"Nice Vette," remarked a smug teenager, somewhat conspiratorially, as he pulled out of a 7-Eleven in Beach Haven in his own black Corvette.
"I won't race you today—I'm afraid I'd lose," apologized a middle-aged Nissan driver parked by the boardwalk in Spring Lake.
"Is that the midnight blue?" called out yet another aficionado of the make and model at Rockafellas' By the Sea Too, an outdoor pasta-and-clams restaurant in Ortley Beach where Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett croon on the sound system in heavy rotation. "It almost looks purple. I've got the silver and it does the same thing—it changes color."
Related: The Best Beaches in New Jersey
The cause of all this car-culture bonding was the new navy blue metallic Corvette coupe, with removable roof panel, that my friend Mike and I rented to drive down the Jersey Shore. We had in mind a sort of theme vacation—a remake of Thelma & Louise as a guys' buddy movie—our choice of destination motivated by Hamptons ennui and intriguing glimpses of New Jersey's exit ramps and silver diners on HBO's hit series The Sopranos. And for me, there was a creeping nostalgia for the family vacations of my youth, when the Jersey Shore's beaches seemed endless, its boardwalk amusements painted in indelible Technicolor.
To drive down the shore in the wrong vehicle, of course, would be a serious misstep. So we chose an icon of coolness, the Vette. Luckily, this icon has been kept up-to-date. Although the first Corvette appeared in 1953, and the legendary Sting Ray convertible 10 years later, the current version melds fifties and sixties futurism with biomorphic curves more evocative of Frank Gehry's post-postmodern architecture. Shooting along the New Jersey Turnpike our first day, slunk in a lats-hugging tan-leather bucket seat that seemed about six inches above the ground, I felt as if I were driving a virtual car in a video arcade. The operating panel projected onto the windshield a speedometer promising 200 mph, jet-cockpit-style. The headlights flipped up like eyelids, automatically, whenever we entered a tunnel. The latest incarnation of the Corvette, in short, is a muscle car with at least half a brain.
Similarly, New Jersey revealed itself to be neither as hard-core as the lurid smokestacks of Newark—darkly evoked in Springsteen's lyrics "Turnpike ridin' on a wet night 'neath the refinery's glow/Out where the great black rivers flow"—nor as wholesome as the families clustered beneath identical striped beach umbrellas. Having devised an itinerary that deliberately bypassed the overexposed postcards of the Jersey Shore—Atlantic City, Ocean City, Wildwood, Cape May—we discovered instead a few of the many versions of beach and boardwalk, prettiness and tackiness, that reflect its current scene, one that stretches 127 miles from the tip of Sandy Hook south to Cape May Point.
Bearing down on the Route 72 causeway that crosses lower Barnegat Bay and Little Egg Harbor midway down the shore, we quickly needed to shift gears from our initial top-down, KISS-FM-blaring mode, because our first stop, Long Beach Island, was also our object lesson in New Jersey's ability to transcend its own abrasive reputation. Subtle and undeveloped, with frequent parentheses of breathing space, this barrier island of southern Ocean County evokes Cape Cod or Nantucket. L.B.I., as it's popularly called, is 18 miles long and generally no more than a mile wide. It has no boardwalk, just meandering sand dunes flecked with beach grass snuggled by brown-shingled bungalows. Surfing contests, lifeguard competitions, and deep-sea fishing for tuna, bluefish, sea bass, and tilefish make up the bulk of its entertainment options. The island grows increasingly uninhabited as you drive north from Beach Haven, with its Victorian B&B's and larval college-bar scene, through Loveladies, a beach town filled with Fire Island-style architectural follies, to land's end at the white-and-raspberry Barnegat Lighthouse, where two tankers were sunk by German U-boat torpedoes in 1942.
