Ocean City, N.J.

In 1879, four Methodist ministers arrived on a New Jersey barrier island called Peck's Beach, renamed it Ocean City and set up a Christian retreat. Residents built a boardwalk, prohibited alcohol, forbade bathing on Sundays and eventually began promoting the island as "A Moral Seaside Resort." Despite these restrictions, Ocean City flourished.

The founders' conservative intentions lingered well into the next century. In fact, the Blue Laws that prohibited bathing, shopping, recreation and other acts of "personal comfort" on Sundays weren't repealed until 1987, following a very close vote.

You can't buy booze in Ocean City, but you can play Skee-Ball, eat saltwater taffy and fried foods, ride a boogie board, sunbathe, play miniature golf, watch the sun rise and set, and partake in dozens of other activities. This combination of wholesome and winsome makes Ocean City one of the most popular family destinations in the mid-Atlantic.

A little history
Ironically, alcohol played a part in one of Ocean City's most legendary occurrences. Near midnight on Dec. 14, 1901, the British sailing ship Sindia -- en route to New York from Japan and carrying $1 million in silks, satins, porcelain and other wares -- drifted off course in a storm and crashed on the beach near 16th Street. Soon after, townspeople began circulating rumors that the ship's crew was drunk, an accusation that the captain and crew vehemently denied, blaming instead the bad weather.

The tip of the Sindia could still be seen approximately 150 yards off shore until the early 1990s. It has since disappeared and is totally submerged in sand. Today, the only reminders of the wreck are the Sindia Restaurant, named in its honor, and an extensive display at the Ocean City Historical Museum, a 6,000-square-foot museum that details the town's history from the Victorian era to the 1960s.

Walking around town is a history lesson in itself. The brick Tabernacle at 500 Wesley Ave. sits on the site of the island's first house of worship, a wooden tabernacle that was destroyed by a hurricane in 1944. The 300 block of Central Avenue is literally a stroll down memory lane; the large, architecturally varied homes look very much like they did 100 years ago. The Victorian-style New Brighton Inn, at 518 Fifth St., was built in 1882 by one of Ocean City's founders, the Rev. William Burrell. It was called the "marrying house" because of the hundreds of weddings he performed there.

Although Ocean City's 16,000 current residents form a melting pot of religious affiliations, ages and ethnicities, the town once claimed a thriving Italian immigrant community. In his best-selling book, "Unto the Sons," Ocean City native and journalist Gay Talese provides a vivid account of growing up on Marconi Street, the stretch of Simpson Street between 9th and 12th streets that, in the early 1900s, was Ocean City's Little Italy.

America's greatest family resort
For a town founded on principles of strict morality and rectitude, Ocean City is surprisingly -- and tastefully -- fun. It might be the only place in America where you can celebrate the end of tax season at the annual Doo-Dah Parade in April or compete in a taffy-sculpting contest during Weird Contest Week in August.

The hub of action in Ocean City is the boardwalk -- 50 feet in width, 2 1/2 miles long and packed plank to plank with arcades, miniature golf courses, sweet shops, cafes and pizzerias. It serves as a genteel alter ego of the more famous Atlantic City version 10 miles to the north.

Gillian's Wonderland Pier, with dozens of amusement rides, a miniature golf course and a water park, is the biggest amusement conglomerate on the island. Perhaps the most famous spot to get a cavity is at Shriver's, which has sold fudge and saltwater taffy on the boardwalk since the "days of Queen Victoria." Johnson's Popcorn sells legendary buckets of caramel-coated kernels from three locations on the boardwalk. The white-and-pink Music Pier, built in the Mediterranean Revival architectural style in 1928, is a boardwalk landmark. Locals and visitors flock to the Music Pier to see the Ocean City Pops orchestra, as well as many other concerts, craft shows and musicals.

In the early mornings, joggers and bikers populate the boardwalk, giving over to hordes of teenagers by afternoon. The eight miles of clean and well-maintained beach provide a popular gathering spot, but remember that all beachgoers must purchase and wear badges.

The Bayside Center is a great place to catch a sunset or pass a rainy afternoon. The vintage 1910 home has an environmental education center, a lifesaving museum, a display of classic ship models and three floors of reconstructed bayfront porches. Its observation level is a great place to watch the annual Night in Venice, a boat parade on the bay in July.

The Ocean City Arts Center offers a cultural escape from the arcade game bells and food vendor barks. The facility hosts fine arts classes and workshops, monthly exhibits, art and jewelry shows, concerts and lectures.

For the first time, in June 2003, the town sponsored the Ocean City Film Festival, a weekend-long celebration of feature-length films, animated movies and short films from around the world.

Planning a trip
Accommodations in Ocean City are abundant and range from weekly rentals to budget hotels to luxurious bed and breakfasts.

The extravagant Beach Club Hotel has a beachfront pool, on-site restaurant and rooms with private balconies. Just a block from the boardwalk, the Impala Island Inn offers moderately priced rooms and a pool for the kids. The Tahiti Inn, with low prices, weekly apartment rentals, connecting rooms and a small pool, is ideal for budget-conscious families.

Restaurants cover every corner of town. Given the family-centric atmosphere, they trend more toward casual places serving comfort food and pizza, although Chinese, Japanese and Greek cuisines are represented. Large concentrations of eateries can be found along the boardwalk, in the historic district and along Asbury Avenue.

Cousin's, loved for its gourmet food, "early-bird" specials and bargain family-size take-out portions, has an extensive menu of poultry, steak, seafood and Italian dishes. The Blue Planet Diner serves standard, inexpensive comfort food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Mack & Manco on the boardwalk is a favorite for pizza. Tory's, a 1950s-style ice cream parlor, makes a great after-dinner stop.

Nightlife in Ocean City is sedate and family-friendly. Since no alcohol is sold or served, there are no bars or nightclubs. Yet the boardwalk and its amusement parks, golf courses, ice cream parlors and sweet shops are usually buzzing with the energy of a big-city dance club until 10 or 11 p.m. Teens prowl the wooden walkway and meet friends at the Strand 5 Theatre, which always has an assortment of G, PG and PG-13 movies. Families browse the shops and cool off with ice cream cones.

Ocean City is a unique destination on the mid-Atlantic coast. It is not for the thrill-seeking, unencumbered and urbane. Rather, it is a playground of simple pleasures and a reminder that spending time with family can provide the greatest entertainment of all.