By KIM MAIALETTI
Ocean City night life. Sound like an oxymoron?
Sure, if your idea of night life involves bars and clubs where the beer flows and the music thumps through the early morning.
Nope, you won't find that here.
Ocean City has been a dry town since its founding in 1879. You can't even bring your own bottle of wine into a restaurant.
What you will find, however, is that there's something magical about Ocean City on a summer night: the lights on the giant Ferris wheel twinkling on the horizon, the trolley transporting sun-drenched vacationers from the south end of town to the boardwalk and back, families uniting to play games on decks and back porches after a long day spent baking on the beach.
That's Ocean City night life.
"People who are coming here are not necessarily looking for the bar scene," said Joann Delvescio, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce. "There's plenty of other things to do."
Dining is one of them.
Whatever you crave - Mack and Manco's boardwalk pizza, the fried clam platter from Campbell's Seafood Kitchen or jerk kangaroo at the increasingly popular Island Grill - you'll likely find a restaurant here that caters to your palate.
And for the first time in the city's history, vacationers can dine al fresco thanks to an ordinance passed in April permitting restaurants to set up tables and serve food outside.
Allison and Andrew Yoa, owners of the Island Grill Seafood and Steak House on Atlantic Avenue and 1st Street, had been wanting to offer outdoor dining since they opened in 1996.
"We're very excited," Allison Yoa said, as families gathered under patio umbrellas while Jimmy Buffett tunes played over the stereo.
Though the Island Grill serves up the traditional shore fare - clams casino, fried shrimp and crab cakes - the restaurant also offers its "safari menu" as an alternative.
Instead of a grilled chicken breast, how about a bison burger?
Rather than potato skins, why not try alligator bites?
Thinking of broiled flounder? Consider the boar ribs.
"People are on vacation, they want to try something different," Yoa said. "A lot of times there's not a lot of variety."
The Yoas order most of their game, which is all USDA- certified, from a ranch in Texas, and find most of their recipes by surfing the Internet.
The safari menu is increasingly popular, Yoa said.
"We sell more ostrich than regular steak. It's low in cholesterol, low in fat," Yoa said.
If it's dessert you're looking for, the choices are virtually limitless. There are ice cream parlors every few blocks, as well as fudge shops, funnel cake stands and Johnson's Popcorn stores along the boardwalk.
One standout night spot is Kessel's Korner at Asbury Avenue and 28th Street, where families have been flocking for ice cream for nearly three decades. (Kessel's is also a popular date place for teens who find summer love during their shore vacation.)
On a Saturday night last month, the Reber family sat on the wooden benches outside enjoying their ice cream.
"We were just at the rides tonight, and that was fun," said Michele Reber, 34, of Glen Mills, Pa.
Reber's three children, Jake, 6, Alex, 3, and Grace, 1, were looking forward to returning to their grandmother's beach house to work on a puzzle.
Reber said she likes Ocean City because it feels safe. Night life for her family consists of strolling the boardwalk and taking rides.
"It's more of a family-type place," Reber said.
Aside from the restaurants, undoubtedly the biggest nighttime attraction here is the boardwalk, but we'll come back to that.
For a change of pace, nature lovers and non-nature lovers alike may get a kick out of watching the birds feed at dusk at the Howard S. Stainton Wildlife Refuge on Asbury Avenue between Bay Avenue and 28th Street.
"They feed before going to sleep," said Beverly Oehlert, 61, of Limerick, Pa. "There are great birds here." Oehlert and her husband Jim, 62, own a condominium in Ocean City and enjoy watching the birds from a wooden stand perched on the edge of the refuge.
"The number of species here is pretty incredible," Oehlert said, as she peered through binoculars as birds flitted about.
Blocks away at the Sand Castle Playground on 34th Street, parents watch their children climb all over the wooden castle-shaped play equipment while night basketball is in full swing.
Almost every night during the summer, the courts are packed with players eager for a pick-up game.
"You can come here from 10 in the morning until 10 at night and get a game going," said Tony Hernandez, 22, of Dorothy, Atlantic County.
What else does he do at night in Ocean City?
"There's night basketball. Then there's night basketball. And then you can play night basketball," Hernandez said.
Asbury Avenue downtown offers a number of small art galleries that often host evening receptions and poetry readings, said city spokesman Mark Soifer.
Or take in a sunset along the bay.
(Hint: For one of the best views, drive or walk along the old train tracks that run through the wetlands.)
Or go for a moonlit stroll on the beach.
Then again, there's always the boardwalk.
With its arcades and shops, its restaurants and rides, the boardwalk is a popular gathering place for kids of all ages.
Though smaller than the boardwalk in nearby Wildwood and without the carnival-like atmosphere, Ocean City's two-mile boardwalk offers a wide range of evening entertainment including concerts and shows at the Music Pier.
The boardwalk also boasts a 140-foot Ferris wheel that for $3 sweeps riders up into the night sky and offers a bird's-eye view of Ocean City and beyond.
Go-carts. Miniature golf. Roller coasters. Skee-Ball.
There's no shortage of amusements here.
Rita Ruiz, 22, of Pleasantville, Atlantic County, spent a Saturday evening last month on the boardwalk with a group from her church.
"I don't drink, and we wanted to do something," Ruiz said. "It's more peaceful than Atlantic City. It's cleaner. It's nicer."
Farther south on the boardwalk, Robert Jones, 40, of Philadelphia, and Vanessa Sanders, 46, of Levittown, sat on a bench sharing an order of fries.
"We're enjoying the breeze," Sanders said. "People- watching."
Oh yeah, add that to the list of things to do at night in Ocean City.
Next Sunday: Margate, Ventnor and Longport
Reach Kim Maialetti at (856) 486-2665 or email@example.com