Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Five Best American Boardwalks

Wednesday is the cruelest of all days for Independence Day to fall on, because it is hard to justify taking off Thursday and Friday (or Monday and Tuesday) and leave only a two-day work week. If you can finagle it, however, a Wednesday Fourth makes for the longest of long weekends. This gives you the perfect opportunity to head out of town for a few days.

If you are looking for a destination—a place to go to when all you really want to do is get away from home—may we suggest the coast? And more specifically, may we suggest a beach town with restaurants, shops, and amusements pressed right up against the ocean with a wooden walkway in between?

A boardwalk is perfect for Independence Day because it is fun, summery, and American to a fault. Here are five boardwalks within a day's drive of home for most Americans (sorry, Kansas).

5. Ocean City, Maryland

History: Not to be confused with the other boardwalked Ocean City eighty miles up the coast and across Delaware Bay, Maryland's OC has had a boardwalk in one form or another since 1902. The current incarnation, a replacement for a storm-leveled earlier version, dates to the early 1960s.

Carousel: The one at Trimper's Amusements has been continuously run since 1912, so Ocean City claims it as the nation's oldest carousel in continuous operation. The best part is that it has two floors.

People watching: Ocean City's boardwalk is about as far away from a major urban area as you will find, which inevitably leads to a high mullet quotient.

Food: Pizza, ice cream, typical boardwalk fare.

Live Boardwalk Cam: Yes.

Why it makes the list: Warm water, great sand, and that carousel.

See the top four . . .

4. Atlantic City, New Jersey

History: The nation's first boardwalk was built here in 1870 when hotel owners decided it would be a good way to keep guests from tracking in sand. It grew to seven miles long before being wiped out in a 1944 hurricane. The current boardwalk, which merges with the Ventnor boardwalk, is the longest in the world at 5.75 miles.

Carousel: I couldn't find one, but let me know if you do. It's too darn big to search everywhere.

People watching: The fading casino glory yields a lot of desperate individuals and blue-haired ladies who come in by the bus load, but they tend to stay behind the slot machines and out of the sun. There are plenty of Jersey girls to go around, and something about the combination of young guys still wearing muscle shirts and that scent of ocean mixed with garbage reminds you that this is the city the mob built.

Food: Typical of other boardwalks, plus soft pretzels, because you are, after all, only an hour's drive from Philly.

Live Boardwalk Cam: Apparently not.

Why it makes the list: Sure, it's the oldest and the biggest, but it's really Monopoly that takes it over the top. If someone lands on Boardwalk with a hotel, it's all over. Plus, the Boss says so.

3. Rehoboth Beach, Delaware

History: The boardwalk was originally rolled out in 1873 as part of a summer retreat for the Methodist Church. God destroyed it in 1914, then again in 1962, and finally in 1992. The Rehobothite Methodists don't know how to take a hint.

Carousel: There's a smallish one indoors.

People watching: Tourists regularly pour in from Washington, Baltimore, and smaller towns as far away as Pennsylvania. Rehoboth has become the Mid Atlantic's gay capital, which probably has something to do with the crowd being more urbane and interesting than most.

Food: World famous saltwater taffy.

Live Boardwalk Cam: You bet.

Why it makes the list: Come for the people and the weather, stay for the taffy.

2. Coney Island, New York

History: The Riegelmann Boardwalk, built in 1923, sprang up because of the influx from the recently completed subway line. Amusement parks, which had come and gone in the area since the middle of the nineteenth century, took off thanks to the boardwalk.

Carousel: Sure, but wouldn't you rather ride the Cyclone?

People Watching: The location at the end of a subway line in a city of eight million interesting people makes for a fascinating boardwalk. As American boardwalks go, Coney Island feels both proto- and atypical. Every July 4 Coney Island hosts the Super Bowl of competitive eating.

Food: It's pretty much the same stuff you could get in 1940, and that's fine with me. The hot dogs are the clincher.

Live Boardwalk Cam: Nope.

Why it makes the list: It's as storied a beach resort as you are going to find, and it's the crowd that makes it so. Plus, the Drifters say so.

1. Santa Cruz, California

History: Dating to 1907, the boardwalk was inspired by the amusements of Coney Island but predates Coney's actual boardwalk. And unlike some other boardwalks, it hasn't had any storms (or even the occasional earthquake) knock it down since.

Carousel: The 1911 Looff Carousel is a national historic landmark, and it features the old brass ring game.

People Watching: It's California. People are just different here. Andby different I mean hotter.

Food: Gilroy garlic fries. And can you say Dippin' Dots?

Live Boardwalk Cam: Sort of.

Why it's number one: It's got all the history, rides, and arcade games of the East Coast boardwalks, along with a laid-back California feel and the nicest of all boardwalk beaches. Plus Kiefer Sutherland says so.

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Image credits: (a) "Dusk," wastrel; (b) "On the Boardwalk in Atlantic City," eqqman; (c) "The Boardwalk," Zsaj; (d) "47830001," dogseat; (e) "round up," astrocruzan. All images courtesy
Flickr. B and D are licensed through Creative Commons. A, C, and E are borrowed for news-reporting and comment purposes.