Wyndham Wisdom

Ocean City Beach Vacation Ideas: Wyndham Wisdom

Come to Ocean City, Maryland, for its classic boardwalk, rides, steamed crabs and the best french fries in America (trust us)

By Shana Liebman

Ocean City's boardwalk is timeless

Known to locals as "O.C." or just "downey ocean," Ocean City and particularly its beacheshas been Maryland's best-loved summer beach retreat since the turn of the 20th century. Over the years, this 10-mile stretch of skinny barrier island (with Assawoman Bay on one side and the Atlantic on the other) has evolved . . . a little, gradually adding expensive condos and wine bars. But these upscale improvements haven't diminished Ocean City beach nostalgia. With its 1920s boardwalk, low-rise motels and retro treats like frozen custard and saltwater taffy, Ocean City offers a fun-filled trip down memory lane--whatever your age.

In summer, the families who flock to Ocean City beaches can rocket the weekend population past the 300,000 mark. But don't let the inevitable Ocean City beach crowds deter you--there's room here for everyone if you come prepared. For example, driving and parking in Ocean City can be maddening, so if you're not staying in a hotel with a parking lot, drop your car in the free park-and-ride lot off Route 50 and rely on the 24-hour bus ($2), which runs every 15 minutes in summer. Also, since the 10 miles of soft sand is the biggest Ocean City attraction, stake your claim with your beach chairs and towels in the early morning.

The town of Ocean City is anchored by a three-mile, old-school wooden boardwalk. As you walk its length, you'll see hotels dating back to the 1920s, casual restaurants, fry shacks and T-shirt shops aplenty. On the south end of the Ocean City boardwalk, a fully stocked arcade takes kids (or the young-at-heart) from the classic (skee ball) to the contemporary (Guitar Hero). Nearby, Trimper's amusement park has more than 100 rides, among them a water slide, a haunted house, an enormous Ferris wheel and the most prized possession: a 1902 Herschell-Spillman carousel with 48 hand-carved animal figures. A few feet away you'll find the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum--look for the large building with half a shark sticking out of the roof. The collection includes two-headed animals and a spinning tunnel bathed in black light that will challenge your sense of reality.

Ocean City boardwalks bring finger food, and here too Ocean City remains true to its bygone ways, shunning McDonald's and Sbarro for homegrown classics like Thrasher's. Since 1929, this french-fry stand has been serving up thick-cut chunks of fried spuds doused with cider vinegar and sea salt. (Customers can season their own bursting cups of fries, but don't dare ask for ketchup.) Across the way from Thrasher's is the first of two Dumser's, which started as an Ocean City ice cream parlor in 1939. Though this location doesn't have a full menu, the other Ocean City locations favor good ol' American food like fried chicken, soups and salads. Next up is one of the many Candy Kitchens, an Ocean City staple with big bins of chocolates and gummy animals. Kohr Bros. Frozen Custard, just a few feet away, serves a tangy, silky version of soft-serve ice cream flavored with vanilla, chocolate and orange. For saltwater taffy, another Ocean City tradition, go next door to Dolle's Candyland. The peanut butter taffy is divine, and now there's anise and molasses for gourmands. Dolle's also makes fabulous, sugary, old-fashioned fudge. Finally, a few feet farther on is Fisher's, established in 1937 and famous for popcorn. After you try the hot and gooey caramel popcorn, made with real butter and sugar, Cracker Jacks will taste like plastic.

FISH AND DISH
This town of Ocean City bills itself as the White Marlin Capital of the World. During the first week of August, the White Marlin Open (whitemarlinopen.com), one of the world's largest fishing tournaments, awards prizes that can top one million dollars for catches of marlin and tuna. In 2008, more than 1,500 anglers competed. Visitors can witness the weigh-ins (last year, one contestant brought in a 534-lb. blue) at the Harbour Island Marina, usually after 4 p.m.

There's plenty of casual fishing in Ocean City as well. In fact, after a 1933 hurricane formed an inlet at the southern tip of O.C., the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers preserved it, providing ideal fishing access to the Atlantic. You don't even need a license to cast a line from the piers, the beach or the Route 50 bridge, where you might snag bluefish, sea trout and kingfish. If you're looking for bigger game, boat charters let you hunt the open ocean for mako shark, wahoo, tuna and trophy fish like blue marlin, white marlin and the occasional sailfish.

