Hey, all you Outer Banks snobs who wouldn't be caught dead in Ocean City: Take another look. Martini menus, eco-tourism cruises, cigar bars and amenity-heavy resorts are springing up faster than funnel cakes at Maryland's only oceanfront community. But don't worry too much, O.C. old-timers: $1.50 draft beers, half-day fishing boat trips and piles of blue crabs laid out on brown paper are still a part of the landscape.
Ocean City, with its 10 miles of beaches and nearly three miles of boardwalk, has been a favorite shore destination for D.C. residents since it was founded as a fishing village 130 years ago. Packed with affordable hotels and cheap eateries, it's traditionally attracted a blue-collar, budget-minded family crowd interested in lying on the beach, strolling the boardwalk, playing mini-golf and eating bad-for-you-but-delicious food. But lately it's been discovered by a more upscale clientele attracted by the area's wide beach, proximity to Washington, challenging golf courses and . . . bad-for-you-but-delicious food.
Drive into Ocean City one week and it'll look a little different the next: An old building will have been torn down, or a new one risen. The relentless growth has not been painless. Take a group of six out for dinner on a Friday night and you may wait three hours for a table. Want to take a run on the boardwalk? Better do it before 10 a.m., before the throngs hit. And if your goal is to laze all day on a patch of prime beach in July, better get up early to stake out your turf.
And yet, somehow, it works. When the restaurant wait is long, folks sit at the bar, order an appetizer and watch the sun set. When the boardwalk is crowded, they wend their way through with smiles, nods and excuse me's. No matter how thick the crowd, the beach stays family-friendly with enforced ordinances that prohibit drinking and excessive noise. Gristled bandanaed bikers, Docker-wearing dads, pierced and tatooed teens and Expedition-driving suburbanites easily coexist in a town where everyone's edges seem worn soft by the sun and surf.
* BEST BREAKFAST
The line to eat breakfast at General's Kitchen House of Chipped Beef starts forming early. If you're not up to a heaping plate of creamed chipped beef, the usual eggs, hash browns and bacon are also dished up by the friendly and efficient servers. Bring your baseball cap for inclusion with the hundreds of others that line the wall, and they'll exchange it for one with the restaurant's logo.
74th Street and Coastal Highway, 410-723-0477. Breakfast from $5.
HONORABLE MENTION: You'll usually find at least one of the city's finest eating a platter of eggs at the Satellite Coffee Shop (46th Street and Coastal Highway, 410-723-1426). And anyplace cops eat breakfast is a good bet.
* BEST MEAL TOURISTS DON'T KNOW ABOUT
Harborside in West Ocean City is open year-round, proof that not just tourists are eating here. The casual dining room opens to a canal where you can watch the fishing boats come and go. Get away cheap by ordering off the lunch menu, available any time. Purists would say the crab cakes have too much filler, but the thick slice of real tomato, not-too-salty french fries and $10.99 price tag, topped off with a signature Orange Crush drink and always-attentive service, make it a winner.
12841 Harbor Rd., 410-213-1846, www.ocharborside.com.
HONORABLE MENTION: Smoker's BBQ Pit (on Route 611 off Route 50, West Ocean City, 410-213-0040, www.smokersbbqpit.com), has the best baby back ribs around -- just ask the local construction workers standing in line to get a slab.
* BEST STRETCH OF BEACH
The 10 blocks from 65th to 75th streets sport only one high-rise hotel and no boardwalk. Couple this low density with the wideness of the beach, and you can usually secure an adequate piece of sand to spread your blanket. At 67th Street, music from the Holiday Inn wafts over the beach, and the hotel's bar is a welcome oasis. The downside? Limited parking.
* BEST LOCAL SNACK
At the Fractured Prune, owner Colleen Kaufman is a doughnut psychologist. If you're overwhelmed by which of the 19 flavors to order, she'll ask you: Is the crowd mostly older? (The over-50 crowd likes 'em dipped in fruit.) Are the kids boys or girls? (Girls like sprinkles, boys go for chocolate.) Your beach crowd will polish off a dozen still-warm doughnuts hand-dipped in everything from Oreos to graham cracker crumbs.
28th Street and Coastal Highway, 410-289-1134, or 127th Street and Coastal Highway, 410-250-4400, www.fracturedprune.com. $7.25 a dozen.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: If you've spent a lifetime of summers in O.C., you're yelling, "How could they not have picked Thrasher's french fries?" or "What about Fishers popcorn?" We like 'em, too.
Fishers (410-289-5638, www.fisherspopcorn.com) is on the boardwalk at Talbot Street. Thrasher's (410-289-4150) has several locations on the boardwalk.
* BEST PIZZA
You can't get good pizza south of the Jersey shore, right? Wrong. Head to Lombardi's, where the crust folds just right and a very light sheen of grease glistens on the not-too-gooey mozzarella and savory marinara sauce.
