The sun, the surf and sand will be there this summer -- and so will the hordes of people. But before you claim that you will never go downy ocean, hon, it might help to know there are ways around the madding crowd.
True, Ocean City does turn into Maryland's second-largest city during the "season" (translated June, July and August, in case you were wondering), bulging at its 10-mile-length seams with 300,000-plus. It's hard to believe that not so long ago the beach was a kinder, gentler and quieter place.
Though I'm not an O.C. local (what Ocean City residents like to be called), I have spent every summer of my fortysomething life there as a vacationer or summer worker. There was a time when driving to the 64th Street Market was a long, lonely trip up Coastal Highway, and if you traveled north at night, the only beacon you could see among the sand dunes was a blue light marking what was then Bobby Baker's Carousel Hotel on 118th Street. Now the Carousel gets lost among the sea of cement condos along that stretch.
It also doesn't seem possible that 13th Street was the uptown place to stay. It's definitely considered downtown now -- and even called old Ocean City.
But I come from an O.C.-loving family. My mother talks about her days as a teen-ager during World War II, when the lights were darkened along the ocean front to keep the beach town hidden from German subs. My grandmother had fond remembrances of beach picnics when Ocean City ended at 15th Street.
So I have saltwater in my blood and still get a thrill as I approach Ocean City and the skyline comes into view. Yes, it has become saturated with people during my lifetime, but the town still can be enjoyed.
All you need is a plan, and you're ready to lather on the SPF15, soak up the sun and pop open a cold one (not alcoholic -- there are beach rules, but more on that later).
The first things to consider are how and when to get there. Timing is everything. In general, most vacation rentals go from Saturday to Saturday, with check-in time at 3 p.m. and checkout at noon. You've probably figured out that if everyone checks in and out at the same time, there are bound to be logistical problems -- big time.
The key is to leave ahead of the pack or afterward. If you get to the Bay Bridge by 7 a.m., you'll usually have clear sailing to Ocean City. Or plan to hit the bridge around 4 p.m. and miss the rush.
Remember, too, that the Kent Narrows bridge, which opened last fall, will eliminate the often tiresome wait at the old drawbridge, so that will be a plus this summer.
Once you're over the new span, there's always the great dilemma: Do I take Route 404 or U.S. 50? Everyone has a favorite story about which is the fastest, but after years of belonging to the 404-is-best club, I've switched to 50. I got tired of daredevil passing cars on the two-lane roads and found 50, with its dual lanes, to be quicker than the Delaware route.
OK, suppose you're the early bird who arrives in O.C. long before you can check into your rental digs. Now what? First, have breakfast. There are lots of choices, from McDonald's to fancy hotel brunches, but do try Hall's on 60th Street and Coastal Highway. The price is right and the food is good.
Then, if the sun is shining, head for the beach. Many hotels are polite about visitors using the restrooms, and there are city comfort stations at the end of the boardwalk and at Ninth Street.
Ah, but where to put the car? Cars and parking are a major problem in O.C. It's hard to believe that this sleepy town of 8,500 in the winter goes from blinking lights and side streets where you could lie in the street for a long time without seeing a car to one of crazed summer drivers, where crossing Coastal Highway can be life-threatening. (Heed the warnings to "push the button, not your luck" when crossing at a stop light and never cross in mid-block. People really have been killed darting among the traffic.)
Before parking your car at one of the many meters at the inlet, contact your rental agent -- you might be able to park at the condo even before formally checking in. If not, I have great luck in finding parking spots along St. Louis Avenue from Eighth Street to 16th. It's a few blocks to the beach and, the best part, it's free.
But suppose you arrive in town and have your worst vacation nightmare. The gray dawn skies never brightened and that evil wet stuff is making bathmats out of the luggage strapped to the top of the minivan. But there really is a lot to do in O.C. in the rain -- movies, flea markets, museums, amusement arcades, bowling and health clubs (many have day rates).