I was born into a road trip family. My dad was afraid of flying and air travel is expensive, so our family vacations were always to East Coast destinations relatively accessible by car from Northeast Ohio: Washington, D.C., Branson, Missouri, and Ocean City, Maryland. There is no shortage of beaches within a day’s drive of the Rust Belt—but my dad, who grew up in Pittsburgh, had spent his summer vacations in Ocean City, so I did too.
Located three hours south of the New Jersey shore town of the same name, Ocean City, Maryland, has been a resort destination since at least the late 1860s when visitors traveled to the barrier island by stagecoaches and ferries. On July 4, 1875, the Atlantic Hotel was the first to open on the southern tip of Fenwick Island, between Baltimore Avenue and the boardwalk. More hotels and businesses followed, and in 1952, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge made the town more accessible to those coming from Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, completed in 1964, increased access even further.
My dad finally conquered his fear of flying in his 40s, but it was changing family dynamics that put an end to our summer road trips. On a whim, I return to Ocean City for the first time as an adult on Easter weekend in early April. I don’t realize until I’m pulling into the parking lot that the motel I’ve booked is directly adjacent to the one we stayed at when I was a child.
I consciously picked the Flamingo Motel both because of its reasonable price and its vintage charm. But the coincidence is too perfect to ignore, and I wonder if I’ve been led here by the same thing that beckoned my dad—and his dad before him—to this particular spot. The Flamingo’s pale pink neon signage is what initially attracted me, but an ancestral nudge and an ocean-view balcony sealed the deal.
Like similar seasonal coastal towns, Ocean City has weathered hurricanes, devastating fires, and changing travel trends over the decades. While tourism has always reigned supreme, the city, known as the “White Marlin Capital of the World,” has deep ties to the fishing industry and in a normal year hosts both the White Marlin Open (one of the largest fishing tournaments in the world) and the annual Maryland State Firefighters Convention. As a kid, I was mostly interested in playing Skee-Ball and eating funnel cakes; thankfully, I’m still able to easily do both—even in the off-season during a pandemic.
Beach boardwalks are living things and churn is a constant, especially so close to the shape-shifting shore. But 146 years after it opened, the Atlantic Hotel is still in operation—owned by the same family since 1923—and a handful of classics such as Thrasher’s French Fries, Dolle’s Candyland, and Fisher’s Popcorn remain in business. One of Fisher’s most unique flavors is caramel popcorn seasoned with Old Bay; nearby souvenir shops sell t-shirts, socks, and other items paying homage to Maryland’s favorite savory spice. You can’t go wrong sampling any of the seaside snacks, but whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of asking for ketchup with your Thrasher’s skin-on boardwalk fries; they don’t have it, and I promise the fries—and the ocean views—are so good, you won’t miss it.
The Jolly Roger Amusement Park has two locations in Ocean City: One is on The Pier at the southern end of the boardwalk and the other is north on 30th Street. A pirate-themed Muffler Man has seen better days but he still stands at the entrance to the 30th Street location, welcoming (or menacing, depending on your viewpoint) visitors.
The CDC has since updated COVID-19 guidelines for outdoor activities, but in early April, enormous signs informed visitors that masks were required on the boardwalk if social distancing was not possible.
Baltimore Avenue is lined with classic hotels and motels with colorful balconies, neon signage, and beautifully preserved vintage details.
There are several arcades and amusement parks located on or just off the boardwalk, including Trimper’s Rides of Ocean City, Marty’s Playland, and the Sportland Arcade. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most machines have been converted to accept swipe cards instead of quarters and no longer dispense paper tickets.
The boardwalk is lined with souvenir shops packed with shot glasses, beach gear, hermit crabs, and make-your-own t-shirt presses.
Many of the hotels and motels close during the off-season, but during a normal summer Baltimore Avenue is bustling.
The Ocean Gallery World Center—and its chaotic boardwalk storefront featuring found objects and hand-painted signs—has been an Ocean City landmark for more than 50 years. The art gallery and attraction has been featured in several TV shows and movies, and was recently “honored by the state of Maryland as one of the most unique attractions on the boardwalk.” Due to COVID-19, the gallery is open by appointment only until further notice.
Julia’s Cannoli has been serving lemonade, funnel cakes, cannoli, Italian ice, soft and hand dipped ice cream, and other boardwalk snacks since 1967.
The pandemic doesn’t seem to have devastated the Ocean City boardwalk as badly as some other tourist-heavy towns, but it’s still unclear which businesses are closed for the season and which are closed indefinitely.