Rehoboth Beach

At first glance, Rehoboth Beach, Del., seems sort of like Mini-Me to Ocean City's Dr. Evil. Although Rehoboth lacks the name recognition and wild-and-crazy reputation of its sister beach, the two summer hotspots share many of the same types of stores and eateries, miles of sand on which to relax, and striking views of the Atlantic Ocean. But what it lacks in perception, Rehoboth makes up for in diversity.

Summer retreat: Rehoboth Beach welcomes visitors from all walks of life. (Photo by Patrick Swoboda, Special to SunSpot)

While Ocean City, Maryland stretches across approximately 15 miles of coastal highway, Rehoboth is more concentrated. Its downtown area measures one square mile, and its boardwalk is equally long. However, the 60,000 visitors that arrive in Rehoboth each weekend during July and August (compared to Rehoboth's approximately 15,000 year-round population) face quite a range of things to do on the beach and in the surrounding vicinity.

Rehoboth is located about 30 minutes north of Ocean City in Sussex County along the Southern Delaware coastline -- the scenic drive through Fenwick Island and Bethany and Dewey beaches is enough to make the trip worthwhile. The town is probably best known as a "gay beach." This is evident in the rainbow-colored triangle stickers and flags in the windows of many area businesses and the smattering of same-sex couples holding hands on the boardwalk. This contemporary celebration of the gay community and lifestyle is intriguing given Rehoboth's conservative origins.

Humble beginnings
In 1872, Reverend Robert W. Todd traveled from his own Methodist Episcopal congregation in Wilmington, Del., to camp meetings on the Jersey shore. Upon his return, he was inspired by the spiritual powers of the sea to establish a Christian resort in the area between Cape Henlopen (at the mouth of the Delaware Bay) and Cape Charles (at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay). According to reports, Todd saw his vision take shape in his dreams, and upon visiting the area surrounding Rehoboth Bay, commented that the topography matched what he saw while asleep.

The following year, in January 1873, the Rehoboth Beach Camp Meeting Association of the Methodist Episcopal Church was created. Coincidentally, the Rehoboth name was originally derived from the Bible. In the book of Genesis, Rehoboth is a Hebrew word that translates as "room for all." By 1881, the camp activity was discontinued, altering Rehoboth's existence as a religious retreat. By the turn of the century, Rehoboth was well on its way to becoming a full-fledged locality, with schools, fire departments and water systems being erected in the early 1900s.

Rehoboth may no longer exist solely as a religious camp, but its spiritual side is still evident. There are several area and nearby churches, both denominational and non-denominational, for those whose weekend trips include Sunday school. Some Rehoboth churches also welcome gay congregants. The Metropolitan Community Church, for instance, labels itself as a "Christian church with a special outreach to the rainbow community and our friends."

Room for all
Today, Rehoboth attracts a gay following unlike any other beach on the East Coast, yet its most frequent visitors (according to Chamber of Commerce data) are moms, dads and their kids. As a result, Rehoboth is first and foremost a family beach -- not as commercial or college student-oriented as Ocean City -- and recognizes that families come in all shapes, sizes and combinations.

Bicycle built for two: Teenagers, older adults and couples all enjoy Rehoboth Beach. (Photo by Patrick Swoboda, Special to SunSpot)

The beach caters to same-sex-oriented tourists and fun-seekers with a handful of gay-friendly clubs and establishments. There are many nightspots with a predominantly gay clientele -- like the Blue Moon. However, the bars that cater to a primarily heterosexual crowd (Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats draws partiers with its live performances and convenient location) also welcome gay patrons. There are even portions of the Rehoboth shore that have a reputation for attracting gay vacationers: guys frequent Poodle Beach, located past the south end of Rehoboth's boardwalk, while ladies head to Northern Shores, a 20-minute stroll from the boardwalk on the south end of Cape Henlopen State Park.

From this description, one might imagine Rehoboth as a haven of same-sex couples. However, the area celebrates diversity in more ways than one. Rehoboth Beach and its surrounding shopping areas are enjoyed by just about everyone -- sightseers from Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and Delaware. At the boardwalk and on the beach, you'll notice that many families with young children and older kids -- either on their own or escaping from their parents for a few hours -- choose Rehoboth for their beach vacation destination.

Flamingos, magnets and more
This variety can also be found in the retail shops and goings-on in Rehoboth Beach. Though most stores have locations or counterparts in Ocean City, there are a handful of unique specialty outlets and events that you aren't likely to find anywhere else along the nearby coastal region. Of course, you also have arcades, like Funland, and your typical tchotchke vendors, like Ryan's Gems and Junk. And you've got a host of chain eateries and stores, including Grotto's Pizza, Thrasher's Fries and Candy Kitchen.

Penny Lane: Some of Rehoboth's more unusual stores can be found at this shop-filled side street. (Photo by Patrick Swoboda, Special to SunSpot)

You'll find unusual souvenirs at some of Rehoboth's originals. The Glass Flamingo is a tacky ode to everything flamingo. If you're a fan of the pink bird, you'll be in heaven here, as the store carries a complete line of flamingo paraphernalia, including thermometers, fine art, key chains, and, of course, a nice selection of lawn decorations. Magnet Junction is another store for those with secret obsessions. It's a cozy room with four metal walls covered in -- yep, that's right -- magnets. The selection includes everything from "I Love Lucy" to Baltimore Orioles to cute little slogan magnets that say things like "My karma ran over my dogma." This is one place to visit if you're into heavily adorning your fridge or work cubicle.

If you are doing some family-oriented shopping, don't forget to stop by Bear on the Beach. But don't be misled by the name -- this store specializes in more than just an assortment of teddy bears. It also sells cats, dogs, sea life and endangered species toys. Speaking of which, Fun for All! is a blast from the past, with aisles adorned with all sorts of retro -- not to mention affordable -- novelties like X-ray goggles and Sea-Monkeys. The store also has a killer collection of Smurf memorabilia for those feeling blue.

Sophisticated cruising and snoozing
Most of these places are located on the main drag of Rehoboth Avenue, on the boardwalk or in-between the two on quaint side streets, where parking can be a bit of a problem during peak summer months. If you drive around forever and still can't find a reasonably distanced space but have money to burn, don't get road rage, just turn around and travel up Route 1 away from the beach. Two miles up, you'll find several fully stocked outlet strips where lot space is plentiful and free. The stores sell everything from clothing (Eddie Bauer, Gap, Nike) to specialty items (Fragrance Outlet, KB Toys, Harley-Davidson).

Sweet scene: Rehoboth's boardwalk features standard beach fare, as well as cultural events year-round. (Photo by Patrick Swoboda, Special to SunSpot)

Thanks in part to the numerous eateries and the variety of shopping available, Rehoboth is often considered fairly cosmopolitan for a beach town. Some of Rehoboth's annual events -- including an independent film festival in November and nightly bandstand concerts on the boardwalk beginning in June -- attest to that sense of sophistication.

Lodging is abundant throughout Rehoboth, so you should be able to find a place to stay near all the good stuff. Hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, cottages and inns offer something for every taste and budget.

For a beach that's seen as a scaled-down, more intimate, less commercial version of Ocean City, there's still plenty to do and see. A diverse population and assortment of activities make Rehoboth Beach an appealing destination for people from all walks of life.