Rehoboth Beach: Finding Solace in the Off Season

By Justine Hofherr
BU News Service

Ocean waves lap Rehoboth Beach’s shoreline and laughing gulls shriek as I begin the walk down the salt-stained wooden boardwalk I’ve traversed thousands of times.

“Ha..ha!” “Ha..ha!”

Perched atop one of the white-painted wooden benches that line the boardwalk, a curious laughing gull tilts his terse black head at an older couple sharing a cup of Thrasher’s French fries. It opens its bright orange beak to cackle, hoping for either a handout or a fry fumble.

The sun is high in the sky, beginning its slow afternoon descent. An unseasonably warm breeze carries the smell of Dolle’s caramel corn mingled with salty seaweed on its breath.

The Delaware beach is blessedly empty, save for shocks of green American Beachgrass swaying in the wind. A lone beachcomber stoops to pick up a shell here, a dog frolics in the cold shallows there.

The boardwalk, originally built in 1873, is mostly unoccupied on this March day. It stretches for a mile, beginning with an abandoned white concrete restaurant called “Yesterday’s,” and ending with a few dune-clinging gaudy mansions in hues of pale yellow and baby blue on your right.

On your left, the Atlantic Ocean is a desert of deep cerulean, dotted with the occasional gray barge or white herring gull, floating atop the rise and fall of the waves like a tiny boogie boarder.

Come summer, the boardwalk and beach will be a swirl of color and activity, as the city’s seasonal population swells by 25,000 and thousands more flock to the surrounding area to vacation, according to the News Journal. Tourists will curse as they try to find parking spots. Change machines will inevitably break, and tourists will curse some more as they realize some of the older meters only take quarters (one gets you just 10 minutes).

Hostesses at the packed seafood joints like Obie’s and Claw’s will predictably mix up names and wait times, and tourists will have to wait two hours instead of one for their lobster special. (But, oops, the lobster special ended at 4 p.m.—just missed it.)

Blood pressures will rise with the heat. Children will spill Kohr’s chocolate custard-filled cones on their bathing suits. Even more children will vomit from riding the Sea Dragon after Grotto’s Pizza. Tempers will flare.

A three-foot wooden sign at the mouth of Rehoboth Avenue says “Welcome to Rehoboth Beach! Relax and slow down.” In the summer, the irony is lost on no one.

For now, however, locals tick off the spring days left on their calendars, and Rehoboth Beach is a picture of calm before the tourist-filled storm.

Retirees and residents walk beside the ocean’s edge as shop and restaurant owners along Rehoboth Avenue prepare their businesses, shelving new inventory, repairing sand-cracked glass windows or layering signs with fresh coats of paint. The avenue is home to more than 200 tax-free retail and souvenir shops, art galleries and a swath of seafood restaurants and boardwalk treats, and I’ve worked on it almost every summer since I was 14. (Five summers at a toy & kite store, one summer as a coffee shop barista, one summer as a hostess).

While I thoroughly loved the rush of working at the beach every summer—the “pings!” and “pangs!” of Funland arcade games, the laughter of children winning giant stuffed teddy bears, the “pop!” of buttery popcorn kernels bursting still create a din in my dreams—I love the beach in the off season even more.

Parking is free after Labor Day to the Friday before Memorial Day. There’s no wait at the multitude of Italian, Japanese, Mexican and Thai restaurants that stay open in the off-season. Temperatures drop. People smile.

Other locals share my off-season appreciation. As I drift down the boardwalk, I turn right onto Rehoboth Avenue and venture into Bella Luna, a small boutique that sells artisanal jewelry, quirky home goods like cow wall art and paper mâché birdhouses, cookbooks and cards.

Jennifer Drake, a 28-year-old brunette with sea glass-green eyes and a dusting of freckles across her pale nose, fiddles with an earring display inside Bella Luna. She describes the beach’s off-season pleasures as she adjusts the fringes of her chunky knit navy scarf.

“People smile, say ‘hello,’ and I see the same faces,” Drake said. “I love the solidarity and the boardwalk when it’s not crowded.”

Brought to Rehoboth as a child for ice cream indulgences and family beach days, Drake says her parents moved from Seaford, Del., to Rehoboth to expand their rental property business.

Though she dreams of getting into the Maryland Institute College of Art for glassblowing, for now, she says she still loves Rehoboth for its food, art and entertainment scene—especially in fall and winter. Drake laughs as she describes the annual Halloween Sea Witch festival that features dog costume contests, local band performances and scarecrow making. Another town event, the chocolate festival, is put on every March, and allows local chefs and bakers to showcase their favorite chocolate masterpieces.

“The winter’s much more peaceful,” Drake said, “Lots of cute little old ladies. But there’s still a ton to do. Plenty of festivals, food and shopping.”

Drake says she often warms up with Café a Go Go’s spicy Mexican hot chocolate on Rehoboth Avenue or wakes up with smoothies from Wilmington Avenue’s Greenman Juice Bar & Bistro—all without waiting in any lines.

Her hidden summer sanctuary, Lake Gerar Park, located on Lake Avenue just west of the boardwalk and adjacent to Rehoboth Avenue, is just as peaceful in winter, she says. Benches scattered amidst clusters of white pine, broom sedge and Butterfly milkweed face the banks of murky Lake Gerar, where Drake says she reads to decompress.

Many of Drake’s friends have moved away to Baltimore or Philadelphia, but she says she isn’t in such a big rush to leave the beach lifestyle, a calmer, more community-oriented existence she’s reminded of each fall when town empties out.

“Even if I leave, I know I’ll come home here,” Drake said.

After leaving Bella Luna, I head to Lake Gerar Park and admire the stillness of the brackish water. The sound of construction on a boardwalk hotel’s pool has stopped for the day.

I look out to my left and the colossal white Henlopen Hotel blocks my view of the sea. I take a few steps back. The setting sun illuminates the ocean, which sparkles like millions of glimmering diamonds—not a soul in sight.

A pink Victorian style hotel right on the boardwalk, Boardwalk Plaza Hotel, (2 Olive Ave, Ocean-front winter rooms from $74 to $329) has lobby parlor filled with antiques; heated indoor and outdoor spa; attached to Victoria’s Restaurant, which has three-tiered dining room with views of the Atlantic and offers afternoon tea daily.

Breakfast- GreenMan Juice Bar (12 Wilmington Ave, ) has crème brulee french toast for $9.95, traditional porridge with fruit for $5.95, homemade quiche for $9.95 and fresh juices and smoothies like The Elvis (banana, peanut butter and strawberry) for $5.95.

Lunch- Modern Mixture (62A Rehoboth Ave, ) has Latin American and Mediterranean fusion plates. Drake recommends the crunchy Falafel for $4.00.

Dinner- Cultured Pearl Restaurant and Sushi Bar (301 Rehoboth Ave, ) has live entertainment, Koi ponds, rooftop shaded deck. Sushi was voted “Best of Delaware” 20 years in a row. Try “The Rehoboth” roll (Yellowtail, tuna, salmon draped with avocado and roe) for $15.

Café a Go Go (102 Rehoboth Ave.) serves up a variety of different Mexican and Vietnamese coffee beverages like Vietnamese coffee (made with sweetened condensed milk) and the Aztec Mocha (steamed milk, espresso, chocolate and cinnamon) for $5.95.

Browseabout Books (133 Rehoboth Ave. ) is a local hangout and offers the latest book releases (no sales tax!). Often showcases Delaware beach authors’ work, like Kevin Fleming’s photo book “The Beach,” for $75.