A WEEKEND GETAWAY IN REHOBOTH Two mothers escape for shopping, dining, reading on the beach Suzanne Wooton


It has become our pilgrimage, a sacred kind of ritual that signals the beginning of summer as surely as lightning bugs, snowballs and sunflowers. And so, as Rehoboth Beach observes its 100th anniversary this summer, we'll be celebrating our 10th annual escape to the "nation's summer capital."

We chose Rehoboth Beach in 1981, not long after I'd moved from Virginia to Baltimore. Rehoboth the quieter beach. Rehoboth the family beach. Rehoboth the At Least It's Not Ocean City beach. For 10 straight years, my Richmond friend and I have abandoned our husbands and children every Father's Day weekend (although the appropriateness of our timing still eludes the fathers!).

For mothers of small children, it's a 48-hour free fall into the pleasures of shopping, eating (dining, even!), exploring boutiques tucked in quaint areas known as mews, and reading on the beach till dark.

In the summertime, the key to Rehoboth -- or any of the Maryland-Delaware beaches located within two hours of about 15 million people -- is going sometime between the Memorial Day onslaught and the Fourth of July invasion. Somehow, the beach looks a little less like a page out of a Waldo book.

Unfortunately, June is not just our little secret. Thousands know. Still, if you can make it to Rehoboth before the Fourth, you'll avoid some of the Bay Bridge backup, some of the beach madness and some of the expense (many motels rooms cost $30 a night less).

We arrive early Friday afternoon at the Dinner Bell Inn and check into one of the small, second-floor rooms overlooking a lush courtyard of ferns and pale pink roses that climb old wooden trellises. Aside from the two high-backed, rocking chairs on the porch outside our room, this vintage 1950s motel offers few amenities but loads of charm.

Towels are about the size of postage stamps -- and about as thick. The air conditioning is temperamental. Ice still gets dispensed for a quarter, one small bucket at a time.

But the rates are reasonable and low season lasts until July. If you're willing to stay several blocks away from the ocean, then a double room at the Dinner Bell for $59.50 ($87 after July 1) is a good deal, compared with beachfront rooms that can cost $130 or more a night. The dining room -- which features such home cooking as Delaware pan-fried chicken and Miss Edna's rolls -- is a favorite for many who live in Rehoboth year-round.

After checking in, we walk two blocks over to Rehoboth Avenue, the main drag that runs perpendicular to the ocean, to buy a beach book from the well-stocked shelves at Browseabout (it's also a good spot for Sunday morning papers). Then we pack up the Playmate and folding chairs, drive down Second Street and park along one of the side streets, like Norfolk or New Castle.

In busier summer months, finding a parking spot anywhere near the boardwalk is nearly impossible. So parking on the side streets beyond the boardwalk, or along Second Street, is your best bet, and the beach is far less crowded there.

For such a laissez-faire weekend, ours has developed some fairly rigid patterns. In the mornings, we grab a bagel with cream cheese, some OJ and coffee, and stake out a spot on the beach. By noon we're ready to escape the sun's intense rays, so we leave for a few hours of shopping and eating.

While dining in Rehoboth can be as expensive as downtown Baltimore, the lunch fare at such places as the Back Porch Cafe can save you money -- if not calories (the chocolate torte will sustain you through the afternoon, though). And even the fanciest restaurants don't mind seeing you in bathing suits and cover-ups during the day.

We always leave our chairs, towels and other belongings on the beach and have yet to find anything missing when we return around 3 (unless we miscalculate the tide a bit). By 7:30 p.m., there's only us, a few fishermen and children still building sand castles. Watching the dolphins glide and dip in the distance is yet another one of June's special treats, as more run as they follow migrating fish northward.

jTC Even though Rehoboth seems a little grayer, a little gayer and a little yuppier every year, its reputation is still built solidly on the family image.

Certainly, the town lures its share of teen-agers, hot-rodding down Rehoboth Avenue with radios blaring somewhere around 20 decibels. And it probably attracts more gay men than any other beach between Provincetown, Mass., and Key West, Fla.

It's all a far cry from the Christian seaside resort founded by Methodist ministers 100 years ago (the name Rehoboth, meaning "room enough," comes from the Old Testament).

Still, the family town image sticks -- and for good reason. High school bands perform on Saturday nights on the bandstand in the middle of Rehoboth Avenue. Girls in evening gowns ride down Rehoboth Avenue in convertibles in the annual Miss Delaware parade in June. Children frolic at the tot lot and feed ducks at Lake Gerar on the north side of town.

