OCEAN CITY -- The smell of french fries filled the air, racks of tie-dyed outfits beckoned from boardwalk shops and two college women rated the attractiveness of male passers-by.
It's beginning to look a lot like summer here.
Yesterday, merchants prepared for what they expect to be an onslaught of tourists this Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of the summer resort season and one of their busiest weekends of the year.
Some 250,000 vacationers are expected to flock to the beach this weekend, and state highway officials just hope people driving to the resort don't all leave at the same time tomorrow.
Although most of the improvements to U.S. 50 east of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge have been completed, they will not be a cure-all for the glut of beach traffic on holiday weekends.
"If everyone decides to leave at the same time Friday afternoon, there are going to be problems. The roads and bridges can only handle so many cars at any one time," Russ Ulrich, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration, said yesterday.
Ulrich advised drivers to avoid traveling during peak times: from 1 p.m. to midnight tomorrow and 1 p.m to midnight Monday.
Motorists can look forward to several improvements. A tall new ++ Kent Narrows Bridge made its debut last November, replacing the low drawbridge that used to cause innumerable backups on U.S. 50/301 when it opened for boats.
In addition, three eastbound lanes will be open to move beach-goers through the usually congested stretch of the highway between the Bay Bridge and the point where U.S. 301 separates from U.S. 50, Ulrich said.
Once vacationers arrive in Ocean City, merchants hope they will find plenty on which to spend their money. Last Memorial Day weekend, 260,000 visitors spent $144.4 million on lodging, food and entertainment, said Martha O. Clements, Ocean City's public relation director.
Folks here say they do not expect the recession to have a major effect on the resort. "We've still had wonderful bookings come in," said Clements.
Clements predicts an occupancy rate of at least 90 percent for hotels and motels this weekend, especially if the weather cooperates. The forecast for tomorrow calls for warm, partly sunny weather.
"Most likely, with two or three phone calls, you can find a room," she said.
Sales clerk Vicki Keefer said she expects this weekend to be the summer's busiest. People who show up this early tend to have "summer fever -- they just have to get to the beach," Keefer said while she arranged watches at Beach Eyes T-shirt and accessories shop on the boardwalk.
Along the boardwalk, sandwiched between video arcades, fast food stands and novelty stores, other shops prominently displayed their most popular beach fare: One-size-fits-all Velcro pants, bright tie-dyed clothes and T-shirts bearing slogans that are too racy for a family newspaper.
Merchants are counting on impulse-buying. "One lady came in the other day and said, 'I buy more things down here that I would never buy at home,' " said Claire Anton, a sales clerk at T-Shirt Explosion on the boardwalk. Anton recently sold Velcro pants and an abbreviated T-shirt, a favorite among teen-agers, to a senior citizen who planned to wear them herself.
A new boardwalk attraction is the Wax Museum, where likenesses of Clint Eastwood, Elvis and Huck Finn, among others, have taken up residence, Clements said.
In an effort to reduce traffic glut in Ocean City itself, local buses have begun charging $1 for an all-day pass, Clements said. Riders used to have to pay 75 cents for each one-way trip.
Visitors likely will notice other changes along the boardwalk and beach, the result of the state's $45 million beach replenishment project, which is expected to be completed this year, said Nancy L. Howard, the project administrator.
In various areas, dredges have pumped sand onto the beach to construct dunes. The dunes have been fenced off and planted with grass in an effort to stem the erosion of sand.
During the off-season, workers built a bulkhead, or sea wall, from 4th Street to 27th Street along the boardwalk, which was widened between 10th and 27th streets. The sea wall should keep the boardwalk from detaching during a severe storm and becoming "a floating obstacle," said Kathy Mathias, assistant to the city manager.
Still, several tourists complained yesterday that the steel and concrete wall marred the ocean view. If you are seated on a boardwalk bench, the wall is just high enough to block your view of the beach, they said.
"It kind of defeats the purpose," said Cathie Studer, a college student who lives in Jessup. "You can't sit there and look at the beach because you're looking at concrete."