A Washingtonian’s summer vacation looks like this, and it basically has not changed in 40 years:
You pile in the Subaru, drive 2½ hours (or four, depending on how well you timed your departure), and you’re in a place like Rehoboth Beach, Del., a town of 1,300 that swells to 60,000 some weekends. There, you hit the beach, eat pizza at one of the local joints, go back to the beach. Then you head to your rental for a shower and some balm for the sunburn. Then out for some crab cakes and a boardwalk stroll. Then it’s time for bed. It goes on like that for a week, punctuated by stops for ice cream, caramel popcorn and salty fries. Then you pile the folding chairs and boogie boards back in the car and head home.
The laid-back, traditional and even kitsch getaway couldn’t be more different from the world many of these vacationers leave, the urban landscape with hipster-foodie hot spots, coffee shops to fuel long workdays and commuter-clogged streets.
Like a lot of beach towns, “Slower Lower Delaware” seems to relish its ability to resist change.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Chip Hearn, who owns the popular Ice Cream Store off the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk, chatted with a regular sporting a University of Richmond shirt. Afterward, he declared, “Now, there’s a perfect sign of Rehoboth Beach.”
“That guy, he’s a multi-skidillionaire,” said Hearn, who was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. “Did he look like it? Did he act like it? Was there any pretension? No.”
Rehoboth Beach’s year-round population has hovered around 1,500 since the 1940s, according to census data. The businesses here have not changed much over the decades, either. Locals will point out a shop called Browseabout Books, established in 1975, and three pizzerias that have divided pizza-eaters here for years (Louie’s, Grotto and Nicola, which Hearn calls the “big three”). There’s the 31-year-old Beach Arcade and 55-year-old Funland, an amusement park. Hearn founded the Ice Cream Store in the mid-’70s after selling Italian ice on the boardwalk in high school. Dolle’s taffy store dates to 1910.
People’s identities are tied to these places. “I grew up eating Louie’s pizza, and I judge every slice of pizza on that,” said Beach Arcade manager Matt Weiner, whose father founded the arcade.
Weiner said the folks who vacation here view trips to his arcade, and most everywhere else in Rehoboth Beach, as a tradition. They look forward to the familiar.
“Every year, they like coming back and doing that same traditional thing they like and reliving the memories from previous years,” Weiner said. “A family — we have this elephant kids’ ride — and they send me a picture of their kids every year on the ride from the time they were, like, 3 years old. Now they’re, like, 26.”
When people come to Rehoboth Beach, they want nostalgia. That’s a key reason foodie trends like cold-brew coffee, fusion food and fancy drinks in Mason jars aren’t really seen there.
Businesses like that try to open every summer but usually fail quickly. There’s a lot of turnover in Rehoboth Beach, Hearn said.
“Every year, more and more ice cream places open, and every year, three of them close,” Hearn said. “Last year, it was crepes. This year, it’s juice bars. Four to five of them have opened, and they won’t be here next year.”
Charlie Browne, a lawyer and Rehoboth Beach resident, offered another explanation between bites of his salad during a recent Sunday brunch at Back Porch Cafe, a 42-year-old restaurant.
“I think it’s hard for businesses to make it here that are rental,” Browne said. “A fairly small number of people own the majority of the businesses here, and they’ve probably bought the real estate a long time ago.”
Browne presides over the Rehoboth Beach Homeowners’ Association. He said many business open only to get hit with a rent hike the next year; there’s a lot of demand for spaces near the beach, and little open land.
“There’s a little bakery up by the library, and I hear they’re closing,” Browne said. “The health food store next to it closed because the landlord, he decided he wanted to do something else.”
As a result, the commercial district here is always changing and never changing. Certain buildings seem to perpetually house businesses hoping to serve the trend du jour. This year, it is the Twist Juice Bar and Dreamer Coffee and Juice Bar.
Lisa Young, manager at the Ice Cream Store, eyed the store next to her before her shift one Saturday night. “This place next door to us has probably been five different places in the 20 years I’ve worked here,” she said.
Allen Fasnacht, part of the founding family of Funland, noted that his park is in its fifth generation. His 7-year-old great-granddaughter is restocking prizes. The rest, he said with a smile, are ride testers.
Said Fasnacht of Rehoboth Beach’s appeal, “Its popularity can be traced to nostalgia.”
Fasnacht helped found the place in 1962, but on a recent Sunday, he was doing trash duty. The 87-year-old works almost every day. When he’s not at Funland, he said, “I sit upstairs and twiddle my thumbs and wish I was workin’.”
Sharon Lynn, city manager of Rehoboth Beach, said the local government enacts a slew of ordinances and codes every year to maintain the community’s “seaside charm.”
“A lot of diligent work on the part of the mayor, the commissioners and the city staff make Rehoboth Beach this very special, charming place,” Lynn said. “It’s a lot of effort to do these things, and sometimes, it’s not a popular thing.”
One example is the pool ordinance. In June 2015, the city discussed banning the use of pools at rental home properties. They fretted becoming like nearby Dewey Beach or Ocean City, where partying 20-somethings hoot and holler during week-long drinking binges.
More than 100 people showed up for a City Hall meeting sporting matching T-shirts that read “Save Our Nation’s Summer Capital.” After months of debate, voters agreed to put a halt on building summer pools.
A slew of other ordinances have shaped what Rehoboth Beach is today. Most pertinent, the city voted in the mid-1990s to limit the number of high-rises. A few such condos house vacationers, but the skyline has otherwise remained low. Residents voted to ban smoking on the boardwalk two years ago, and you can’t drink on the beach.
Upon hiring Lynn in 2014, Rehoboth Beach Mayor Samuel R. Cooper saidthat “we weren’t looking for somebody to change things.”
The plan seems to have worked. Locals were hard-pressed to think of how the city has changed.
“Gosh, I really don’t know,” said Young, who moved to Rehoboth Beach at 13 from central Pennsylvania. “To me, it kind of seems the same. There are new business every year, but otherwise, it’s just about coming down to the beach and eating and having fun.”