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BEACH SMARTS: SURVIVING THE CROWDS IN OCEAN CITY An O.C. fan gives hints on enjoying the 'season'

The sun, the surf and sand will be there this summer -- and so will the hordes of people. But before you claim that you will never go downy ocean, hon, it might help to know there are ways around the madding crowd.

True, Ocean City does turn into Maryland's second-largest city during the "season" (translated June, July and August, in case you were wondering), bulging at its 10-mile-length seams with 300,000-plus. It's hard to believe that not so long ago the beach was a kinder, gentler and quieter place.

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Though I'm not an O.C. local (what Ocean City residents like to be called), I have spent every summer of my fortysomething life there as a vacationer or summer worker. There was a time when driving to the 64th Street Market was a long, lonely trip up Coastal Highway, and if you traveled north at night, the only beacon you could see among the sand dunes was a blue light marking what was then Bobby Baker's Carousel Hotel on 118th Street. Now the Carousel gets lost among the sea of cement condos along that stretch.

It also doesn't seem possible that 13th Street was the uptown place to stay. It's definitely considered downtown now -- and even called old Ocean City.

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But I come from an O.C.-loving family. My mother talks about her days as a teen-ager during World War II, when the lights were darkened along the ocean front to keep the beach town hidden from German subs. My grandmother had fond remembrances of beach picnics when Ocean City ended at 15th Street.

So I have saltwater in my blood and still get a thrill as I approach Ocean City and the skyline comes into view. Yes, it has become saturated with people during my lifetime, but the town still can be enjoyed.

All you need is a plan, and you're ready to lather on the SPF15, soak up the sun and pop open a cold one (not alcoholic -- there are beach rules, but more on that later).

The first things to consider are how and when to get there. Timing is everything. In general, most vacation rentals go from Saturday to Saturday, with check-in time at 3 p.m. and checkout at noon. You've probably figured out that if everyone checks in and out at the same time, there are bound to be logistical problems -- big time.

The key is to leave ahead of the pack or afterward. If you get to the Bay Bridge by 7 a.m., you'll usually have clear sailing to Ocean City. Or plan to hit the bridge around 4 p.m. and miss the rush.

Remember, too, that the Kent Narrows bridge, which opened last fall, will eliminate the often tiresome wait at the old drawbridge, so that will be a plus this summer.

Once you're over the new span, there's always the great dilemma: Do I take Route 404 or U.S. 50? Everyone has a favorite story about which is the fastest, but after years of belonging to the 404-is-best club, I've switched to 50. I got tired of daredevil passing cars on the two-lane roads and found 50, with its dual lanes, to be quicker than the Delaware route.

OK, suppose you're the early bird who arrives in O.C. long before you can check into your rental digs. Now what? First, have breakfast. There are lots of choices, from McDonald's to fancy hotel brunches, but do try Hall's on 60th Street and Coastal Highway. The price is right and the food is good.

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Then, if the sun is shining, head for the beach. Many hotels are polite about visitors using the restrooms, and there are city comfort stations at the end of the boardwalk and at Ninth Street.

Ah, but where to put the car? Cars and parking are a major problem in O.C. It's hard to believe that this sleepy town of 8,500 in the winter goes from blinking lights and side streets where you could lie in the street for a long time without seeing a car to one of crazed summer drivers, where crossing Coastal Highway can be life-threatening. (Heed the warnings to "push the button, not your luck" when crossing at a stop light and never cross in mid-block. People really have been killed darting among the traffic.)

Before parking your car at one of the many meters at the inlet, contact your rental agent -- you might be able to park at the condo even before formally checking in. If not, I have great luck in finding parking spots along St. Louis Avenue from Eighth Street to 16th. It's a few blocks to the beach and, the best part, it's free.

But suppose you arrive in town and have your worst vacation nightmare. The gray dawn skies never brightened and that evil wet stuff is making bathmats out of the luggage strapped to the top of the minivan. But there really is a lot to do in O.C. in the rain -- movies, flea markets, museums, amusement arcades, bowling and health clubs (many have day rates).

When pursuing these activities in rain or shine, forget the car and take the bus. It seems that everyone old enough to look over the steering wheel gets in his car when it rains, making the Beltway rush-hour gridlocks at home seem tame. But the O.C. buses have their own lane, so they can zip right along. City officials are making it even more tempting this year with a fare of $1 for all day -- a plus for your pocketbook and your temper.

Eating is also a rain-or-shine occupation. It's hard to go to O.C. and not have at least one bucket of Thrasher's french fries (the location at Eighth Street is never crowded), one box of Fischer's caramel popcorn and one dinner at Phillips Crab House.

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When considering dining out, be on the look out for the "early-bird" offers, where you can stretch dollars with half-price dinners and two-for-ones. I've had some wonderful bargains at Charlie Chiang's and O.C. Sneakers.

