From north to south, here's a look at what makes Delaware and Maryland beach towns special.
Lewes: Quiet Charm
Unlike the beaches bordering the Atlantic Ocean, Lewes—pronounced “loo-iss” if you want to sound like a local—lies beside the quiet waters of the Delaware Bay. Its beaches sit just beyond a stretch of sand dunes and low-lying shrubs. One of the quietest destinations in the area, Lewes’ beach has no boardwalk and attracts families who prefer to watch their kids swim without fear of the ocean’s undertow. Lewes offers a wide variety of water activities suited to the bay, including sunset cruises, fishing charters and ecotours.
Founded in 1631, Lewes’ historic downtown sets it apart from the rest of the Delaware and Maryland beaches. The brick-lined streets and well-preserved clapboard and shingles of the sea captains’ homes feel more like Cape Cod than Delaware. Kensington resident Morris Antonelli and his family often travel by motorboat from their home in North Shores to Lewes. “Lewes has a feel unlike any of the other beach towns,” Antonelli says. “It has the historic buildings and nautical atmosphere of a charming New England town.”
Unique shops and an array of restaurants provide respite from the sun. Within walking distance of the beach and the Lewes and Rehoboth Canal, the town’s Victorian bed and breakfasts and romantic inns provide nontraditional beach lodging.
“The greatest thing about Lewes,” says Laurie Bronstein of Lewes Realty, “is that you can be close to the louder action of the other beaches, but you don’t have to be in it.” Lewes is just a 20-minute drive from the more active Rehoboth Beach. Andy New, a Bethesdan who owns a house in Dewey Beach, likes the new bike path that links Lewes to Rehoboth. “It’s probably the best eight-mile bike ride the beach has to offer,” he says.
Henlopen and North Shores: Natural Beauty
East of Lewes, where the Delaware Bay meets the ocean, Cape Henlopen State Park has wide-open public beaches and sand dunes that constantly shift from the wind. The park’s main attractions include tree-lined paved trails for hiking and biking, the Seaside Nature Center and sweeping vistas courtesy of original World War II observation towers. A few small residential beach communities—including North Shores and Henlopen Acres—are located nearby, just south of the park.
Chevy Chase residents and third-generation beachgoers Erica Antonelli and husband John Charles met playing Frisbee on the North Shores beach and later married in Rehoboth. “We love North Shores,” says Antonelli, sister of Morris Antonelli. “The beach is not crowded—people play catch and Smash Ball, boogie board and raft. We go back and forth across the street from the North Shores pool to the beach during the day.” Houses and townhouses can be bought or rented in North Shores and provide access to the pool, tennis courts and parking.
Rehoboth: Something for Everyone
Rehoboth Beach is the largest of the Delaware beaches and the place to go for boardwalk-strolling, shopping, dining, seaside entertainment—and dolphin sightings. Rehoboth is much larger than Dewey or Bethany, but smaller than Ocean City. The iconic Dolle’s Salt Water Taffy marks the intersection of Rehoboth Avenue and the mile-long boardwalk that houses eateries, T-shirt shops, arcades and the Funland amusement center, run by four generations of the Fasnacht family since 1962. “Rehoboth is family,” says patriarch Al Fasnacht. “Customers who rode the rides as children bring their children and grandchildren back.” And ride tickets remain a bargain at 30 cents apiece.
“One of the things I like most about Rehoboth is that its residents and guests come from all walks of life,” says Skip Faust of Coldwell Banker Realty. Bethesdan Andy New agrees: “Where else can you see a mix of families, a vibrant gay community, blue bloods, retirees, grunge skim-boarders and college singles all living together without culture wars or animosity?”
Amenities and activities run the gamut. In addition to the boardwalk, Rehoboth is host to a significant downtown retail area where surf shops are interspersed among gourmet stores, boutiques and espresso bars. From a slice of pizza on the boardwalk to downtown’s award-winning restaurants serving upscale cuisine, Rehoboth offers more than 100 dining options. In the evening, there are family concerts at the boardwalk’s bandstand, while bars and restaurants offer jazz and other live music. During the season when the beach gets crowded, parking downtown— especially on Rehoboth Avenue—can be an issue. On rainy days, the crowd heads to the complex of outlets on Route 1.
Many appreciate the safety of Rehoboth. Bethesda resident Cindy Crane began her beach adventures in a Dewey Beach house full of 20-somethings. Now she and her husband, Tony, bring their two children, ages 14 and 12, to their house in Rehoboth, where the kids can ride their bikes and skateboards to the boardwalk. “They like the independence,” Crane says, “and I like feeling that they’re in a safe environment.”
