OCEAN CITY, MD. -- "This is where the action is," Walter Gunessever proclaimed as he patrolled the bustling honky-tonk boardwalk here on a Saturday afternoon. He is a hefty, muscular 19-year-old, looking for excitement and contemplating his chances in the next day's "Best Body on the Beach" contest.

He was up from Vienna with three other body AT THE BEACH Another in a series of occasional articles builders who work out at the Spartan Gym there. "I've been to Rehoboth {Beach} and I don't like it," he said. "There's a lot more exciting things going on here."

Twenty-four miles north in Rehoboth Beach, Del., on the same sandy coast on the same afternoon, Don Perrault of Laurel sat on a shaded veranda on a tree-lined street, his feet on the railing and his 10 1/2-month-old daughter Heather on his knee. "It's smaller and a little less hectic than in Ocean City," he said. "I guess since I have little ones now, I don't have as much time for nightlife. It's less crowded here, and it's one of the nicest things about Rehoboth."

The sand and the sea are much the same in Delaware and Maryland beach resorts, and a sunny weekend leaves each beach just as crowded with sun-seekers from the District, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

But there are stark differences when you step off the beach to the boardwalk, the streets, the hotels, shops and restaurants. From the bustling boardwalk of Ocean City, through the quiet beaches of Bethany, to the shady streets and expensive shops of Rehoboth, each resort has its own flavor and its own supporters returning to familiar tastes, year after year.

For some, the beach means the boardwalk, and the boardwalk in Ocean City is the real thing: the smell of french fries and suntan oil in the air, teen-agers packing video arcades, families riding the Ferris wheel and carnival men threatening to guess the weight and age of passing women.

There's a rough, redneck side of the city that draws punks, motorcycle gangs and people with lots of tattoos. There's also a lot of general unexplained weirdness. For example, at a sports equipment shop on the boardwalk one recent afternoon, a crowd gathered around a man with a golf putter in one hand and a microphone in the other conducting a high-decibel interview with a shaggy tattooed professional wrestler named "The Bounty Hunter." It wasn't clear what the interview was about.

Still, Ocean City is big enough for lots of different types of people. While young toughs loitered outside the Purple Moose Saloon, elderly couples relaxed on the verandas of old boarding houses a few blocks up the boardwalk.

Colleen and Jim Brown strolled down the boardwalk with their 1 1/2-year-old daughter Abby one recent afternoon, and said that Ocean City is the best beach between Delaware and North Carolina. They'd tried Rehoboth, he said, "but there wasn't too much to do . . . . The rooms at Rehoboth were too expensive."

"Rehoboth is probably a little more restful if you want something like that," Colleen Brown said. "I'm 24 and he's 27. We're still young. This is fast-paced, but not too fast-paced."

A trip north on Ocean Highway through the narrow 10-mile stretch of Ocean City. There are bars and nightclubs and motels crowded together beneath neon signs: "Vacancy. No Vacancy. Steamed Crabs. Funland. Beer. We Got Kegs."

On the west, bay side of Ocean City are mobile home parks, amusement parks and small houses to rent. Farther north near 100th Street high-rise condominiums and hotels loom like cliffs above the beaches and advertise their nightclub acts on flashing roadside marquees.

And then suddenly past 145th Street is a sign by the side of the road, put up by the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce:

"The Quiet Resorts." This is Delaware, and the highway narrows and the crowds thin quickly. There are antique and tackle shops in Fenwick and large wooden beach houses on the edge of the sand. South of Bethany are a few high-rise condominiums but off the highway, in the small town of Bethany Beach, it is clear that Ocean City is left behind.

There is a five and dime store, and a few small stores and restaurants, but little else. There are no shops, food stands or entertainment on the short boardwalk -- just neatly painted white benches.

"I come to the beach to get away from things," said Jeanette McDermott, 33, of Dumfries, Va., who was sitting on one of these benches Friday afternoon. "Bethany is smaller and has less people than the other places," she said. "Ocean City is just too crowded, and Rehoboth is the same way. It's just craziness on the boardwalk, with people running into you."

At night in Bethany, "it's just empty," she said. "It's beautiful. You can take a long walk along the beaches. That's real serenity. The others -- Ocean City and Rehoboth -- just don't cut it."

"It's quieter and more personable and it's cleaner" than the other resorts, said Jennifer Erb, 18, of Philadelphia who was walking along the boardwalk last Saturday. Her family spends a week at Bethany every year. "There's not much to do at night, but overall I like it better," she said.

About six miles farther north is another small resort town called Dewey Beach, which is known as the place to party. It attracts rowdy beach-house groups of young professionals from the Washington area, and its bars are known as some of the liveliest north of Ocean City.

But some Dewey Beach regulars say the visitors there are getting older, tamer and more prosperous. Rental prices are going up and last year, after much debate, the City Council voted to ban drinking on the beach -- the last resort in this area to do so. However, a proposal to change the town's raucous image by changing its motto -- "Dewey Beach: A Way of Life" -- was defeated.

But Dewey has far to go before it reaches the gentrification and orderliness of Rehoboth, just two miles farther north. Rehoboth has a small boardwalk, with food stands and amusement rides, but just a few yards away the streets are quiet and the restaurants and shops -- including antique and art shops -- are upscale. Unlike the other resorts, there is a significant year-round population, and many of the houses are large, tree-shaded and well-kept.

Mayor John Hughes says he has watched his town become wealthier and more stable over the years. "There's no question there's a very strong geriatric component in our year-round population now," he said, and "a cocktail circuit that's pretty highfalutin."

With the accompanying high property prices, Hughes said, the boardwalk has asssumed greater importance as a source of cheap entertainment for younger visitors. "I once thought it was a liability," he said. "But if it wasn't there, we'd lose family groups."

But no resort will please everybody. "They are all equally the pits," declared Archie Davis, who was sitting at a bar in Rehoboth Friday afternoon with his wife Amy Fradel.

Fradel and Davis, a New Zealander who has lived in the United States for several years, come to Rehoboth about once every two years. Davis complained that all the beaches were crowded and littered, offered poor quality food, and refused to allow nudity or even topless bathing.

But Davis and Fradel have concluded it doesn't really matter, and they keep coming back. "I'm from Maryland," Fradel said. "My family always came to Rehoboth, and so I always do. You have to do these things."

"It's a ritual," he explained. "You just don't necessarily do it because you enjoy it. It probably doesn't really have anything to do with having a good time."