True story: When I moved to New York in 2000, I had never heard of Fire Island. I didn’t know what it was, where it was, or who went there. It’s one of the many moments where I had to hand in my Gay Card. But I have a good excuse! This time!
I’m from Philadelphia; we didn’t go north to get our gay on. We went south. To Rehoboth Beach.
But my attachment to this little town in “LSD” (Lower Slower Delaware) is more personal than most gay boys: My mom grew up here and her father, Reed Booth, was the mayor back in the early 1970s. I spent my summers in Rehoboth right up to age 14. In fact, it was years until I found out it was also a gay mecca. The irony has been noticed.
But it was my grandfather’s mayoral foresight that went a long way into turning a rather nondescript beach town into the destination it is today, gay and straight.
It would be a flat-out lie to call Rehoboth Beach exclusively gay, but you don’t get nick-named “Rehomo Beach” for nuthin’. When exactly Rehoboth Beach became the biggest gay resort between Fire Island and Key West is a bit hazy, but there is a good chance my granddad may have had a hand in it. No, he wasn’t gay himself, but he was remarkably live-and-let-live for a former Army man. In fact, he never made it beyond the rank of Colonel because his superiors thought he was “too nice.”
As Mayor Booth, all that translated into the idea that provided you didn’t carry on in the street and scare the horses, he did not give two figs what you did (although woe unto you if you did carry on in the street). From that kernel of respect grew Rehoboth’s reputation as a place gays could come and be themselves. Back then, the gay beach, AKA Poodle Beach, was at the very southern end of Rehoboth’s iconic Boardwalk, between it and the next town of Dewey Beach (today, the rainbow has crept north to at least Norfolk Street). Rehoboth Beach was and always will be a breezy haven for everybody looking for an escape from the East Coast’s stifling summer humidity, orientation be damned.
Granddad had a lot to do with that, too. Back in the 1970s, very large apartment block went up along the Boardwalk. It was a sign of the times, and everybody nodded along until the clock hit 3 PM and the building’s shadow fell onto the beach. Kiss the nodding good-bye.
Thus was passed an ordinance that no building in town could be over 5 stories, particularly those whose shadow could fall on the beach, the thing putting Rehoboth on the map in the first place. Granddad’s wisdom comes into focus a little too sharply when you visit Rehoboth’s sister beach resorts. I don’t mean to get “judgey,” but next-door neighbor Dewey Beach sold its soul down the Overdevelopment Hell river long ago and Ocean City, in Maryland, became a notorious party town because people moved from the beach to the bars by afternoon because of overshadowing from large hotels. By keeping extravagance at bay, Rehoboth managed to stay charmingly quaint. It is still an idyllic little beach town.
With a few tricks up its sleeve, of course.
When I was a kid, a trip to Rehoboth meant two things: the beach during the day, and Funland at night. And if the first one didn’t knock me out for the night, a go at rides, games, Skeeball, mini-golf (I have terrible aim, FYI), whack-a-moles, and cotton candy certainly did. It’s all very innocent fun, and is a big part of why Rehoboth corners the family-travel market so well. Now that I’m all grown up, I can finally send the High Striker into orbit. It’s actually rather satisfying to smash a hammer down on something. I think I enjoy it too much…
Being an adult also opens up Rehoboth’s gay possibilities (the thing about being gay is that it is so 21+). LGBTQs have such a presence in town that it is hard to designate a gay section, but just off the main drag of Delaware Avenue is Baltimore Avenue, and it’s a good place to to get your gay on; gay-owned and operated businesses line it, not least of which is the Royal Rose Inn, a B&B whose proprietors Greg and Andy offer the finest in service.
If there is a grand dame of town, it is the Blue Moon at 35 Baltimore Avenue, founded in 1980. Something of a catch-all, the property is split down the middle with a restaurant (a good one) on one side and a club space complete with dance floor on the other. The later also serves as the best drag bar on the Delmarva Peninsula. Right next door is CAMP — Creating A More Positive Rehoboth — the town LGBTQ Center and wealth for gays and lesbians visiting town. And next to that is Lori’s Oy-vey Cafe, and a bit further down is Aqua Grille, complete with themed costume Tea Dances and a Drag Brunch. And just in case you are itching for some action that is a little “harder,” check out the Double L Bar (just outside the town center by the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal). For such a small community, Rehoboth Beach does a good job of embracing the community.
Like just about anything on a coastline, summer is a mad house, but I’ve had some of my best experiences in fall and winter. The cold nixes the beach action and Funland will be closed, but there is something to be said for not having to shoulder your way across the Boardwalk, and all the eateries and nightlife are still open for business. It is all just a bit…quieter.
Which, and I don’t know about you, is what I am looking for in a vacation…