Ditching the never-ending streams of traffic for a steady line of passing dolphins isn’t difficult for residents of the Washington area. More than a dozen beachfront communities, each sporting a different vibe, are within a half-day drive. Here’s a look at some of our favorites, covering a little something for every type of beach lover.
Ocean City, N.J. : The Jersey Shore Ocean City is a tad quieter than its Maryland neighbor of the same name. Founded by Methodist ministers in the late 1800s, the town remains dry: If you want an adult beverage, you’ll need to buy it outside the city limits and imbibe on private property. Recently named “Happiest Seaside Town in America 2018” by Coastal Living magazine and sporting the motto “America’s Greatest Family Resort,” it’s no surprise that Ocean City attracts family groups, many of them from the Philadelphia area, to its eight miles of beaches and 2½ -mile-long boardwalk with several blocks of rides and arcades. The wholesome vibe is boosted by a folksy calendar of events kicked off each May by the 40-plus-year tradition of Martin Z. Mollusk, the city’s hermit crab mascot, doing his rendition of Groundhog Day. (3-4 hours)
Wildwood, N.J. : Aptly named, this busy resort got on the map in the 1950s and 1960s as the Garden State Parkway was completed and a restless postwar generation went looking for a fun-in-the-sun escape. Once known as Little Las Vegas, the town’s claims to fame include Bill Haley & His Comets performing “Rock Around the Clock” live for the first time in 1954 and Chubby Checker introducing “The Twist” at the Rainbow Club, a ’60s hot spot. The Doo Wop Motel District, featuring lots of neon and “Jetsons”-style architecture, reflects the area’s storied past. Today, a mix of young people in search of a good time and boomers reliving their glory days hit the wide beach during the day and the dozens of bars and clubs — as well as Morey’s Piers, a six-block amusement park with 100-plus rides and attractions — at night. New this year, the dog-and-kid-friendly PigDog Beach Bar at Morey’s Piers. (3-4 hours)
Cape May, N.J. : One of the country’s oldest seaside resorts, Cape May is only 15 minutes from Wildwood, but their personalities couldn’t be much further apart. The entire city is designated as a National Historic District, with blocks of Victorian-style architecture, most built in the late 1800s after a fire wiped out 35 acres of downtown. Cape May sports a promenade, not a boardwalk, with a few low-key arcades, shops and candy stores. Visitors include older couples attracted by historic bed-and-breakfast inns, antique stores, live theater, and music and film festivals. Birders, who congregate at the Cape May Bird Observatory, come from all over the world, especially during spring migration, to view the more than 400 species that have been sighted here. (3-4 hours)
Lewes, Del. : Fast becoming a popular retirement community, Lewes (pronounced Loo-is) is the sleepiest and least resorty of the Delmarva beach communities, partly because of its location where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic: Its placid shore is safer for small children, but lacking in traditional ocean waves. Founded in 1631 (the town’s motto is “The First Town in the First State”), Lewes is keen on history, with a thriving historical society offering a full schedule of tours and talks. The action is concentrated along a few blocks on Second Street, and on summer evenings, parking is hard to find as locals and tourists fill the restaurants and shops. Nature lovers are drawn to nearby Cape Henlopen State Park, which also offers ocean beaches, and Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. (2-3 hours)
Rehoboth Beach, Del. : Arguably the hippest resort town within striking distance of the District, it’s the beach of choice for foodies and shoppers. Anchored by a wide main drag chockablock with upscale restaurants, art galleries and boutiques, and a boardwalk that hosts all the expected rides, arcades and fun-food stalls, Rehoboth straddles the line between old-school beach resort and four-season destination. Funland, an amusement park on the boardwalk, dates to the early 1960s, while new restaurants continue to pop up like prairie dogs. (This season, more than a half-dozen new ones will join the mix.) Events include VegFest, promoting “healthy, sustainable, and compassionate living,” and Polkamotion by the Ocean, a four-day fest full of Polka music and Polish food. Plus, Rehoboth has rainy days covered: Within a couple miles of the beach are more than 100 outlet stores, offering brands including Brooks Brothers and Build-a-Bear. (2-3 hours)
Dewey Beach, Del. : Just to the south of Rehoboth, Dewey Beach draws mostly young professionals who hit the beach during the day and the clubs at night. Water views are a big part of the appeal, as much of the town is just a couple of blocks wide, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and Rehoboth Bay. Several popular restaurants and clubs, including the Starboard, Rusty Rudder and Bottle & Cork, keep the town rocking with strong live-music lineups and flowing drinks. (Check out the Starboard’s over-the-top bloody mary bar.) The town also tries to keep families amused with beachfront Wednesday-night bonfires and Monday-night movies. It’s also the only Delmarva shore town to allow dogs on the beach during summer (before 9:30 a.m. and after 5:30 p.m.). (2-3 hours)
