Ocean City has the most public beaches -- and some of the most crowded. If you want to make friends, come here. The beach near the southern tip of O.C. is the widest and usually least crowded; a huge parking lot makes this a convenient place for day-trippers. The beach along the boardwalk actually gets quite narrow in a few places. Still, for those who love the boardwalk and all its shops and restaurants, this is the best beach. In northern Ocean City, land of high-rise condos, the beach widens. Crowds depend on the size of the building, but it's easy to find a place for your blanket here.

The inlet at Ocean City's southern end divides touristy O.C. from the wild and pristine beaches of Assateague Island, which doesn't have a single restaurant, gas station, or hotel. Although you can see it across the inlet from Ocean City, it's about an 11-mile drive to the visitor center and parking lots. Most of the 30-mile strip of barrier island is not open to vehicles. It's home to an enormous number of shorebirds, sika deer, and the wild ponies made famous by Marguerite Henry's Misty of Chincoteague books. The visitor center and campgrounds are the only buildings here.

The entire 10-mile stretch of Ocean City beach is open to the public free of charge. Lifeguards are on duty from 10am to 5:30pm all summer. Beach chairs, umbrellas, rafts, and boogie boards can be rented by the day or week. Attendants will position your umbrella and, if you rent for the week, have your umbrella and chairs ready when you arrive each day. They usually accept cash only.

Wicomico Street Bathhouse is at Wicomico and Philadelphia streets, near the southern end of O.C. It's privately operated and charges a fee. Public restrooms are along the boardwalk at Worcester, Caroline, 9th, and 27th streets.

The beach at the inlet at the southern end of the island is set aside for surfers on weekdays in summer. On weekends, check with local radio stations to find out which areas are designated "surf beaches." Signs are also posted, and of course you can also check at local surf shops, including Quiet Storm, 74th Street (tel. 410/723-1316), or Endless Summer Surf Shop, 38th Street (tel. 410/289-3272).

Surf fishing is not permitted within 50 yards of swimmers between 9am and 6pm, so the big poles usually come out in the evening or early morning. When the swimmers go home in the fall, the surf fishermen take over.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.