Ocean City has one railroad,
Rehoboth two can claim
Bethany Beach has none at all
But we get there just the same.
-- Bethany Herald, c. 1904
Could there be any cooler place for an only child to grow up? All summer, cool friends from out of state, coming and going every two weeks. All winter, a square mile of abandoned, cold beach houses on stilts with crawl spaces to crawl through. A long, straight boardwalk almost half a mile long, perfect for noisy sprints on my bicycle, the rickety boards grumbling under my tires. A great blue heron to watch, down at the canal, and seasonal ducks to feed at the salt pond, and rabbits in the bayberry bushes for my dog to chase after. So what if I was the only kid my age within a mile or so radius? I had books, I had a dog, and I had the beach.
Getting there used to be all the fun
Located in rural Sussex County, Delaware, Bethany Beach is a relatively young town of just over 1 square mile. Bethany Beach and adjacent Fenwick Island jointly claim the motto "The Quiet Resorts" to distinguish them from their noisy neighbors to the north and south: Dewey Beach, Delaware, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware and Ocean City, Maryland. Instead of catering to the June Bugs and Spring Break crowds of rowdy, drunken college kids, or the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, MD types whose idea of a vacation is "a city like home, but with water and bikinis," Bethany Beach aims to be a getaway.
Bethany Beach was originally founded as a religious retreat. The Disciples of Christ churches of Washington D.C. and southern Pennsylvania built the first building in town, a 100-foot diameter octagonal tabernacle. It was dedicated on July 12, 1901, and the deed to the tabernacle and surrounding 15 acres was presented to a representative of the Christian Missionary Society. The trip from Washington to Bethany in the early 1900's would scare away today's tourists: two days of dusty, smoky train rides, squall-tossed boat rides through shallow mosquito-infested waterways, and lurching wagons riding over sand and mud through clouds of sand flies.
Today things are considerably better. If you know when to make the drive to avoid city traffic, you can come from Baltimore, Washington, or Philadelphia within 3 hours. Fair warning, though: Bethany is a two-hour drive from the nearest interstate highway in the best conditions, and probably always will be. Delawareans are, by and large, rural people who dislike seeing their tax money spent on high speed roads that only benefit out-of-state drivers. If you don't plan ahead, and decide to just wing it, you'll be sitting in traffic on Delaware RT 404 or 1 (depending which way you drive in).1
Bethany Beach is laid out in a grid pattern, with three major north-south avenues and one major east-west street. From the ocean to the west, the avenues are:
And from south to north, the streets are:
- Cedarwood Street
- Ashwood Street
- Maplewood Street
- Oakwood Street
- Wellington Parkway
- Parkwood Street
- Hollywood Street
- Garfield Parkway
- Campbell Place
- Central Avenue
- First Street
- Second Street
- Third Street
- Oceanview Parkway
- Fourth Street
- Fifth Street
Garfield Parkway is the main drag, and is also Delaware Route 26. Bethany extends back as far as the Assowoman Canal along 26, but west of Route 1, it's all developments and strip malls. Bethany Beach's only 24-hour establishment is a Wawa; it's west of Route 1. From here on out, if I mention anything outside that small grid, it'll be noted--otherwise, assume that from anywhere inside the grid, you can walk there in 5 or 10 minutes.
Number One: the beach. Bethany has a beautiful coastline of golden sand beaches that slope shallowly into the Atlantic Ocean, rock jetties every two blocks that help keep erosion down, and a fairly standard assortment of flora and fauna to impress the city folks. For those who don't care to rough it on the sand, Ron Steen runs a rental concession on the beach where you can get large beach umbrellas, sand chairs, and body boards from perky local teenagers. Ron went to high school with my dad, and I worked for him for 2 seasons; in the off season he teaches drivers' ed at the local high school. Prices for daily and weekly rentals are cheap compared to the "big city" beaches north and south of Bethany.
are on duty from Memorial Day
to Labor Day
with hours posted on each beach. Our lifeguards routinely beat much larger squads of lifeguards in the local lifeguard competitions. On Labor Day
weekend, every first-year lifeguard heads to the main drag, hides under the boardwalk, and then, on a pre-arranged signal, they all streak
into the ocean; I've found photos of the event on postcards2
as far away as San Francisco
Our Independence Day parade is one of the state's best. It goes up Pennsylvania, across Oceanview Parkway, down Atlantic, and around Garfield; the best seats are on Oceanview Parkway, in front of my house, but show up early. The t-shirt commemorating the annual event is drawn by a different local artist each year, and my collection goes back to 1987 or so.
The annual Beach & Bay Cottage Tour benefits the town library. Due to the popularity of the area with wealthy Washington retirees, the real estate in town is... well, ludicrously expensive. For $20, you get a chauffered tour of 10 local homes, each decorated beautifully inside and out. It's the local equivalent of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous; most of the stops are at million dollar beach houses.
For lunch, try boardwalk fries from D.B. Fries, south corner of Atlantic and Garfield. For dinner, Surf's Up serves hoagies, pizza, cheese steaks, and similar greasy fare; Mango Mike's serves more upscale food like "grilled tuna au poivre" or steaks, and has a liquor license. Sedona offers southwestern gourmet meals for $20 a plate and up, but it's not really the local flavor--it's a little too hip for my tastes. If you really want local cooking, look up Magnolia or Chit Chat's restaurants, back on Cedar Neck Road west of route 1, and just outside the incorporated limits of Bethany Beach. I've also got to give a shout out to Warren's Station, on Route 1 in Fenwick, where I worked for 6 seasons: the food is great, the waitresses are cute, and the bill is cheap.
Bethany Beach boasts something like 10 ice cream shops; the market for ice cream is a fierce one, but prices are still pretty high. I recommend the ice cream store under the Blue Surf motel, which is owned and operated by a guy who used to babysit for me. The motel above is owned by his parents, and if you need a place to stay you could do a lot worse. We also have a TCBY and a Dippin' Dots, if you want something familiar.
But here's the thing
All of those are great places to spend your money, but if you want to know why Bethany Beach is great, then you have to visit in September, right after the tourists have gone home. Come down some weekend when the lifeguards and the waitresses are all back in college, the Atlantic is still warm, and my dad is out sea kayaking with the dolphins. Walk down a completely deserted street onto an empty beach, or barefoot up and down the tide pools collecting shells. Sit against one of the jetties in beat-up jeans, sheltered from the wind, and read a good book while you curl your toes in cool sand.
If you visit in the summer, we'll take your money and give you a vacation. If you visit in the early fall, you'll take home more than you could ever pay for.
- The best time way to get to Bethany Beach in the summer is to plan to leave D.C. or Baltimore on a Sunday evening around 6pm. Have a nice dinner in the city, then head for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Take Maryland 404 until it becomes Delaware 404; follow Delaware 404 to US 13. Take a left at the first light (Delaware 40), and a right onto Delaware 113. Take another left onto Delaware 26, and follow it all the way into town. When you cross the canal, Delaware 26 is Garfield Parkway, the town's "main drag".
- Bethany Beach's zip code is 19930. Delaware license plates are all digits--no letters. If you see a car with Delaware tag "19930," it's my dad. Say "hi," ask directions, whatever: he tied the record for most years in office as mayor of Bethany, and he grew up here. If he can't help you, you can't be helped.