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Atlantic Coast Road Tripping: A Classic Seaside Stop in Ocean City

Aerial view of Ocean City stretching out along the narrow Assateague Island, a barrier island with a strip of visible beach.
Aerial view of Ocean City. Public Domain photo by US Army Corps of Engineers.

About the only place left on the entire East Coast that retains the carnival qualities of classic seaside resorts, Ocean City (pop. 7,105, swelling to some 400,000 in summer) has by far the best array of old-time funfair attractions in the Mid-Atlantic (well, south of Wildwood, New Jersey, at least). On and around the main pier at the south end of the island, there are enough merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels, roller coasters (including The Hurricane, which is illustrated with scenes from Ocean City storms past), mini-golf courses, haunted houses, and bumper cars to divert a small army.

A block inland, Trimper’s Amusements, which has been operated by the same family for five generations, since the 1890s, has two more roller coasters, plus a Tilt-a-Whirl, a 100-year-old Hershell carousel, and a spooky haunted house. Places like Trimper’s, and the sundry batting cages, go-kart tracks, and zip lines, are threatened by rising property values (and property taxes) and increasingly close to becoming extinct, so enjoy them while you can. Trimpers’s local rival, Jolly Roger, also runs a big water park and another amusement park at the north end of town, along the bay at 30th Street.

To go along with its great beaches, Ocean City has a radio station, the excellent WOCM 98.1 FM, playing classic rock ’n’ roll and broadcasting details of Ocean City’s nightclub scene.

From the pier north, Ocean City stretches for over three miles along a broad, clean, white-sand beach. A wide, part-wooden boardwalk lines the sands, packed with arcades full of video games and a few nearly forgotten old amusements like Skee-Ball and Pokerino, not to mention midway contests—the kind where, for $1 a try, you can win stuffed animals and other prizes by shooting baskets or squirting water into clowns’ mouths. A ramshackle collection of fortune- tellers, T-shirt stands, and burger-and-beer bars completes the scene, forming a busy gauntlet that is among the nation’s liveliest promenades.

On summer weekends, Ocean City becomes Maryland’s second-largest city, and most of the fun is simply in getting caught up in the garish human spectacle of it all, but there are a couple of specific things worth searching out. For the price of a bumper car ride, you can enjoy the quirky collections of the Life-Saving Station Museum (daily May–Oct., weekends only in winter; $3), at the south end of the boardwalk, where alongside displays of shipwrecks and bathing suits you can compare and contrast bowls full of sand from 100 different beaches around the world. The museum also marks the starting point for the open-air trams ($3) that run north along the boardwalk for over two miles.

Ocean City Practicalities

Much of Ocean City’s charm is decidedly lowbrow, but the food is better than you might expect, with numerous places offering plates full of shrimp and pitchers of beer for under $10, and freshly fried chicken or crab cakes available from boardwalk stands. Thrashers Fries are available (no ketchup; salt and vinegar only!) from a number of counters along the boardwalk, and you can top them off with a cone or milk shake from Dumser’s Ice Cream, which runs a trio of stands at the south end of the boardwalk.

Places to stay are also abundant, though many of the huge concrete towers you see are actually condominiums and not available for overnight stays. In fact, of all the dozen or more grand, older hotels, only the Atlantic Hotel ($80 and up; 5 Somerset St.; 410/289-9111), on the oceanfront, is still open for business. Modern motels like the Oceanic (710 S. Philadelphia St.; 410/289-6494), looking across the inlet to Assateague Island, charge as much as $200 a night for a room that goes for less than $50 off-season.

For help finding lodgings and restaurants, contact the Ocean City visitors center (4001 Coastal Hwy.; 410/723-8600 or 800/626-2326), in the Convention Center.

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