REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. — On a summer weekend, the traffic in downtown Rehoboth Beach makes it seem like Interstate 395 at rush hour. Even as you catch the first glint of sunlight reflecting from the ocean’s surface, you’re not as close as you think. Cars are lined up bumper to bumper from Delaware Route 1 to the end of Rehoboth Avenue at the boardwalk, slowly circling the downtown area as drivers scan the precious few public parking spaces for signs one might come vacant. None of them is empty, of course, and the boardwalk seems tantalizingly out of reach as the odors of caramel corn and french fries mix with exhaust fumes and a cacophonous blend of country, heavy-metal and rap music from open car windows.
This is what happens when the Washington area empties many of its millions of residents on a small town. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the 1,495 people who live in the 1-square-mile area of downtown Rehoboth Beach are swamped each weekend with an average of 30,000 to 60,000 visitors. Even on summer weekdays and on winter weekends, the number of weekend visitors is at least three times the town’s resident population.
The 35-mile-long stretch of Atlantic Ocean coastline between Cape Henlopen, Del., and the southern tip of Ocean City has for decades been the Washington area’s most popular destination for beach getaways.
This year could be the busiest ever if the weather holds. Carol Everhart, president of the Rehoboth-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce, says her organization has seen a 45 percent increase in requests for information.
“That is the highest I can ever remember. If that’s an indicator, we should have an outstanding summer,” she says. “We already are seeing increased visitation.”
Her optimism comes after a difficult season last year, when higher-than-average rainfall and colder-than-average water temperatures kept tourists away and storms washed most of the beach into the ocean. “Our concern would always be with the liquid sunshine,” she says.
The National Weather Service predicts an even chance of normal temperatures and rainfall this summer, which leaves Rick Smith, manager of the Ocean Pier Rides amusement park in Ocean City, also optimistic about making up for last year.
“As long as Mother Nature gives us a chance, we’re ready,” he says. “It’s looking promising right now.”
Americans historically have been drawn to the beach. Rehoboth Beach was founded in 1873 as a Methodist camp meeting ground by the Rev. Robert W. Todd, who was inspired by what he called the rejuvenating power of the ocean. Nearby Bethany Beach also was founded as a religious retreat, in 1901 by members of the Disciples of Christ from Washington and Pennsylvania.
About the same time, prominent businessmen from the Eastern Shore, Baltimore and Philadelphia saw Ocean City’s potential as a beach resort and began developing what was then a small fishing village. Ocean City became a town in 1875, the year its first hotel opened, and now attracts an estimated 10 million visitors a year, making it one of the largest beach resorts on the East Coast in spite of its tiny year-round population of just 7,173.
Even so, the soft ocean sand and stiff surf remained out of reach for many Washington-area residents until the first bridge spanning the Chesapeake Bay opened in 1952, replacing a two-hour ferry ride.
In the first half of the 20th century, the big resorts were closer to the city, along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River. In that time, the 135-mile trip by train and ferry from Washington to Ocean City took all day. Now it’s about a three-hour drive by car — if you leave early enough to beat the summer rush.
Chesapeake Beach, Md., and Colonial Beach, Va., had gambling casinos, amusement parks and dance halls and attracted thousands of Washingtonians each summer. A rail line took vacationers from Washington to Chesapeake Beach, and steamships sailed regularly down the Potomac to Colonial Beach, making those two resorts convenient.
“You couldn’t get to the ocean without using a ferry. That’s what drove people from Washington to Colonial Beach” in the first half of the 20th century, says Phil Bolin, president of the Colonial Beach Chamber of Commerce.
Both Rehoboth Beach and Ocean City have capitalized on America’s love of the beach as a summer getaway by offering a variety of activities to fuel a tourist trade that earns hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
For children, there are bumper cars, Ferris wheels, video games and rows of boardwalk stands selling pizza, funnel cakes and caramel corn. Teenagers, young adults and college students come for the social life of parties and barhopping, often earning their keep as summer help.
In recent years, a summer job at the beach has been an attractive way for students from other countries to get a taste of American traditions.
Stoyan Stoyanov, 24, came from Bulgaria in February to work for TLC’s Polish Water Ice, managing a store that sells frozen treats on the Ocean City boardwalk. It’s much busier — and more fun — than his winter job managing a similar store near Philadelphia.
“Usually in the summer, you’ve got crowds of people halfway down the boardwalk, two to three lines deep,” he says.
Mr. Stoyanov has hired 16 Bulgarian students as summer help for the company’s beach stores. As Memorial Day approaches, though, he’s working alone, handing out free samples to the occasional passer-by.
For the more sedate, outlet malls have sprung up near the resort towns, and in Delaware, they offer tax-free discount shopping.