The town bans bars; police still arrest an occasional skinny dipper. And while new town houses and apartments are cropping up everywhere, you won't find high-rises littering the beach here, as there is a building height restriction of 42 feet.

In short, it's quite a contrast to Maryland's highly developed, glitzy Ocean City just 16 miles down the highway. But for all the flak he took as governor of Maryland, it seems to me Harry Hughes knew what he was doing when he vacationed in Rehoboth, Del.

For a beach town, this one's got it all.

Funkiness and fun.

Charm and sophistication.

Along the mile-long boardwalk, you can shoot water balloons or Whack the Mole at Funland amusement park, buy a T-shirt with the latest slogans, nosh a tub of Thrashers French fries, eat salt-water taffy or an orange-vanilla soft serve.

But you can also drift into Penny Lane -- a collection of stores, eateries and art galleries tucked in an alleyway off Rehoboth Avenue -- and enjoy a croissant and a cup of cappuccino at an outdoor cafe.

For a real escape, rent a bike and pedal toward the gazebo-lined Silver Lake on Rehoboth's south side, or ride north around Lake Gerar and into the nearby wooded neighborhoods. Or stroll along the tree-lined streets where cottages with screened porches and wicker chairs are surrounded by hydrangeas, roses and day lilies.

If you get tired of just too much beach town, then head for one of the two undeveloped state parks just 10 minutes on either side of Rehoboth Beach. There's Cape Henlopen State Park, a 3,000-acre park just north of Rehoboth toward Lewes. There you'll find the famous walking sand dunes, nature trails, surf fishing and swimming. Or try Delaware State Park, about five minutes south of town.

Even if you hate the beach, this is a town that offers enough entertainment to last awhile. Visit the Rehoboth Art League, a 3 1/2 -acre complex in lovely park-like setting in Henlopen Acres, an incorporated town northeast of Rehoboth.

Among the four buildings that serve as galleries and studios is the 250-year-old Homestead, which also provides living accommodations for artists-in-residence (among them this summer is Bennard Perlman of Baltimore).

It's open Mondays to Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

If anything, there's simply too much to do.

Every year, before we know it, it's Sunday morning. We're on the beach by 8:30, coffee cups planted in the sand, as we savor the last precious hours before packing up and fighting the inevitable rush back to Baltimore.

Crossing the Canal Bridge on the way out of town, we tick off the list of what we missed -- that new little boutique at the Village by the Sea, another ornament from the Christmas shop and the craft show at the Art League.

Already, we're planning our 11th annual.

If you go . . .

The easiest way to reach Rehoboth from Baltimore is to take Interstate 97 south off the Beltway, then to U.S. 50 east and across the Bay Bridge. Continue to Route 404, turn left, then left on Route 16 and right on Route 1 to Rehoboth.

Here are some special events highlighting Rehoboth's centennial year:

June 24: Juggling exhibition at the Lake Gerar tot lot, 7 p.m. Call (302) 227-6181.

July 4-7: Four for the 4th -- Dinosaur shows for the children every day from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., starting at Lake Gerar on July 4, in Dewey Beach at the Bayside Beach at Rusty Rudder restaurant July 5, then back to Lake Gerar July 6 and Dewey Beach July 7. Family events, including glow-in-the-dark beach activities, also planned. Call (302) 227-2233 or (800) 441-1329.

July 9-10: Rehoboth Art League cottage tour. Call (302) 227-8408.

Aug. 18: 42nd annual Kiwanis auction at Convention Hall, featuring Oriental rugs, jewelry and painting. Call (302) 227-6935.

Aug. 17-18, 24-25: Rehoboth Art League Outdoor Art Show at Henlopen Acres. Call (302) 227-8408.

Sept. 7-8: 14th annual Nanticoke Indian Pow Wow, with ceremonial dancing, storytelling and crafts. In Millsboro, about 13 miles west of Rehoboth on Route 24. Call (302) 945-7022.

Sept. 28: Old Time Chocolate Festival and Bake Contest, Convention Hall, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call (302) 227-2383.

Oct. 18-20: Second annual jazz festival, featuring indoor and outdoor performances. Call (302) 227-7990.

Oct. 25-27: Second annual Sea Witch Festival featuring costume contest, broom rides, pumpkin patch magic, artisans and hunts and haunts. Call (302) 227-2233 or (800) 441-1329.

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