94th Street and Coastal Highway, 410-524-1961, www.lombardisrestaurant.com. $11.75 for a large cheese pizza.
HONORABLE MENTION: Tony's Pizza and Ocean Deck (on the boardwalk at North Division Street, 410-289-8115), where the pizza is not only authentic, but you can order single slices ($2.54).
* BEST RAINY-DAY ACTIVITY
Carousel Resort Hotel, last in a string of high-rise hotels and condos that stretches from 94th to 117th street, stands out with an indoor ice rink open to the public. Set in a lobby that rises a dramatic five floors through the center of the hotel, the rink is small but draws a good crowd on both rainy and super-hot days.
117th Street and Coastal Highway, 800-641-0011, www.carouselhotel.com. Skating is $7 per person, including skate rental.
* BEST PLACE TO GET AWAY FROM IT ALL
There's not much to the new Isle of Wight Nature Park, but that's one of its charms. On Assawoman Bay across the bridge from O.C. proper, the 12-acre park offers picnic tables, a fishing pier, a bird-rich coastal marsh and a respite from the developed side of O.C.
St. Martins Neck Road and Route 90, 410-543-8223, www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/eastern/isleofwight.asp.
* BEST MINI-GOLF
O.C. boasts more than a dozen mini golf courses with themes from aliens to pirate ships, but Old Pro, with eight locations sprinkled from 23rd to 136th streets, is the town's head honcho of the short game. Top honors go to Old Pro's indoor/outdoor course at 68th Street; the outdoor course is crowded with giant dinosaurs, and the underwater-themed indoor course is air-conditioned.
68th Street and Coastal Highway, 410-524-2645, www.oldprogolf.com. Games start at $6 a round.
* BEST KID ACTIVITY
If the children are getting bored with the shovel-and-pail action on the beach, but you're not ready to drop another $50 at the boardwalk, head to the new tot lot at the 58-acre Northside Park. The state-of-the-art facility is free and features slides, tubes to crawl through and catwalks all kept cool by bay breezes. Staying for a week? The park offers reasonably priced kids' summer sports camps. And if your kids are the four-legged type, the park is a great place to walk Fido.
125th Street and the bay, 410- 250-0125, www.ococean.com/parks.html.
HONORABLE MENTION: Planet Maze and Laser Storm, 33rd Street and Coastal Highway (410-524-4FUN, www.planetmaze.com) has an indoor climbing maze and laser tag at prices that won't break the budget.
* BEST B&B
The oceanfront Inn on the Ocean is a gentle retreat from the frenetic boardwalk outside its front door. With its soothing blue-and-white color scheme and comfy feel, the adults-only, nonsmoking inn attracts a crowd who enjoy a little elegance with their saltwater taffy.
10th Street and the boardwalk, 888-226-6223, www.innontheocean.com. Rates start at $225 a night June 13-Sept. 5.
HONORABLE MENTION: If you like the Victorian-era look, Atlantic House (Fifth Street and Baltimore Avenue, 410-289-2333, www.atlantichouse.com)is a block off the beach and offers rooms starting at $150 in summer.
* BEST AMUSEMENT PARK RIDE
There's something cathartic about rising far above the beach crowd in your own Ferris wheel car. The squeals from riders of the roller coaster mix with the roar of the waves, but it all seems dreamily far off as you take in the sweeping views.
The Giant Wheel, on the pier at Wicomico Street, www.ocpierrides.com. $3.14 a ride.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: The 103-year-old Trimper Family Carousel is a hand-carved marvel of wooden animals that includes not only horses, but a giraffe, ostrich, lion and stork. Want more action? Try the Tidal Wave roller coaster at Trimper's, First Street and the boardwalk, 410-289-8617.
* BEST CAMPSITE
Assateague Island National Seashore and the adjacent Assateague State Park on Route 611 are several miles and a world away from O.C. Both offer camping in a natural setting, although the state campground offers more amenities, such as hot water and flush toilets. If you really want to get away, hike to one of the national seashore's backcountry sites, available first-come, first-served.
Assateague Island National Seashore, 410-641-3030, www.nps.gov/asis. Campsites $20. Assateague State Park, 410-641-2120, www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/eastern/assateague.html. Sites $30 to $40.
HONORABLE MENTION: For those who need more stuff, Frontier Town Family Campground (800-228-5590, www.frontiertown.com) in West Ocean City offers tent, RV and cabin camping with a water park, miniature golf and Wild West shows.
* BEST SINGLES SCENE
We're jammin', we're jammin', we're jammin', we're jammin' . . . sorry, the Jamaican reggae vibe at Seacrets can worm itself into your head for days after you leave. Singles from 21 to 70-plus find kindred spirits at this dance-in-the-sand resort that features a half-dozen bars, a separate nightclub and multiple bands, plus a restaurant, hotel and gift shop. Bonus: One of the best radio stations in the world -- Ocean 98.1, "Irie Radio" -- broadcasts from here.
