Cruising down 's Coastal Highway strip during the popular summer season, one cannot escape the image of the quintessential American beach resort.
Ten miles of sun, sand and surf beckon to the girls in bikinis and guys carrying boogie boards who swarm the streets. Parents help children manage melting ice cream cones amid an exciting backdrop of Ferris wheels and water slides, motels and hotels, restaurants and beach shops. The smells of cotton candy, boardwalk fries and Old Bay fill the steamy summer air.
All of this and more is why Ocean City stakes its claim to being "The East Coast's Number One Family Resort" and a longtime popular choice for Baltimore residents who make the 140-mile trek "downey ocean" between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
However, the recognition and development of the tourist hot spot dates back more than 100 years.
Isaac Coffin, a Worcester County landowner and farmer, built the town's first inn -- The Rhode Island Inn -- in 1869. Coffin may not have realized it then, but his modest business investment was the beginning of what is now home to more than 200 restaurants and shops, more than 10,000 hotel rooms and 25,000 condominium units, all of which are bustling when the year-round population of just over 7,000 swells to an average of more than 200,000 on a summer weekend.
The , located at the southern tip of the resort, emerged in 1933 after a powerful hurricane. Engineers preserved the inlet, which provided easy access to the Atlantic and eventually established O.C. as one of the world's great fishing sites. The self-proclaimed "White Marlin Capital of the World" has been host to the world's largest marlin fishing tournament since 1974. The White Marlin Open has awarded millions of dollars to anglers over the years and also provides entertainment for tournament viewers at the suspenseful weigh-ins.
The White Marlin Open draws huge crowds in Ocean City. (Sun photo by Doug Kapustin)
However, not all fishing at the shore is competitive. With the Assawoman Bay bordering the resort on one side and the Atlantic on the other, many visitors cast a line from the fishing piers or on the beach, while others spend the day out at sea relaxing on boats and hoping to catch a tuna, bluefish, flounder or sea bass.
Out of the inlet extends the nearly 3-mile, amusement-filled , which dates back to the early 20th century and has been recognized by the Travel Channel as one of the best in America. Funnel cakes, candy apples, Dumser's ice cream, arcade games and rides give vacationers the chance to feel like a kid again and relive childhood memories.
Most notable is , one of the first things visitors see when crossing the Route 50 bridge and a must-do for many families visiting the boards. The amusement business has been around almost as long as O.C. itself and has more than 100 rides for kids of all ages. For mild riders, it proudly houses a 1902 Herschel-Spellman antique carousel with hand-carved wooden animals, plus a tilt-a-whirl and haunted house. For daredevils, there is the Tidal Wave roller coaster, The Zipper and much more.
At the boardwalk's , visitors can take pleasure in a view of the Ocean City skyline on the resort's tallest Ferris wheel or get dizzy on the Crazy Dance and the Hurricane.
Right around the corner from the pier is the , famous for its weird and unusual exhibits. Just look for the enormous shark sticking out of the top of the building. Once inside, guests can view more than 500 exhibits in 14 galleries and decide for themselves whether to believe it or not.
Whether spending the day riding rides and shopping, or just relaxing on the beach, beachgoers can develop an appetite, and the boardwalk is the perfect filling station.
Trimper's Rides and Amusements offers entertainment for the entire family. (Sun file photo)
When it comes to boardwalk fries, there is nothing better than . The tiny establishment has been serving fries since 1929 and has become an Eastern Shore area classic. Oh, and if you want ketchup with your fries, head somewhere else. Thrasher's fries are meant to be doused in vinegar.
and are also great eats if you're in the mood for boardwalk food, especially pizza. Visitors can feed their sweet tooths with ice cream and fudge at the several locations, milkshakes at , salt water taffy at Dolle's Candyland or some supreme caramel popcorn at .
Still, the boardwalk is only one of the places in the resort where guests can find amusement.
at 30th Street has everything from rides to go-karts and its own Splash Mountain water park. The gives uptown visitors the chance to have fun without the trek down to the boardwalk.
Besides relaxing at the beach, strolling the boards, riding rides and shopping, there are countless other things to do. seven different miniature golf courses at four O.C. locations provide a fun way to spend time with family. There are tons of regular golf courses nearby, as well as opportunities to go wave running, parasailing and boating. is a great place to have a picnic, and, for those who like skateboarding, there is a park dedicated to it on 3rd street.
Don't miss out on Thrasher's French Fries on the boardwalk. (Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum)
Of course, the biggest entertainment destination is the beach itself. Whether tourists want to sunbathe, fly kites, read a book or splash in the waves, the beach in Ocean City is a place for fun, sun and relaxation. Even so, there are several rules and regulations visitors must follow. The use of kites, surfboards and boogie boards is under the control of the Beach Patrol Guards, who are on duty from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily during the summer. Frisbees and other sports are prohibited on the beach from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. from May 30 to September 15. The beach is closed for cleaning between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., and private vehicles are not allowed on the beach at any time.
As the afternoon wears on, many vacationers get off the beach and get ready for a night on the town. At night, Ocean City lights up and is a mix of hot pinks, florescent blues and yellows. Restaurants swing open their doors and invite visitors to enjoy Eastern Shore dining.
Diners can get their hands dirty at , Higgins Crab House and , enjoy fine dining at and , and , eat on the bay at and and indulge in classic American cuisine at , the and . is a seafood classic.
The nightlife in Ocean City is anything but dull. , a.k.a Jamaica USA, is a beach bar paradise that makes patrons feel like they are on a vacation in the native land of Bob Marley. Club goers can jam in the sand, and during the day, relax on water tubes while being served drinks right in the bay.
Other popular options are live music at the , drinking out of fake ducks at , sipping on orange crushes at and dancing the night away at or .
There are even more choices for where to end your night. Ocean City is fully equipped with rooms for every taste and budget. The seaside city even has its most historic accommodation, The Atlantic Hotel, which is located downtown.
The beach is the place to be in the summer. (AP photo)
With traditional seashore designs, many of the places to stay downtown have a nostalgic feel to them, such as the and . Moving uptown, things become more modern with newer high-rises like the .
Navigating Ocean City by car can be tricky. With so many people coming through each summer, two of the area's major setbacks are traffic and parking. The O.C. Park N' Ride is conveniently located on the west side of the Route 50 bridge and gives visitors the opportunity to park their cars and ride the bus over the bridge for only $2. Those who drive into Ocean City but don't want to take their chances with parking meters or private lots can also ride the bus up and down Coastal Highway for the same $2 daily charge.
In the fall, winter and spring, before the crowded summer season begins, the city is almost eerily quiet. Stop lights turn into blinking lights, some businesses lock their doors, the boardwalk is deserted and the beach is far from everyone's minds.
Still, there are those that venture to the beach resort. The hosts events all year long. Sunfest, Springfest and Octoberfest provide entertainment at non-peak times, and, in December, the city sets up for the holidays with the Winterfest of Lights and a Christmas Parade. Spring starts to get a little busier with Bike Week and Hot Rod Weekend, and locals know the summer is beginning when the high school graduates descend for the annual Senior Week in June.
Ocean City has come a long way since the Rhode Island Inn, and new developments continue every day. However, even with the influx of expensive condos and new revitalization, the community seeks to maintain the "seaside cottage" character that Ocean City is known for.
For more than 100 years, Ocean City has been a time-honored vacation destination, and it will continue to be as long as Marylanders keep heading "downey ocean" for an escape from everyday life into pure fun and relaxation.