In Ocean City, the off-season is in

Subtle winter beauty shines in Ocean City

Maryland Journal

February 05, 2007|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun Reporter

OCEAN CITY -- Water, gray like a shark's belly, softly fades into a low, pillowy sky. The air is wind-scrubbed, cold and sweet. The waves are high and frothy. Miles of empty beach beckon.

"You hear it?" said Joey Kroart, who runs Ocean Gallery on the boardwalk year-round. "Hear that?"

He cupped a hand to his ear, and the ocean obliged, rumbling softly.

"You can't hear that in the summertime. You can't see the beauty; the seagulls all standing on the beach asleep," he said. "This time of year, you can really feel the soul of the ocean."

Summer sun worshipers might never understand, but anyone who wants to know what's so glorious about Ocean City in the frigid depths of winter needs only to step outside onto the nearly empty boardwalk.

The Ferris wheel might be still, the palm trees bent and yellow, but Ocean City doesn't vaporize with the first frost - it just changes. Business is slower, but many shops stay open, particularly on weekends, and restaurants offer half-price dinners and $5 lunches.

It's slower, more serene, rawer and more natural, and residents and regular visitors swear by it. They put on hats and gloves and maybe wet suits, and staring out at the crashing waves, they'll tell you that winter is Ocean City's best season.

"We love it," said Molly Friebel, who left her child with grandparents and arrived yesterday from Pennsylvania for a midwinter getaway with her husband. "It's always very romantic." She usually reserves a room at a hotel with a fireplace, and last year, when it snowed on their winter beach trip, she was in heaven. Friebel, tucked into a huge, furry hood, was taking her first bracing walk along the quiet boardwalk.

That's one of the benefits: Without the throngs, it's possible to stroll or jog without weaving through cotton candy-toting crowds. Also, bicycles are permitted on the boardwalk any time of day in the off-season, and dogs that were trapped in yards all summer can run free in the waves.

The surfers are even happier than the canines. Yes, surfers.

The winter waves are thrilling, and surfers don't have to contend with oblivious bathers floating by on rafts, ruining what could have been a perfect ride.

An impressive handful were out yesterday, clad in wet suits, booties, hoods and gloves.

"There's a price, because it's cold out here," said Travis Knight, 16, when he emerged from the water. "But the waves are bigger, better, clearer."

"It's a lot more peaceful," said Andrew Mercier, also 16. "It's just you and your friends."

Sometimes, they get brain-numbing headaches from cutting through the cold waves as they paddle out. And their toes grow icy.

But it's worth it, they say - of course it's worth it. The teenagers, who are both juniors at Stephen Decatur High School in Berlin, head to the beach every day after school and surf until the sun sets. Rain won't stop them - it just cleans out the water - and snow only makes everything more magical. Practicing in cumbersome wet suits makes them that much nimbler when the summer rolls around, they say.

At the edge of the combed, clean sand, James Anecharico watched the surfers and eyed the moody water and sky. Anecharico, a 30-year-old mortgage broker, comes out here in the mornings with his dog and some coffee. During the day, he'll stop by to check the waves for surfing. "Whenever the surf's on, I'm on," he said before heading home to pick up his board.

People used to joke: The last one over the U.S. 50 bridge after Labor Day, turn off the electricity. But in the past decade, winter has become progressively busier, said Kroart the gallery owner. He first stayed during the off-season nine years ago while in graduate school, and never left. One warm Valentine's Day weekend a couple years back, there wasn't a single vacancy in the city's hotels on Saturday night, he said.

He and his father keep their overstuffed gallery, one of the boardwalk's most spectacular oddities, open seven days a week.

"For people my age who live here, we work the hardest when everyone else gets to play. It's a tease," he said. "So, yes, many of the people who work here look forward to October, when you can take a deep breath again."

He was still standing on the boardwalk, and the ocean was distantly roaring. It was so quiet it was possible, almost, to hear the seagulls flapping their wings.

rona.marech@baltsun.com

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