LOOKING FOR a change of location for this summer's fun-in-the-sun family vacation? You might want to consider Ocean City.
No, not that Ocean City. We're talking Ocean City, Md.
A few clicks less than 150 miles southeast of Philadelphia City Hall, this Ocean City offers the familiar - but in a somewhat different setting.
Visitors from the Delaware Valley will likely find the seaside town - which, like so many Jersey Shore resorts, is on a barrier island - most similar to Wildwood. Like Wildwood, it caters to the family trade with a wide beach, lively boardwalk and a multitude of kid-friendly activities and restaurants, while also providing numerous bars for the twenty- and thirty-something crowd.
But Ocean City is newer (it didn't begin to boom until the 1970s) and a bit more upscale. And unlike Wildwood and other Jersey locales, there are few private homes. Instead, the landscape is dominated by hotels and motels and, at the northern end of town, towering condos and time-shares that create a skyline more like Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
OK, so it's the same as Jersey, but also a bit different. Either way, Ocean City takes a back seat to no oceanside retreat, said Donna Abbott, director of tourism and marketing.
"We offer a lot of activities, our beach is free and we have a lot of free family-oriented events throughout the summer," she said. "We have a lot of different accommodations from hotels to condos, four-star to more modest, so there's a wide range of prices."
Abbott reasoned Ocean City is "not a 'one-size-fits-all' beach town. It can be as active or relaxed as you want."
_ The Ocean City Boardwalk is narrower and shorter than you might expect for such a bustling burg. Shops, restaurants and concession stands line both sides of the wooden walkway.
The boardwalk begins at First Street and runs through the town's extreme southern section to 28th Street, a seaside promenade of about 2 1/2 miles. It has all of the required amenities and attractions (read: kiddie rides, a haunted house, junk food and T-shirt outlets). It also has something that Jersey Shore habitués may find odd, if not disconcerting: a large parking/exhibition area that separates the boardwalk from the Atlantic Ocean.
_ The beach certainly rivals any Jersey strand, both in size and condition. "We've been consistently ranked very high on the cleanliness of the environment by the Natural Resources Defense Council," bragged Abbott.
_ Although there are enough commercial endeavors to keep most kids occupied, Ocean City has, in recent years, ratcheted up its program of free public events geared toward families. These include summerlong movie screenings on the beach (various locations), "family beach Olympics" (6:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 27th Street Beach), fireworks (every Monday and Tuesday in July and August) and concerts (July 10, 17 and 24 and Aug. 7, 14, 21 and 28).
_ Ocean City does not have a huge residential housing stock. But accommodations for every budget are available, from Holiday Inn and Howard Johnson hotels to resort complexes like the plush Marigot Beach Resort, 10002 Coastal Hwy., where about $360 a night in August gets you an ocean-view condo with balcony, two bedrooms, two full baths, living room, full kitchen and washer and dryer.
_ Not surprisingly, it would be hard to go hungry in Ocean City. There are scores of eateries suiting every wallet, from Boardwalk hot-dog-and-pizza stands to a Ruth's Chris Steak House in nearby Berlin, Md.
For those of us who worship at the altar of the Maryland hard-shell blue crab, OC is truly paradise, with an all-you-can-eat emporium on almost every corner. Because Ocean City is on Maryland's Eastern Shore, having steamed hard shells there is akin to having a cheesesteak in Philly.
_ If you're looking for something a little more liquid (and adult), numerous bars dot the island, including the bayside Seacrets, 117 W. 49th St., a mega-lounge with a Jamaican motif that draws hundreds of revelers nightly.
All of this is why it's not hard to find Philadelphia-area residents among the visitors year-round. Among them is Katie McKenna, an elementary schoolteacher from Mount Laurel, N.J., and an OC regular.
"My group of girlfriends has come down to Ocean City for the past four or five years. We have a great time every year," she said. "We get a condo the nine of us. We go to the Jersey Shore frequently, so this is more of a getaway. Seacrets is a lot of fun. It's a fun beach town, for sure."
For Jim Miller of West Chester and his family - wife, Marie, and kids Marc, Emily and Ryan - this Ocean City is their permanent summer-fun destination.
"It's a little farther ride than the Jersey Shore, but the beaches, the atmosphere, the entertainment, it's all much better," he said. "The boardwalk is nicer, the beaches are wider. It works for us."