SHINY HAPPY PEOPLE
After dinner, the Ocean City night is young--and fluorescent. The bar called MR Ducks, on the Talbot Street Pier, is a hangout spot for charter captains and crews. Drinks like the delicious Duck Call (coconut rum and pineapple) are served in big, duck-shaped ceramic cups. Local rock and blues bands perform on weekends. Liquid Assets is actually a liquor store attached to a handsome lounge with a dark wood bar, silk sofas and plush rugs. You can uncork any of their hundreds of wines for a $10 fee. The most popular club in Ocean City is the Jamaican-themed Seacrets, opened in 1988 with 16 bars, two stages and a floor that holds 2,500 dancing guests. (There's also an area for dining.) The bayfront Fager's Island Restaurant has several decks, a gazebo, a pavilion and a pier where you can watch the sun go down (to the tune of the "1812 Overture"). After a few South of the Border margaritas (served in blue salt-rimmed glasses), you just might wind up staying the rest of the evening.

KID STUFF
The town of Ocean City is at heart a kiddie paradise whose long-popular attractions still appeal to today's youngsters. Frontier Town, a theme park built in the 1950s just five minutes outside town, has wowed children for years with its Wild West recreations--cowboys, pony rides, cancan shows, bank holdups and gunfights (all staged, of course). The Jolly Roger Amusement Park at 30th Street (there's another at 65th Street), heralded by a giant pirate statue, is home to Speedworld, the largest go-cart racing complex in the country, with 10 different tracks and cars of various sizes. It also has more than 25 rides, Splash Mountain water park (for those tired of the Ocean City beach life) and two mini-golf courses with manmade waterfalls.

About a mile toward the ocean, Wheels of Yesterday displays the private car collection of Granville T. Trimper, including a 1928 seven-passenger Lincoln, Jack Benny's Overland and a gold 1960 Studebaker. There's also a replica of a 1950s service station. The recently remodeled Life-Saving Station Museum pays homage to Ocean City's cultural history with exhibits on the history of the U.S. Life-Saving Service (think Baywatch from another era), shipwreck artifacts, bathing fashions, a "sands of the world" collection and aquariums full of marine life.

Mini-golf is everywhere in Ocean City. There are probably more courses here than on any other barrier island, and each is remarkably elaborate. The Undersea Adventure course is enclosed in an old barn, with props like a submarine and a plastic killer whale; the outer-space-themed Lost Galaxy has rocket ships and aliens. Professor Hakker's Lost Treasure looks like an Indiana Jones movie, with its water traps and caves. There are also several real golf courses for adults reluctant to putt a neon ball into a dragon's mouth--but who doesn't want to regress a little now and then? Especially in a place like Ocean City, which, gracefully, refuses to grow up.

EAT

MARLIN MOON GRILLE
Fill up on platters of crab cakes, grilled
shrimp and veggies at this sport-fishing-
themed restaurant in the vintage Francis
Scott Key Motel. 12806 Ocean Gateway;
410-213-1618; dinner for two, $70*

BAHAMA MAMA'S
The tropical decor and reggae music
might initially signal tourist trap, but
this place serves authentic steamed
crabs, piping hot and coated in Old
Bay seasoning. 221 Wicomico St.
on the Bay; 410-289-0291;
dinner for two, $65

HIGGINS CRAB HOUSE
Tables are preset with plastic buckets
and brown paper tablecloths, so diners
can dig right in to the excellent
crabs. 31st St. and Coastal Hwy.;
410-289-2581; dinner for two, $70

PHILLIPS CRAB HOUSE
Once the area's finest dining spot, Phillips
now has three more casual outlets that
are still popular for massive menus and
seafood buffets. 2004 Philadelphia Ave.;
410-289-6821; dinner for two, $70

*Prices cover a three-course meal for two, not including drinks, tax or tip.

STAY

RCI-AFFILIATED RESORTS IN OCEAN CITY INCLUDE:

CLUB OCEAN VILLAS II
OCEAN TIME
OCEAN CITY COCONUT, Malorie
SEA TIME

For more information, visit RCI.com or call
Weeks: 800-338-7777
Points: 877-968-7476