49th Street and the bay, 410-524-4900, www.seacrets.com.
HONORABLE MENTION: The Party Block -- three clubs in a row at 17th Street and Coastal Highway, 410-289-6331, www.partyblock.com -- is a fave among the young crowd. The marquee reads, "Wednesday Bikini Contest. Guys, We Need Judges." Enough said.
* BEST TEEN SPOT
Two under-21 clubs, H20 and H202, offer different themes every night: foam parties on Sundays and Thursdays, Mardi Gras on Mondays, ladies' night on Tuesdays, a bikini beach party on Wednesdays and "the East Coast's biggest under-21 dance party" on Fridays and Saturdays. You must be age 15 to 20 to get in the door.
On Worcester Street just off the boardwalk, 410-289-7102, www.ocbeachweek.com.
HONORABLE MENTION: The testosterone levels may be a little high, but Speedworld, with 10 racing tracks, crawls with teenagers of both sexes, especially after 10 p.m. (it's open until midnight during summer). At the Jolly Roger Amusement Park, 30th Street and Coastal Highway, 410-289-6088, www.jollyrogerpark.com/speedworld, $31.99 per person for two hours of unlimited rides.
* BEST ICE CREAM
A chocolate shake at Dumser's Dairyland teamed with a cheeseburger and fries is about as close to guilt-ridden food nirvana as you can get. The 66-year-old Ocean City chain offers food at two locations, and ice cream only at several stands along the boardwalk. Vanilla soft-serve cones dipped in chocolate are a big hit, or try one of the specialty hard ice creams, such as Hawaiian Delight (cherries, pineapples and bananas in vanilla ice cream).
Various locations, including three on the boardwalk, 49th Street and Coastal Highway (410-524-1588) and 124th Street and Coastal Highway (410-250-5543); www.beach-net.com/dumsers.
HONORABLE MENTION: Rita's Ices, Cones, Shakes and Other Cool Stuff, a franchised chain with a couple of Ocean City locations, offers water ices packed with flavor, but without cholesterol or fat. Try the sugar-free tangerine. The soft-serve is also yummy.
* BEST OVERNIGHT SPLURGE
If you want to pretend you're a hot Hollywood star staying at an exclusive address in the Hamptons, try the Edge. The 12 bayside suites offer soaring ceilings, sleek decor, fireplaces, double Jacuzzi tubs, feather beds, luxury linens, wet bars and a pool, all facing sunset west on a coastal marsh. Just across a footbridge is Fager's Island Restaurant and Bar, whose owners also own the Edge and the adjacent Lighthouse Club Hotel -- also a good bet if you want to spend a little less.
The Edge, between 56th and 60th Street on the bay, 888-371-5400, www.fagers.com/edge. Rates start at $299 a night in season.
* BEST CRABS
Crab Alley, "owned and operated by local watermen," is simple, plain and perfect for spreading out the brown paper and taking the wood mallets to piles of spicy crabs. At the foot of Fisherman's Pier in West Ocean City, the restaurant is a few minutes from the heart of O.C., but that doesn't dissuade those in search of authentic crabs. It also serves good fish platters and has a fish market for those who like to cook at home.
9703 Golf Course Rd., 410-213-7800, www.craballey.com. $32.95 for all the crabs, ribs, shrimp and corn you can eat.
HONORABLE MENTION: Bahama Mamas at Wicomico Street and the bay (410-289-0291) has an all-you-can-eat crab feast with crab soup, corn on the cob, barbecued chicken, rolls and butter for $23.95. No wonder the bayfront restaurant is packed with former high school football players.
* BEST HAPPY HOUR
If you're not allergic to cigarette smoke and you want to immerse yourself in a bar packed with regulars, go to Fish Tales, where the lively crowd makes up for the lack of live music (not allowed because of nearby residences) with laughter and loud conversation. Call drinks are reduced from $3.75 to $2.50 during happy hour, from 4 to 7 p.m., and a can of domestic beer is $2.
22nd Street and the bay, 410-289-0990, www.ocfishtales.com.
HONORABLE MENTION: Macky's (410-723-5565) at 54th Street and the bay, is a better bet if you're under 30. It's got the usual reduced drink prices from 4 to 7 p.m., plus you can follow it up with a nice meal on a table set in the sand.
* BEST SOUVENIR
Forget the cheesy T-shirt. The Courtesy Shop on the boardwalk sells the collectible line of Cat's Meow 3-D illustrations of Ocean City landmarks. You'll be glad you have that memento of the Wac-a-Mole game when there's a foot of snow on the ground.
Talbot Street on the boardwalk, 410-289-9228, www.courtesyshopoc.com. Prices from $10 to $20.
Ocean City aficionados Karyn Basle, Lance Gilbert and Guy Holcomb contributed to this story.