if you went?

A winter beach is full of surprises. There is unaccustomed space -- on the sand and even at the curbs in towns, for parking. The crowds are gone, and with them the traffic. The high rates are gone too. Hundred-dollar summer rooms cost less than half while many decent motels advertise doubles in the $20 range. Like the price, even the pace is different -- since a day's outing simply cannot last as long. All this translates into new choices: To walk the empty shores, of course; and to test the antique shops en route, to scout summer rentals while realtors are easy to reach, to visit the local museum.

Certainly the weather is chancier than in July, but for even the mildly hardy there's still time to swim if you pick a sunny day with calm air or a south wind. Within a week of Christmas for some years running, I tested the Atlantic a three-hour drive from Washington. Older now (and unable to go at the drop of a warm front), this year I swam long enough to get wet all over within a week of Thanksgiving.

On ordinary winter days, it's enough to just explore the empty, eerie strand. Gales have blown the light sand away, leaving dark layers of heavier grains and minute mesas, each one topped with a tiny crag of broken shell. Make no mistake: The bitter winds that carve these tiny mountains can take your breath away. The winter walker sometimes finds the kind of cold that freezes seas and only an hour's steaming bath can cure. But what rare luxury -- to soak with cold glass of warming rum while reading a field guide, something one rarely finds the time to do.

All that said, there are perils as dire for the beachcomber between now and April as for any blond who falls asleep under a summer sun. Most involve the amenities of food, drink and shelter, though some have to do with nature. For instance, there's a law that states, "On a cold beach everything that can get wet probably won't dry out by morning." Thus the easy corollary: "Take an extra of everything." Pack one more pair of rough shoes, socks, old wool pants, etc. than you think you'll need. Next, while you can forget sunburn as a problem -- the sun's up shorter hours and lower in the sky to boot -- watch out for windburn. And mind the cold; pack a hot thermos for your longer walks.

As for difficulties not involved with nature, remember the establishments that stay open all winter can be as eccentric as their winter clients. Because so many places do close, the motels that stay open may be empty one weekend and full the next.

The trouble, for the traveler, is the inconsistency from place to place and week to week. A sales convention in a large beach resort can almost fill the better beds. In a smaller town a few student groups on science trips can take all the rooms. I remember walking the Ocean City boardwalk an hour after dark one winter night and not seeing another soul, while the hotels cried for guests like hungry gulls. But down the road at Chincoteague, every room was full for a decoy carnival or somesuch.

Restaurants can be just as erratic. Chincoteague's Channel Bass Inn, which lays a good table (at alarming prices), is closed several days a week. Blocks away Klaus Luehning, new owner/chef of the old Beachway, offers superb salt oysters, nicely broiled fish and sublime pastries every day at lower rates. But since he opens by dawn, on quiet nights he might lock up by 8 in order to practice what he calls a newly necessary skill, "sleeping fast."

Thus the simple rule of the winter beach: Call ahead to book a room or a meal. You'll learn whether your favorite place of two summers ago is (a) open, (b) run by the same people, (c) operating the way it did. Chincoteague has suffered several invasions in recent years: by salad bars, for example, and liquor by the drink.

To our greater surprise, virtually every motel within miles now prohibits pets. Ignorant of the new rule, we were saved from eviction only when the Driftwood's desk clerk took Dickens, our mutt, home for the night. By comparison, the Sheraton Beach Inn in Virginia Beach welcomed the dog (or at least permitted him), and even enthroned him in the restaurant on a banquette with a water view. (Of course, they weren't very busy. This time of year the help often outnumbers clientele.) Better yet, the soup really was homemade, and the fresh shrimp and crab cooked with skill, if not genius.

(Having scorned beachfront motels in my childless past, I now admit they can be a blessing when an infant has you in tow. Tim loves playing in the sand and chasing the inconstant gulls. But he likes amenities from plastic pails to a portable crib. It's all very well to hike with him in the backpack, but the closer to the ocean one stays, the easier it is for Dad. Now I see the point of digs right on the beach.)

In plain places, don't expect the fancy. Don's Restaurant and Fish Market offers hearty breakfasts -- if insistently simple ones -- favored by Chincoteague fishermen. The three-meal menu offered omelets for breakfast and oyster dinners. Could an oyster omelet then be had? The boss answered with one loud word: "No!"

This all suggests a rule that might hold true half the time. Quaint establishments can be charming or irksome, depending on your mood, while chains can be counted on to keep up to their national norm; if they allow pets and kids in Oshkosh, they'll do the same in Ocean City. On the down side, a chain motel at the beach will seem the same as one inland. Choose it for midlevel quality, or gamble on a local inn for color and distinction.

As for food, another rule applies -- or no rule at all. With fishing boats pulling up outside the door, you'd think that local eateries would offer splendid cooking. Not always. Too many shoreside cooks have been seduced by microwave salesmen with scandalous results and turn sea scallops into cloying, clinging wads of rubber. In winter more than summer -- because some tonier places do close -- it can be even harder to find good seafood. Let reputation be your guide. Ask several locals and hope two of them agree; if three call the same place "the best on the island" (any island), chances are it's good by city standards.

As for the beaches easily reached from Washington, they can be as unforgettably beautiful as anywhere. One recent morning a west wind howled loud enough at the bayside Coast Guard station to raise a small craft warning (a huge crimson pennant, if you've never seen one). But in the island's lee the ocean was calm, unruffled. Only a rising tide and groundswell drove the waves ashore in straight ranks that rose into perfect arcs, then crested to throw wisps of spray toward Spain, beyond the pristine horizon.

By late afternoon the whole world's palette had turned to muted tones: a gray ocean under an ashen sky. Even the beach grass had lost its green, while the laurel and pines became silhouettes. Then, as dusk arrived, beneath the blue-black western sky two slivers of scarlet flamed bright as blood in stunning spectacle, promising a perfect winter day.

The beach abides in winter, with moods and grandeur never seen in warmer months. So hit the shore this month, before another season brings other beauty. Right now's the best time to go this time of year.