Things To Do in Bethany Beach, Delaware

For the 4th of July, I spent a week relaxing on the beach in Delaware, which is a sentence I never thought I’d say. I was only marginally aware Delaware had beaches. I was only marginally aware of Delaware.

Delaware, in fact, has several beaches and they fit wonderfully into the greater Delmarva peninsula tourism ecosystem. Our beach of choice, by virtue of my mom’s coworker who graciously hosted our whole family at her beach house, was Bethany Beach, Delaware. There are bigger, louder, wider beaches in the world than Bethany Beach, but that’s precisely the point. It’s a calmer, slower kind of place for a calmer, slower kind of vacation. You’re not going to find MTV spring breakers. There’s one resort of mentionable size. Everyone else stays at small hotels and beach houses or drives in for a day trip from the Washington, D.C area. If you’re looking for a place to relax, this is the place.

Bethany Beach
A young groundskeeper tends to his castle as the tide comes in.

First things first, the beach. This is not quite a soft, powdery, squeak-when-you-step kind of sand. It’s the run-of-the-mill, slightly rocky stuff typical of the American Atlantic coast. There’s plenty of space to claim a spot, bask in the sun, and listen to the surf coming in, but the water rams into a steep drop-off and pulls back with a strong undertow. The waves that week were good for boogie-boarding but not for relaxing in the water, though it calms significantly about 20 feet out (already too deep to touch the bottom). For my money, this beach is more useful for its quieter atmosphere and laze-about opportunities than spending hours in the water. Still, it is a beach and it’s always satisfying to listen to the waves, catch glimpses of dolphins in the distance, and take in the sea breeze. A small boardwalk marks the border between the beach and shops selling t-shirts, sandals, and various icy desserts. I appreciated this shop’s signpost recognizing my hometown of Columbus.

Bethany Beach, Delaware

Downtown Bethany Beach stretches for about a block and a half down Garfield Parkway and dead-ends into the ocean. It’s a good place to stroll and convince yourself that you’re on vacation and calories don’t exist. The house we stayed at was only a block from the main strip, so we convinced ourselves of this often. Over the course of the week we plundered the low-rise, pastel-colored buildings for a tub of Fisher’s Popcorn, ice cream sandwiches, fried clam strips, slushies, and coffee. The strip is also a good place to find what you need for the beach. Bethany Beach Books has a good selection of beach reads. We didn’t bring beach towels so I bought some cheap ones at a five and dime.

Fried clams at Bethany Beach, Delaware
Fried clam strips. Fried seafood is my jam.

If you’re like me, there’s only so much time you can spend at the beach. By the end of the second day, I was itching to go and do something. And there are things to do in Bethany Beach, or at least nearby. About 30 minutes south is Ocean City, Maryland which features more of the trappings you expect to see in major resort towns: amusement rides, big hotels, a candy store on every block. We drove through that mess to visit the wild horses of Assateague Island National Seashore.

No one is exactly sure where the Assateague Island horses came from. A romantic myth is that they are the descendants of horses that survived a shipwreck and settled on the island. There is no record of this ever happening, so the most likely story is that farmers in the 17th century hauled their domesticated horses to the barrier island to avoid taxes on livestock and maybe forgot one or two at a time. These horses then battled the elements of a sun drenched, semi-marine habitat to revert back to their instincts and build a herd. At any rate, there are about 150 of them on the island and they are the stars of the National Seashore. Not to be confused with nice ponies with kids on their back at the fair, these are surly, abrasive beasts that visitors are warned numerous times to give a wide berth. Pretty, though.

I suggest stopping in at the Assateague Island Visitor Center to fill up your water bottles and ask the rangers for advice on where to find the horses. You can go to the state park for free, or pay for a day pass to the National Seashore. The state park is quite small, and you’ve already driven that far, so you might as well pay for the day pass.

Horses on Assateague Island National Seashore

The horses kept their distance the day we visited. This is the closest we came to any, though throughout the week I heard stories of horses coming up to cars. It was quite hot, so I’m sure the horses stayed in the water for a reason.

It was extremely hot and muggy, in fact, so we kept our time outside to a minimum. There are three small loop trails in the park: Life of the Forest, Life of the Marsh, and Life of the Dunes. We did some or all of all three, though I think I took twenty steps into Life of the Dunes and decided there wasn’t nearly enough shade to warrant a sandy hike into nothing. The Life of the Marsh was the most fascinating as a boardwalk hoists you over a saltwater marsh and allows you to spot crabs, fish, and other critters. The scenery ain’t bad either, with a coastal forest greeting the marsh and the ocean in the background. If I return to the park, I intend to take advantage of the kayak rentals. Camping is also an option.

Assateague Island National Seashore

Assateague Island is south of Bethany Beach. North is the much larger Rehoboth Beach, home of the Dogfish Head Brewery restaurant (the actual brewery is located in nearby Milton). Dogfish Head is a rapidly growing craft brewery that ships across the country, so we thought it a worthy stop while we were in the area. My wife, my sister, my sister-in-law, and myself made the drive up, only 20 minutes or so from Bethany Beach, and scribbled our choices for our flights of beer. The brewery is well-known for its IPA’s and somewhat unusual ingredients. I’m more of a straight shooter when it comes to beer, so when my flight arrived, my beers were nearly all the same color. I didn’t intend such a monochromatic selection, but that’s what I ended up with. We sipped our beers (I didn’t love any of mine, to be honest, but my sister-in-law had some exciting stouts on her flight) and made light of the lethargic youth bringing folks their food. We pulled over our waiter, a much more lively dude, and let him in on the joke. If you’re reading this, lethargic youth, a smile never hurt anyone in the hospitality business. The rest of the family missed us, so we finished our beers and headed back to the house.

dogfish head

In short, we filled our time on the Delmarva peninsula with beach, belligerent horses, and beer, and Bethany Beach makes a relaxing, central location to enjoy all the area has to offer.

Have you been to Bethany Beach? What did I miss?

Bonus patriotic picture of The Boy at his first Independence Day parade.

the boy