If you’ve ever spent any amount of time in and around Baltimore or Washington, you’re probably well aware, for better or worse, of Ocean City, Md., and its myriad charms: All-you-can-eat seafood buffets, Jesus sand sculptures, marauding "Beach Week" high schoolers wielding mini-golf putters, and the seemingly endless parade of elephantine high-rise condos with names like "Golden Sands," "The Capri" and "Antigua" that straddle the Coastal Highway and the Atlantic Ocean for literally hundreds of blocks. It’s a special place.

No less special but decidedly more low-key is OC’s neighbor about 30 miles north, Rehoboth Beach, Del. Without a doubt, Rehoboth is a grade-A beach town — the "Nation’s Summer Capital" nickname is well-deserved — and boasts many of the same attractions as Ocean City (Boardwalk fries! Saltwater taffy! Go-karts!). However, Rehoboth’s sleepier and less developed nature lends itself to a wider range of outdoor activities and allows visitors to truly lose themselves, not get lost amongst the dazed throngs of sunstroke-ridden vacationers. It’s a place where Mother Nature and the typical East Coast seaside resort town offerings can be enjoyed with equal measure.

Beaches, biking trails and solar-powered midway rides

Naturally, the beach at Rehoboth Beach is the main draw. Spanning Rehoboth’s mile-long boardwalk and beyond, this sandy stretch of paradise is delightfully diverse — families, college students, pensioners and a sizable gay and lesbian crowd all flock to Rehoboth during the summer months to partake in some good, old-fashioned sun worship.

And the water? It's pretty much immaculate as Rehoboth, along with neighboring Dewey Beach, were both singled out as two of America's top four "Superstar Beaches" in the Natural Resources Defense Council's 21st annual beachwater quality report published in 2011. The reason for such an honor? The water at Rehoboth Beach has tested contaminant-free for the past three years straight.

For those who would rather not sit idle and slather themselves in sunblock, the Junction and Breakwater Rail Trail is a must for bicyclists, walkers, joggers and nature lovers. Connecting Rehoboth with the history-rich town of Lewes, aka “the First Town in the First State,” this relatively flat, six-mile trail set along the former Penn Central Rail Line passes through several ecosystems including coastal marshes, pine forests, open farm fields and two photo-op-perfect glades. The trail is home to a variety of wildlife including deer, hawks and shoppers from the nearby outlet malls looking for a bit of respite.

If you aren’t too exhausted from the journey along the Junction and Breakwater Rail Trail, a must-visit is Cape Henlopen State Park. Located adjacent to Lewes, this 5,193-acre jewel of a state park established in 1682 is actually one of the country’s first parcels of land set aside for public use (thanks, William Penn!). While Cape Henlopen’s six miles of beaches are a popular attraction and a primo spot for dolphin spotting, the park also offers hiking and biking trails (the Junction and Breakwater is technically part of the park) set amongst stunning natural landscapes including coastal forests, dunes and Gordons Pond, a 900-acre saltwater lagoon that’s home to a variety of migrating shorebirds including the piper plover. The park itself is a terminus of the transcontinental American Discovery Trail and home to the Biden Environmental Training Center, the Seaside Nature Center with its “osprey cam” and Fort Miles, a decommissioned military base established in 1941 that’s sure to delight able-bodied history buffs who will most likely want to climb to the top of a World War II observation tower.

Returning back to civilization for recreation of a different sort is Funland. Located smack dab on the Rehoboth boardwalk, this 50-year-old, family owned business offers the usual amusements — rides, midway games and an arcade — with an unexpected green twist: the roof of the facility is clad with a sizable photovoltaic array (more than 100 solar panels) that helps to power don’t-eat-before-boarding attractions like the Sea Dragon and Gravitron.

Eco-eat, sleep, shop

For those needing to refuel after all that frolicking in the great outdoors, there’s much more than just the standard boardwalk fare to be found in Rehoboth (we do however, recommend a pilgrimage to The Ice Cream Store for a taste of Delaware’s finest dairy delicacies). Located a stone’s throw from the boardwalk, snag a seat on the porch of Green Man, a popular juice bar and bistro with a menu filled with vegan and vegetarian options. For health-conscious carnivores in search of a solid lunch, we recommend the Eco-Chic, a grilled sandwich with free-range shredded chicken, avocado, jalapenos, pickled onion and cheddar.

If your dinner plans don’t entail scarfing pizza and fries with malt vinegar on the boardwalk, secure a reservation at Espuma, where the adventurous, Mediterranean-inspired (heavy on the veggies and seafood) menu revolves with seasonal ingredients sourced by chef Jay Caputo from local producers. Decidedly more casual but no less fresh is Agave, a perpetually packed Mexican joint in historic downtown Lewes. Trust us, the avocado and mango salad — and oversized mango margaritas — have addictive qualities. And while we’re on the topic of libations, no trip to Rehoboth is complete without a visit to Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats. Skip the food, stay for the famously “off-centered” selection microbrews and Farm Fresh Drink Specials made with handcrafted spirits.

Consumerism-minded visitors to Rehoboth will inevitably stumble across the outlet malls straddling Route 1 and an abundance of kitsch-filled souvenir stores hawking hermit crab habitats, woefully politically incorrect T-shirts and nautical tchotchkes. We recommend exploring the shopping arcades lining Rehoboth Avenue, where you’ll find hidden gems like Pelican Loft, which features an eclectic and well-curated mix of vintage treasures, home décor items and kitchenware. For full-on antiquing, make your way to the Lewes Mercantile Antiques.

When it comes to lodging, summer rentals rule in Rehoboth. There’s also a handful of eco-conscious hotels and B&Bs in the area but don’t expect deep green. The Atlantis Inn, the Hotel Rehoboth and the Bellmoor Inn & Spa are all certified Delaware Green Lodging establishments.

Small town, big green

Although famed for its mellow vibe — it’s a tiny beach town in a tiny state, after all — residents and business owners in Rehoboth Beach are anything but lackadaisical when it comes to environmental initiatives. Solar panels and wind turbines are a common sight in the area, conservation is a key issue, the farmers market is killer and the local chamber of commerce boasts a robust Green Force program that focuses on renewable energy and recycling efforts. That said, Rehoboth Beach gets our vote for the greatest and greenest Mid-Atlantic beach town. Just don’t tell Ocean City … we have a thing for their miniature golf courses.

Photos: Ashley Chase/MNN

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