“Definitely the outlets,” says Peggy Lea, 46, of Newark, Del. “I love that.”
Those who tire of the crowds and activity in Rehoboth and Ocean City have quieter options, including the smaller resort towns of Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island, Del., and Lewes, Del., a historic Delaware Bay community first settled by the Dutch in 1634.
With the gambling casinos and dance halls closed, Colonial Beach officials have worked to reinvent their community as another quiet getaway. “You’re not going to find nightclubs here,” says Mr. Bolin, who owns the Bell House, a bed-and-breakfast inn in the former summer home of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone.
For beach purists, there’s Assateague Island, a 37-mile-long unspoiled barrier island inhabited only by wild horses and preserved by the National Park Service as a national seashore where the amenities are limited to campgrounds and day-use bathhouses.
Three Delaware state parks — Cape Henlopen, Delaware Seashore and Fenwick Island — offer calm natural beaches reclaimed after having been used as coastal defense forts in World War II.
The common denominator, of course, is the beach — miles of surf and sand that gets into clothes and shoes, sea gulls that cackle as they circle the shore and swoop down to fetch scraps of food, and the salty scent in the air.
That’s what draws Lisa Webb, 30, of nearby Salisbury, Md., though on a recent Saturday she’s sitting on the Ocean City boardwalk, eating fries and watching the tourists stroll by.
“In the middle of the summer, we like coming out here and looking at the tourists and laughing at them,” she says.
She shrugs at the traffic problems they bring. “You get used to it,” she says.
The number of tourists has grown steadily in the past two decades, especially in the months before and after the traditional beach “season” of Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day. Many others have come to stay, building second homes along the coastline or just settling into the community.
The increase is the result of efforts to make beach resorts such as Rehoboth into year-round destinations, says Ms. Everhart of the Rehoboth-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce.
“That has been wildly successful,” Ms. Everhart says. “We’re not 52 weeks a year, but we’re dang near close to 52 weekends a year.”
Rehoboth has gained a national reputation as well as a resort that welcomes the homosexual community, though Ms. Everhart says families with children have always been the largest share of visitors.
Some locals are concerned that more tourists mean more problems for the town.
Betsy Cochran, 46, a lifelong Rehoboth resident and business owner, worries about the effects of rising property values and traffic.
“The kids that grew up in this town, they can’t afford to live in their own hometown anymore because the property values are so high,” she says. “You can’t make the kind of money people living in Washington and Philadelphia make.”
To fight constant concerns about traffic, the Rehoboth town government has budgeted $11 million for traffic improvements that are scheduled to be completed by tomorrow, when the first wave of Memorial Day weekend visitors hits the town.
Police in the resort communities take on extra help every summer and strictly enforce laws against public drinking and sleeping on the beach.
“I’m pretty proud of Ocean City. They do a good job,” says Mr. Smith of Ocean Pier Rides.
He says people who came to Ocean City as teenagers are bringing their children.
“You build up a good client base, and they keep coming back, so we must be doing something right.”
Where to find sand, surf and fun
Memorial Day means beach season to Washington’s sand and surf fans. Here’s a checklist of reasonably nearby beaches, along with distances from the center of Washington, travel times and easy ways to find updates on what’s going on there.
Bethany Beach: 125 miles, about 23/4 hours. See Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce, www.bethany-fenwick.org; Town of Bethany Beach, www.townofbethanybeach.com.
Delaware State Park Beaches (Cape Henlopen State Park, Delaware Seashore State Park and Fenwick Island State Park): 120-125 miles, about 2½-23/4 hours. See www.destateparks.com/index.asp.
Dewey Beach: 125 miles, about 23/4 hours. See Rehoboth-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce, www.beach-fun.com; www.deweybeach.com.
Fenwick Island: 133 miles, about 3 hours. See Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce, www.bethany-fenwick.org.
Lewes: 120 miles, about 2½ hours. See Lewes Chamber of Commerce, www.leweschamber.com; City of Lewes, www.ci.lewes.de.us.
Rehoboth Beach: 123 miles, about 23/4 hours. See Rehoboth-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce, www.beach-fun.com; City of Rehoboth Beach www.cityofrehoboth.com.
Assateague Island National Seashore: 140 miles, about 3 hours. See www.nps.gov/asis.
Chesapeake Beach: 35 miles, about 1 hour. See www.chesapeake-beach.md.us or call Town Hall at 410/257-2230.
Ocean City: 134 miles, about 3 hours. See www.ocean-city.com; Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, www.oceancity.org or call the Ocean City Department of Tourism at 800/OCOCEAN.
Sandy Point State Park: 35 miles, about 45 minutes. See www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/southern/sandypoint.html.
Colonial Beach: 65 miles, about 1½ hours. See Town of Colonial Beach, www.colonialbeachva.net.