Bethany Beach, Del. : Walk through the streets of Bethany and there is a better-than-even chance you’ll come across a dad pulling a wagon filled with kids eating ice cream cones. It’s that kind of a family place, with a low-key, beach-cottage vibe that attracts multigenerational family groups, many of whom come back the same week each summer. The town pulls out all the stops on Independence Day: More than 1,000 children festoon their bikes with red, white and blue, and join a parade featuring marching bands, Shriners and decorated floats. A short boardwalk (sans rides), movies on the beach and a summer concert series at the bandstand complete the family-friendly picture. Bethany Beach was the first in Delmarva to prohibit smoking on public beaches — one of the few times the town made the news, which is just how visitors like it. (2-3 hours)
Ocean City, Md .: The hands-down busiest, most crowded of Delmarva’s beach communities, Ocean City’s year-round population of 8,000 grows to as many as 350,000 on a summer weekend. Vacation rental choices have a range of styles and amenities, from a full complement of hotel/motel chains to high-rise condos on the city’s northern end to the 1950s-era bungalows near the downtown inlet. Local entertainment also covers all the bases, from watching the ponies that roam wild on nearby Assateague Island to playing blackjack at Ocean Downs casino to golfing at one of the area’s 17 courses. All-you-can-eat buffets, more than 50 pizza joints and other guilty-pleasure restaurants are everywhere, but there’s also a selection of $30-an-entree spots with white tablecloths and sweeping views. The 2½ -mile-long boardwalk, with two amusement parks, equally attracts young men strutting in “Bad Decisions Make Good Stories” T-shirts and toddlers standing in long lines with Mom and Dad for the traditional Fisher’s Popcorn, Dumser’s ice cream or Thrasher’s french fries. (And don’t even think about asking for ketchup with those fries.) (2½ -3½ hours)
Chincoteague, Va. : This historic Virginia Eastern Shore town on the island of the same name sits at the entrance to the 14,000-acre Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island, established 75 years ago as habitat for migratory birds. Although newer condominiums and hotels now pepper the island, the main drag with its 1960s-era architecture retains a low-key charm. The population balloons each July when about 40,000 visitors hit town for the wild pony swim. Now in its 93rd year, the equine spectacle features Saltwater Cowboys herding dozens of horses across the narrow channel from the Virginia side of Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island. Immortalized in the beloved 1947 children’s book “Misty of Chincoteague” by Marguerite Henry, the pony swim remains the town’s most popular event. On quieter days, birders, anglers and kayakers abound, while launch days at nearby NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility draws thousands of rocket enthusiasts. (3-4 hours)
Virginia Beach : Unlike other beach communities that empty out once the kids go back to school, Virginia Beach is a year-round city with more than 400,000 residents. Yes, it has a super-wide beach and a three-mile boardwalk lined with hotels and hosting the requisite rides, arcades and ice creams, but it is also home to a multitude of museums, concert venues, historic homes and a huge National Wildlife Refuge. Indoor attractions are not just rainy-day diversions. The Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, with more than 10,000 mammals, fish, birds and reptiles, attracts more than 650,000 visitors annually. The Military Aviation Museum is home to one of the world’s largest private collections of World War I and World War II aircraft. The Veterans United Home Loans Amphitheater at Virginia Beach and the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts offer live music ranging from Imagine Dragons to Ted Nugent. And to ensure there is never a dull moment, the nonprofit Virginia Beach Neptune Festival puts on 40 events per year, culminating in the late September Boardwalk Weekend. (3-4 hours)
Duck, N.C. : Content with spending hours reading a good book on the deck of an upscale rental home or walking your dog on a wide, relatively uncrowded beach? Check out Duck, on the north side of North Carolina’s Outer Banks (OBX). This well-heeled community is big on family-owned businesses, nature-oriented pursuits and just plain relaxing. The Sanderling Resort, where rooms in high season start at nearly $500 a night, is the only hotel, so most visitors rent a private home for a week at a time. Duck’s mile-long boardwalk, part of the town-owned park, has a few blocks of shops and restaurants, but much of it meanders through natural areas. Scores of free events are offered at the 11-acre park, topped by the Duck Jazz Festival in October. And for those with fur babies, Duck’s dog rules are welcoming: “Dogs are allowed on the beach unleashed, but as a matter of public safety and courtesy, they should be under the watchful eye and contact of their owner.” (4-5 hours)
Nags Head, N.C. : OBX’s first resort, Nags Head remains one of its most popular, especially with outdoorsy types. The surf is often formidable, drawing all manner of watersports enthusiasts. (Just don’t hit the waves when the red flags are flying.) Jockey’s Ridge State Park, with its towering sand dunes, allows hang-gliding, sand-boarding and kite-flying. The Nature Conservancy’s Nags Head Woods Preserve offers hiking trails and a nature center. While there is no traditional boardwalk, the 1,000-foot-long Jennette’s Pier, part of the North Carolina Aquarium family, has aquariums, youth adventure camps and interactive science exhibits, plus great pier fishing. Just south of Nags Head is Bodie Island Lighthouse, where fit visitors can climb the 214 steps for sweeping views. For those who prefer more traditional beach resort activities, don’t fret: An outlet mall, Go-Karts and mini-golf are part of the mix. (4-5 hours)
Carol Sottili is a former Washington Post travel writer, specializing in travel deals. Find her on Twitter: @carolsottili.
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