Beachin' It In Jersey - Exploring The Jersey Shore From Cape May To Atlantic City
By Laurie Carter
Forget the images conjured by MTV’s hit docu-soap Jersey Shore, the real Jersey Shore is an alluring 160-kilometre playground of sea islands, lagoons and protected shoreline with an eclectic array of peaceful Victorian towns, over-the-top family amusements and never-sleep entertainment.
Between Sandy Hook, in sight of Manhattan’s towers, and Cape May, guarding the entrance to Delaware Bay, communities along this narrow strip swell to bursting with summer fun seekers in search of white sand beaches, a cooling breeze and entertainment on the boardwalk. The possibilities stretch out for nature lovers looking for a special bird sighting, surfers riding the big waves of autumn’s hurricane season and anglers hoping to land the big one. Jersey Shore’s most famous attraction, Atlantic City, delivers thrills 24/7/365.
Glitz & Gaming
Atlantic City’s history of lively entertainment spans 160 years, but today’s exciting playbill of casinos, resorts, restaurants and attractions is the result of a spectacular resurgence from long decline. Now the gaming capital of the east coast, this seaside resort is easily accessible by air or a relaxed train ride from Philadelphia or New York City.
Casinos are undeniably the best-known lure to Atlantic City, but loads of visitors are just as interested in the luxuries of resort hotels and extravagant spas, dining on the fare of famous chefs, playing a round of championship golf, shopping the elite brands and scouring the city for tickets to the hottest headline entertainment.
Some things don’t change, though – or at least, the bare bones remain the same. Atlantic City’s iconic 11-kilometre boardwalk has certainly seen some serious updating since it took its place on the Monopoly board. Yet, along with access to the new hotels and casinos, the fundamentals are all still there – boardwalk food, quirky shops and salt water taffy, which originated on the boardwalk in 1893.
Attractions still abound. Here you’ll find Ripley’s Believe it or Not, the Central Pier Arcade & Speedway, historic Steel Pier, with rides and games, Atlantic City Aquarium and Gardiner’s Basin, home of boat rides, fishing, restaurants and shopping. The historic boardwalk is so extensive that it merits a guided walking tour, although you really have to try travelling the great wooden way on a rolling chair – a boardwalk staple since 1887.
Gingerbread To Doowop
Polar opposite to the bright lights and frenetic activity of Atlantic City are the quaint little towns of the Jersey Shore like Cape May. More than a century-and-a-half old, this Victorian seaside gem has been designated a National Historic District with nearly 600 preserved Victorian buildings. Trolley tours and an evening ghost tour showcase the flavour and the town is chock-a-block with gingerbread-festooned B&Bs for the authentic experience.
The beach is a natural draw, where a popular activity is searching for Cape May Diamonds (polished quartz that washes up on shore). Shoppers love the pedestrian-friendly Washington Street Mall, while the view of Cape May Harbor highlights a lobster dinner on Fisherman’s Wharf. Food is serious business here. The People’s Choice Chowder Contest is one of the featured events of the annual Cape May Food & Wine Festival (September).
Among the many other charming little beach towns, Spring Lake also stands out. Established as a summer retreat for the industrial barons of the mid-1800s, this small town retains an aura of Victorian opulence. Green parkland surrounds the spring-fed lake that gave the community its name and still serves as a tranquil trout-fishing spot.
Seafood headlines the menu at many of Spring Lake’s fine dining establishments. Elegant relaxation is the order of the day for visitors who choose to stay in one of the gingerbread-laden historic inns and here a boardwalk stroll along the pristine beach is an exercise in tranquility.
But the Jersey Shore isn’t all extremes of Victorian splendour and post-modern glitz. Near Cape May at the southern end of the strip, the town of Wildwood is, well, wild – at least architecturally. With a pedigree as a resort town that dates to the 1950s, Wildwood is a family resort in the best Doo-Wop tradition with the largest collection of mid-century buildings in the United States. It’s boardwalk, comprised of more than 70,000 planks, stretches 37 city blocks and the town’s white sand has been rated Best Sports Beach (Condé Nast) and Best Beach (Travel Channel).
When it comes to photo ops, you can’t beat the postcard-in-waiting qualities of the lonely lighthouse. Of the 18 lighthouses along the New Jersey coastline, 11 are open to the public. Must-sees include the octagonal Sandy Hook Lighthouse, in service since 1764; the striking Cape May Lighthouse, where visitors can climb 199 stairs for an unparalleled view of the Cape May Peninsula; and Old Barney, the new lighthouse in Barnegat – constructed in 1859.
Part of the great allure of the Jersey Shore is the ability to experience nature so close to the heartbeat of modern America. The Sandy Hook unit of Gateway National Recreation Area, located on a thin peninsula that actually juts into lower New York Harbor, provides expansive ocean and bay beaches for swimming, fishing, picnicking, scuba diving, surfing, wind surfing and bicycling. Extensive hiking trails, bike paths, salt marshes, a spectacular holly forest and more than 300 species of birds are all waiting for nature lovers.
At the other end of the Jersey Shore, Cape May Point State Park is a popular vantage point for viewing the fall hawk migration. Between the two, Island Beach State Park occupies a narrow barrier island that sits between the restless Atlantic and historic Barnegat Bay. Shaped by storm and tides, the park protects more than 1,200 hectares of coastal dunes and offers eight self-guided hiking trails that provide access to the nine plant communities of a barrier island. This park is a great springboard for naturalist-guided canoe and kayak tours of Barnegat Bay.
It’s easy to slow down the pace but still see lots of territory on New Jersey’s extensive Rails-to-Trails system, ideal for walking and biking (and mostly wheelchair accessible). The Jersey Shore includes 11 separate trails ranging up to 22 kilometres in length.
Extreme Sports & Science
In the Meadowlands Liberty Region, close to downtown Manhattan and Times Square, families can hike along nature trails, take in a basketball game at the Meadowlands Sports Complex, or spend an afternoon at the science museum. The ferry service from Liberty State Park in Jersey City keeps the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island within easy reach. Science geeks head to the Liberty Science Centre. With hundreds of exhibits in eight new galleries, and the largest IMAX theatre in the US, there is something for every age to enjoy. At the Meadowlands Environment Center, children and parents can take a guided tour of the Hackensack River and explore wetland ecology by boat.
Roll the dice, stroll a boardwalk, party ‘til dawn or quietly breath the fresh salt air, life is a beach on the Jersey Shore.