Dewey Beach: Love the Nightlife
One mile long and only three blocks wide, Dewey Beach actually is a sandbar flanked by the ocean and Rehoboth Bay. Dewey has long enjoyed its reputation as the beach town with the nightlife. Popular hotspots include Rusty Rudder, with steel and rock bands on weekends, and Bottle & Cork, which brings to town top performers such as Dave Matthews, Buddy Guy and Ziggy Marley.
Many of Dewey’s motels and small hotels house college students throughout the summer; among the area’s older homes, high-end properties have sprung up as more families show an interest in the locale. Given its party reputation, “not many people think ‘family community’ and Dewey Beach belong in the same sentence,” says Andy New of Bethesda, whose beach home is in Dewey’s Seagate neighborhood. “But we have a community complete with bonfires, crab feasts and barbecues,” he says. One of Dewey’s biggest assets is its small size. “My kids can walk or ride their bikes absolutely anywhere,” says New. “They have freedom at the beach that we don’t give them at home.”
Bethany Beach: Family Time
Family-friendly Bethany Beach is smaller, less commercial and quieter than Rehoboth Beach. It has a half-mile boardwalk, a four-block downtown area and a small stretch of beach that clears out around dinnertime—although it draws quite a daytime crowd during the season. “The best thing about Bethany,” says Lauren Alberti of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, “is that you don’t have to live on the ocean to be on the ocean.” Because Bethany is a small town, anyone can walk or ride a bike to the beach in minutes. And the action isn’t far: just 20minutes north to Rehoboth and 30 minutes south to Ocean City.
Bethany’s older neighborhoods are full of returning Bethesda-area families—some in their third and fourth generations. Karol Keane, who lives in Silver Spring, began visiting Bethany as a child. “Back then,” she laughs, “Rehoboth Beach was considered a long drive.” Each summer, Keane and her six siblings rent houses together in Bethany and, for Keane, the best part is seeing her children enjoy what she enjoyed as a child. Some favorites, like the 10 pancake varieties at the Frog House Family Restaurant and the sand and surf accessories at Rhodes 5&10 on the main drag, still remain. Others, like the funky Blue Surf Motel, are disappearing to make way for million-dollar condos and retail development.
Sandy Strawn of Potomac has been vacationing in Bethany as far back as she can remember. In 2000, she and husband Ron bought a condo on Rehoboth Bay. “My kids wait all school year for the beach,” Strawn says. She loves the smallness of Bethany and their community of beach friends—families from Baltimore or Northern Virginia they reconnect with every summer. “I just feel so okay with my kids hanging out here,” she says. Being bayside means the family is not tied to the beach. The kids fish, crab and ride jet skis on the bay. “It’s a happy, happy place,” she says.
Ocean City: The Roar of the Crowd
Ocean City’s 10-mile stretch of beach is divided into two distinct areas—northern Ocean City where the beaches are wider and less crowded and southern Ocean City encompassing downtown and the boardwalk. Potomac resident Rita Wertlieb and her husband purchased their condo in northern Ocean City 20 years ago. “We chose Ocean City because we like to relax and rest at the beach, but we also wanted things to do,” she says. With children in high school at the time, the Wertliebs liked the public buses that transported the kids—and now the grandkids—to the boardwalk. “There’s so much for them here,” Wertlieb says. “The beach, the pool and theaters, restaurants and shopping are just across the street.” Terry Riley of Remax Premier Properties agrees. He moved his family to Ocean City in 2003 and says: “It’s the only beach where teens can do so much, but not have to get in and out of the car after being shuttled around by mom and dad.”
David Stevens of Bethesda spent childhood summers swimming for the Ocean Pines Hammerheads swim team. His father commuted, arriving Thursday evening and leaving Monday morning. “Thirty years later, I find myself doing exactly the same,” says Stevens, “and my kids are now Hammerheads.” Kensington’s Joe Ralston also grew up spending summers at the beach. “Every afternoon, the kids organized neighborhood volleyball and wiffle-ball games and adults watched as they cocktailed from our front deck,” he says. He and his siblings now bring their families to Ocean City. “My parents did us a great service by keeping the beach house in our family for us to use today and for us to hand down to our children,” Ralston adds.
Beachgoers who crave the roar of the surf, the excitement of the crowd and a carnival atmosphere head south to the three-mile Ocean City boardwalk— packed with hotels, shops, amusements and places to eat. Think fries, funnel cakes and frozen custard. Trimper’s Rides & Amusements, family-owned for more than 100 years, includes a 1902 carousel with hand-carved animals. The Coastal Highway, which parallels the shoreline, sports an overwhelming collection of mini-golf courses, go-kart tracks, laser tag facilities, water parks, surf shops, restaurants and stores. “Many people vacation where it’s quieter,” says Jamie Caine of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, “but I guarantee you they’ll come down here at some point because we’ve just got so much to do.”
Gabriele McCormick frequently writes about travel for Bethesda Magazine.