Ocean City -- Ah, the beach. What could be more romantic? Strolling hand-in-hand through the crashing surf . . . sipping tropical drinks while sharing a sunset over the bay . . . rubbing sunscreen on each other's backs . . .
The resort dating scene is as full of frustration, broken hearts and occasional happy endings as, well, the dating scene anywhere.
"The best way for a single guy over 25 to enjoy Ocean City is B.Y.O.B. -- Bring Your Own Babe," says Steve, a 27-year-old marketing professional from Baltimore, who wouldn't give his last name.
Earlier this summer, he and a friend spent a week checking out the Ocean City and Dewey Beach singles scenes.
"Ocean City is prime stomping grounds for the 16- to 24-year-old age group," he says, "but if you're looking for a more mature person, forget it."
Like many visitors, seasonal residents and locals, Steve discovered that a perfect setting doesn't guarantee romance. In fact, it can be hard to find true love, or even a Saturday night date, in a resort town because of the quick turnover of vacationers and the frantic pace of seasonal work.
When waitress Caroline Rothwell goes out for the evening, it's usually a group outing with other employees at the Mug & Mallet on Second Street, rather than a more intimate occasion. "You get so close to the people you work with," says Ms. Rothwell, 19, who will soon return to her home -- and boyfriend -- in York, Pa.
Looking for a woman who will be around awhile does make the pickings slimmer, says Ocean City resident Guy DeAntonio, 49. "The new people I meet are only here a few days, and I try not to get involved in relationships like that because I want something more permanent."
Mr. DeAntonio's other big obstacle to finding romance at the beach is his work schedule. He's an assistant manager at the Barefoot Mailman hotel and tends bar at the Quality Inn's Atrium Cafe, as well as performing in the acting company for a hotel's murder mystery promotions.
Like Mr. DeAntonio, Dale Behrens has found that, during the tourist season, her jobs pre-empt her social life.
"I've been dating the dentist around the corner," says Ms. Behrens, 36, of Ocean Pines. "He laughs at me because I make him bring me home by 11 o'clock. But it's just because I work so much."
Ms. Behrens runs her own travel agency, Destinations by Dale, in nearby Berlin and also waits tables at the Greenwood Farms family restaurant in Bishopville. Though her seven-day-a-week schedule makes it hard to plan dates, she says, it does make it easier for her to meet men -- though not always the kind she'd like to go out with.
"One guy came in and bought a plane ticket to fly his girlfriend up here," she remembers. "Later he called me and said it wasn't really for his girlfriend and would I like to go out?
"Men are men," she says. "They'll try any trick in the book."
Still, even the busiest -- or most put-upon -- of summer laborers may concede that Ocean City can be a romantic setting. Especially if you can find the right person to share it with, says Mr. DeAntonio, who is one of eight male nominees in a local newspaper's best bachelor and bachelorette contest.
"Being down here for the length of time I have, I know where to go," says the five-year O.C. veteran. He takes dates sailing, favors bayside bars for sundown chats and loves to indulge in the many kinds of dancing offered by the resort's nightclubs.
When Ms. Behrens goes out, she usually opts for dinner and drinks or a walk on the beach.
But if a stroll on the sand doesn't seem romantic to Hardy Hil and Joani Kostley, it may be because that's where they make their living. Mr. Hil, 21, is a lifeguard on the same stretch of beach where Ms. Kostley, his girlfriend of 10 months, rents umbrellas and boogie boards.
"I get to spend more time with her down here, which I like," says Mr. Hil, a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. "I was afraid that being together all the time we might get burned out. But we're always together and it's really fun."
"The first couple of weeks we were here, we wanted to do everything," adds Ms. Kostley, 19. But these days, the beach setting is just about irrelevant to their dating life: They like to get together to make spaghetti and watch a video at the apartment she shares with five other women.
Although Mr. Hil came to the beach with his girlfriend this year, last summer he had experience as a single guy on the resort dating scene.
"To me, it seemed like it was harder to meet people who want to be serious with you," he recalls. "Personally, I don't like going out with a whole lot of people. But people here are a lot more casual, and sometimes that's good too, you know?"