A little town in Delaware captures a lion’s share of gay family traffic.
You know a place is gay-friendly when a rainbow flag flies over the Hooters. In Rehoboth Beach, some people really do go “just for the wings.”
How It All Began
I spent summers here almost from the start; my granddad Reed Booth was mayor there in the 70s. But even at a young age, when the grown-ups were talking about “the gays,” I knew they weren’t talking about various stages of happiness, but it took me a few more years to figure out the specifics.
Granddad was a let-and-let-live kind of guy when it came to “the gays” — whatever they were — who had been taking up tentative towel space on Rehoboth’s famed oceanfront. He didn’t care what they did so long as they didn’t do it in the streets and scare the horses. In those days, what is now known as Poodle Beach was at the far south end of town where Queen Street (natch!) emptied onto the sand, but when it was clear that mutual respect was the name of the mayor’s game, word got out: Rehoboth was a tolerant town. Thus opened the floodgates.
Today, Poodle Beach extends north to at least Norfolk Street all the way south to the next town, Dewey Beach. However, Rehoboth never became synonymous with homo-hideaway the way Provincetown or Fire Island did; rather, it took a cornucopia-type route, merrily absorbing the latest strand of middle America and weave it into its laid-back, family-friendly, and increasingly diverse fabric: gay and straight, black and white, young and old, etcetera and yada-yada.
Sunny Side of the Street
What’s the appeal? Unlike the rampant over-commercialization all around the town, Rehoboth Beach has fought tooth and nail to stay quaint.
I say “tooth and nail” because of the brouhaha my grandfather embroiled himself during his tenure. Amid howls from the business community, he shoved through an unpopular ordinance to keep all buildings below 30 feet. Why?
Take the fate of Ocean City, in Maryland. Dozens of high-rises went up along its equally alluring beach, which doesn’t sound so bad until you realize Ocean City is on the East Coast — emphasis on “east.” By the afternoon, the entire beach is in the shadow of a building, and sun worshippers, deprived of their sunlight bliss, swiftly move into the bars with their BFFs José Cuervo and Jack Daniels for bliss of a different sort. The whole place is plastered by 3 p.m., hardly the place for with-kids vacationers, the kind my granddad wanted to attract. In keeping things low, Granddad predicted (correctly) that people would stay on the no-booze/no-smoking beach longer and keep things G-rated.
It worked like magic; Rehoboth is one of the most popular, and affordable, family resorts in the country.
“The Nation’s Summer Capital”
Now here is the bad news: As you might guess, Rehoboth is not some undiscovered gem. Rather, it is a very much discovered gem, and gets more discovered with each passing year. Rehoboth might be laid-back, but getting a room (and a parking space) can be a bona fide thrill ride. (However, once, at the height of the summer season I literally walked into the Victorian-styled Boardwalk Plaza, asked if they had a room, and to my complete flabbergast, they did. I was on the beach in 15 minutes. There’s something to be said for flukes.)
And the beach does not disappoint. A mile long, the well-tended and well-lifeguarded Rehoboth coastline sits on the tranquil waters where Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic. As wave action goes, Rehoboth is decidedly not of cowabunga-calibre, boogie boarding is about as daring as it gets. On a typical summer day, the kid-friendly surf is rarely cause for excitement unless the occasional pod of dolphins makes a showing. The excitement, ironically, is on land.
Many Mouths To Feed
Running the entire length of Rehoboth, the boardwalk, voted by Reader’s Digest as the best in the country, is chock-full of all the down-market food one finds at a beach – but still retains a touch of class: For such a small town, Rehoboth is home to several culinary legends. For the dads, Dogfish Head opened its first brewpub there in 1995; for the under-21 crowd, the saltwater taffy of Dolle’s, a staple since 1927, is so associated with the town it is the take-away gift for friends back home – and as a side note, the store’s Coca-Colaesque sign overlooking the boardwalk makes it a handy rendezvous point.
But of all the runaway success stories, Grotto Pizza and Thrasher’s are at the top of the list. Being a New Yorker, I know that passions run deep when it comes to pizza, but even I had to give credit where it is due; Grotto makes some of the best pies I have ever had. As for Thrasher’s, who knew that putting vinegar on French fries would go viral? If you are determined to eat healthy, check out the Green Man Juice Bar & Bistro on Wilmington Avenue.
Avenues of Escape
Once the lifeguards close up shop at 5 p.m., the action moves off the beach into town. Most of the gay establishments, such as the Blue Moon and the Iguana Grill are on Baltimore Avenue, but by and large, the nightlife of Rehoboth (including that rainbow-flag-flying Hooters) is over on Delaware Avenue, aka “the Avenue.”
The Avenue runs the gamut, from high-end to right off the deep end. Spanning the width of Rehoboth, the main drag begins at the Rehoboth Beach Museum and goes straight to the sand. But it can be a little discombobulating: Tacky T-shirt stores, faux vintage photo studios, and candy emporiums like you have never seen jockey for attention next to upscale eateries like Cilantro and Fins, and off-shooting alleys like Penny Lane filled with local jewelers and artisans.
Where the Wild Things Are
But let’s be honest: Night in Rehoboth means one thing: Funland.
When the sun goes down, the LEDs come out. Perhaps Rehoboth’s greatest family draw is the candy-colored chaos of carnival rides and game arcades going up and down the boardwalk. With Funland going strong since 1962, there are rides I remember going on as a child, and ones my mother remembers when she was a child. It was a big deal for me when I was finally old enough to take a spin through the Haunted Mansion.
The bumper cars, carousel, wack-a-moles and all sorts of merry-go-rounds harken back to the amusement parks of old; the rides may be different but all the patterns are the same. There are other amusements – cruises along the shore, the wetlands, or the Lewes & Rehoboth Canal – but with sunning, funning, feasting, and festivities all on tap, even the most jittery of kids will need little more to be out like lights come the evening news.
What can I say? My granddad knew a good thing when he saw it.
For more information, visit the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce website.