A wet and gray Fourth of July dampened the spirits of hundreds of thousands of vacationers at the the popular holiday spots along the Virginia, Maryland and Delaware shores yesterday, even sending some motel and hotel guests home earlier than they had planned.

"It's disappointing. It's the forces of nature and you can't do anything about it," Stella Yiannitsis, manager of The Sunview Motel in Rehoboth Beach, De., said yesterday, noting that "it rained like this last year" during a fireworks display.

Like many other resort-area owners whose establishments were hit hard by the holiday weekend precipitation, Yiannitsis said the Sunview featured plenty of long and sour faces and expressions of a desire to return home if the weather didn't clear. While there was no mass exodus, Yiannitsis said many of her guests would probably be checking out early unless the weather got significantly better. There were only a few vacationers out walking along the boardwalk, and they were loaded down with umbrellas and raincoats.

Down the shoreline several miles, at the 120-room Holiday Inn along the waterfront in Ocean City, Md. -- where fireworks, the boardwalk and Jan and Dean were the main holiday attractions -- clerk Cheryl Lewis said the motel was booked full despite "a couple of checkouts" and the willingness of other guests to pack up and head for home. One reason many others decided to stay and brave the rainy weather, Lewis said, was because "we don't give refunds."

Lewis said she and other staff members spent the early part of yesterday lending a sympathetic ear to guests who, depressed about the rain and the curtailment of activities, "come down to the desk and ask what they can do." Many took the staff's advice to enjoy the hotel's game room, indoor swimming pool, restaurant and lounge as alternatives until the weather cleared.

Lewis said that unless the rain stopped by yesterday afternoon, many guests' last chance for any outdoor Fourth celebration would be the evening fireworks display, providing the weather improved by then.

At Virginia Beach, some people were following the lead of a family of four from New Jersey who suddenly checked out of their hotel yesterday morning and headed back home, depressed about the wet holiday. But Naomi Bort, a front desk clerk at the Ramada Inn, said most of the guests on the waterfront had "really good spirits" about the weather.

"A lot of people are finding other things to do, like going on tours and shopping trips," Bort said yesterday. "We still have people coming in asking for rooms."

Bort said most other people weren't giving up so easily there, because "I think they're waiting for it to clear up and they'll be right on the beach."

Linda Midkiff, the manger of the Howard Johnson's on the Virginia Beach waterfront, said there were "very, very few checkouts" at her hotel because of the early rains yesterday. Most of the 400 guests there slept late, she said, and didn't get up until it had begun clearing by midday.

While yesterday's rain was driving some vacationers away from the hotels and resorts where they had made reservations some months in advance, it was also driving some to other inns to escape the rain.

Susan Neighbors, a clerk at the Hilton in Lynchburg, in the Blue Ridge mountains, said "quite a few walk-ins off the highway" have inquired about vacancies while on their way elsewhere.

"It's been raining here for three days," she said.

A switchboard operator at the Williamsburg Hilton and Conference Center said that establishment has also received "more walk-ins than usual" because of the weather. John Gorman, a reservationist at the Fort Magruder Quality Inn in Williamsburg, said the sun was just beginning to break out there by midday and the holiday influx there was normal. Most of the hotel's guests were sticking to their plans to go downtown or to Busch Gardens yesterday, rain or shine, he said.

According to the National Weather Service, it will probably be rain.