At beach resorts, the changing of the season; Rentals: At Bethany Beach, Cape May and others, autumn fall-off is a memory; STRATEGIES


Not so long ago, Labor Day was the moment the cottage door twanged shut. For rentals at the beach, the long season began on Memorial Day, the short on July 4. But long or short, it was over on Labor Day, just before school started.

Like many travel patterns in America, this one is changing. While no one has created the endless summer surfers dream of, September and October have become beach time for many.

On Cape Cod, in New Jersey and at shore resorts elsewhere along the recreational vehicle flyway, officials all say yes, yes, there is a post-Labor Day influx of retired people, especially those taking a leisurely course to Florida. This flow of people who pause along the way for more than a weekend is bolstered by a certain number of younger vacation-house hunters who cannot go in summer.

But at Bethany Beach, Del., Mayor Joe McHugh sees something else: families with preschool children. They come flooding in to swim, rent cottages at a lower price and eat at restaurants that increasingly keep their stoves alight into the fall, he said.

Lower prices at thriving Bethany Beach are a relative matter. In the middle of summer, said Michael Wilgus of Century 21 Wilgus real estate company, three-bedroom houses go for $1,800 to $1,950 a week; in September, this might be $1,000 a week. The September-October "season" has been evolving for some time, said Wilgus. "Now a lot of people have caught on. The humidity is gone, the crowds are gone, rentals are lower."

Cape May, N.J., set out to sell fall opportunities, and the town's stylish restaurants and Victorian-style inns. Tags for beach admission end after Labor Day, said Kathy Tomlin, office manager for the county department of tourism. "The water is at its highest temperature," she said, "and we are past the August chaos."

Dane Wells, proprietor of the Queen Victoria Inn and the smaller Queen's Hotel in Cape May, said that his rates did not drop at all until mid-September because early September was still "prime beach season."

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