Also, make reservations if possible. Just like everything else in Ocean City, everyone seems to go to dinner at the same time.

If you do decide to cook, Ocean City grocery stores are well-stocked. But again, timing is crucial. Saturdays are a zoo at the stores, as vacationers check in and head straight for the food store -- along with several thousand other weary travelers. I've seen people fight over mops.

It's better to wait till late Saturday night or, better yet, Sunday afternoon. You'll breeze through the store and be back on the beach before you know it.

As for those beach rules, they really aren't that restrictive: no alcoholic beverages, no glass containers, no pets, no excessively loud music. But there are some fun exceptions. The beach in front of the Ocean Club at 49th Street offers a taste of the tropics. The palm trees (transplanted, of course) sway, the calypso band plays and waitresses serve drinks on the beach. It'll just be you and your pina colada and hundreds of strangers surrounding you on all sides.

And yes, Ocean City beaches are crowded -- there's no getting around it. The least crowded are at the north end of town from 135th Street and up, around midtown from 55th Street to 80th Street or at the inlet (but the wide expanse of beach means a lot of walking).

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For more solitude, scoot across the U.S. 50 bridge out of town and head for Assateague, an unspoiled, quiet beach. It's where the locals go.

As daylight shifts to dusk and attention focuses from beach to evening activities, plan to watch at least one sunset over Assawoman Bay. They really are glorious. There are several vantage points, but two of my favorites are a mostly unknown park at Fourth Street and the bay, which has a mini-boardwalk and Victorian accouterments, and Fager's Island, a restaurant at 60th Street and the bay.

Enjoy a drink on the restaurant's outside deck or indoors as the orange-pink ball drops toward the bay. Fager's plays Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" just as the sun sinks below the water, complemented with cheering by its patrons. It's quite dramatic and inspires camaraderie among fellow revelers.

As darkness falls, you'll want to pay at least one visit to the boardwalk. My mother used to tell me and my five siblings when we were much younger that the amusement rides at the end of the boardwalk were only open on Mondays. This may have spared her from listening to us beg to go there the other six days of the week, but there was a lot of wisdom in this.

It really does seem to be the least crowded night to visit the carnival-like inlet with its hawkers, looped roller coaster and haunted houses. There's even a covered area of kiddie rides.

But don't save the boardwalk just for nighttime. One of my "have to's" while at the beach is riding a bike on the boardwalk. It's a great pastime, watching Ocean City wake up. You can ride from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., and there are many rentals places with everything from tricycles to bicycles built for two. I always rent a bike at 13th Street because you can park in the Beach Plaza hotel lot. Also, after you've returned the bike, the hotel's coffee shop is another great place for breakfast.

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But even if you've managed to get through vacation week relatively hassle-free, there's still the ride home to tackle. You can avoid returning traffic by checking out the night before. There's almost no traffic going west on Friday nights.

Or you can hang around after checkout time on Saturday. If you spend the day on the beach, there are outdoor showers at most hotels or check out the bath houses: Albright's on North First Street and Wicomico on -- where else -- Wicomico Street and Philadelphia Avenue. They offer hot showers, towels and accessories. Then have dinner, take in a movie and head for home in a reasonable time.

While Ocean City may not be the ultimate beach paradise, it is only three hours from Baltimore.

If you go . . .

There's a place to stay in Ocean City for every pocketbook and whim, from trailer parks to four-star accommodations. Call the Ocean City Visitors and Convention Bureau at (800) OC-OCEAN.

According to Harriet Benjamin, director of sales at the bureau, a free brochure of hotels and restaurants is available. Callers also can ask for recommendations. Tell the bureau the price range in mind and what amenities are desired, such as a swimming pool or air conditioning, and they'll give three to five possibilities (most have no-cost 800 phone numbers).

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Those who are driving probably know the way, but if you have more money than time or are in a hurry, there are two options: flying or taking the bus. USAir (727-0825) has six non-stop daily flights from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Wicomico County Airport in Salisbury. The cost is $162 round trip, although you may luck out and get a $100 availability ticket. Once in Salisbury, you can rent a car or take a cab the 28 miles to OC.

Another possibility is a commuter plane service that will begin operations in June. Skyways -- (301) 289-4500 -- will fly from BWI ++ to the Ocean City Municipal Airport, a few miles out of OC, for $55 one way. Take a cab or a shuttle that will meet each plane the rest of the way into town.

You can always leave the driving to Greyhound (744-9311). Buses depart daily from the Baltimore station at 210 W. Fayette St. and cost $22 one way or $41.80 round trip. The OC bus station is at Philadelphia and Second Street, so if you're not too bogged down with luggage you can hop aboard a city bus to the rental unit.

Suzanne Bledsoe


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