Our own choice for a pit stop was Barnegat Light's North Shore Inn, a classic sixties gray and teal motel where room No. 11, at least, has sea-green cinder block walls, hanging turquoise lamps, and framed pastels of seashells. Across the road is the equally classic Mustache Bill's Diner—one of 570 diners in the state—all curved aluminum, where a bleached-blond waitress brings ham and eggs while you sit next to yellowed Venetian blinds beneath the whir of a ceiling fan. (Window or curbside dining, I discovered, is preferable when you've got a roofless sports car to keep an eye on.) Just down the road, we found a mostly deserted beach of unkempt dunes, where gulls landed and took off in a gauze of morning mist as sandpipers paced the shore.
After relaxing in this summertime atmosphere, we decided to sample the Jersey Shore's highest end of manicured elegance, Spring Lake, which from Long Beach Island requires doubling back 35 exits up the Garden State Parkway. Clouds signaled the threat of rain, so we snapped the roof panel in place and turned the Vette into a sealed tube insulated with enhanced bass from Bose speakers.
A hundred years ago the northern half of the shore was called the Gold Coast, and Spring Lake's own nickname was the Irish Riviera. Today its wistful boardwalk punctuated by wooden gazebos doesn't exactly recall the Riviera, and its 19th-century mansions don't really resemble Newport (another stretched metaphor). Still, the town's muted ambience, broad porches, shingled turrets, and widow's walks do make a perfect stage set. It's no surprise that dozens of fashion shoots and many movies, including Ragtime, have used Spring Lake as a backdrop.
On weekends Spring Lake turns into one gigantic wedding cake—the Tudor-style Warren Hotel, where we stayed, had three wedding parties at once in its 120 ocean-view rooms. (A sign in the lobby, which is crammed with Victoriana, warned against appearing at night without a blazer.) The town's centerpiece, the actual Spring Lake, is really more a decorative elbow of water than a swimming hole, its 16 acres overhung with willow branches.
Yet the Jersey Shore isn't all about subdued beaches, B&B's, and small-town streets. And our Vette just didn't look comfortable in the parking lot next to the Warren Hotel's pool, where Wall Street singles have recently taken to gathering at sunset to drink strawberry daiquiris. So we ripped out, joining a cavalcade of Camaros, T-Birds, and Porsche Boxsters, all traveling south on the ocean road to Seaside Heights, a dumbed-down Pop art masterpiece. Famous as the sometime site of MTV's Beach House and often the origin of live broadcasts by 98.5 FM, "Jersey Shore's Number One Hit Music Station," Seaside Heights is Funky Town. And the funkiest, most eye-poppingly colorful of its attractions is the mile-long boardwalk, a sort of long-playing version of a street fair, but set against the kinetic background of a Ferris wheel, roller coaster, arcade, chairlift, and turn-of-the-century carousel whirling to the dated tunes of a 1923 Wurlitzer. Its trolling crowds are weighted heavily toward families and bikers, many of whom were wolfing down sausage sandwiches and bags of caramel popcorn when we stopped by a "Win a Chevrolet Corvette" booth to check out a silver version of our vehicle. The cumulative effect: Walt Disney meets Harley-Davidson.
Highest-profile among Seaside Heights' mixed demographics are its surfer dudes the waves of the Barnegat Peninsula are as close to Malibu's as it gets in these parts. We'd watched these wet-suited amateur athletes glistening in the early-morning sun, and caught them again in late afternoon as they rode crests and paddled hopefully on the north side of Casino Pier. Their headquarters is Grog's Surf Palace in adjacent Seaside Park, a quieter, gentler Seaside Heights buffered to the south by the 10-mile Island Beach State Park. A supermarket of surfboards, Boogie boards, and wet suits, with a kitschy breaking-wave façade, Grog's began in the sixties as a little shack founded by a local surfer. It also deals in skateboards, which have replaced bicycles as the preferred means of transportation for kids traveling up and down the boardwalk.
At night the Boulevard of Seaside Heights is transformed from a flat, nondescript avenue into a glamorous Vegas strip. Muscle cars jockey for space, nightclubs send searchlights scouring the night sky, thousands of teens and twentysomethings from within a 100-mile radius crowd its sidewalks under the semi-watchful eye of cops with shaved heads. The club of choice is Temptations, where up to 2,000 devotees of the Sweet Life, Jersey-style, dance to house disco, many of the guys steroid-heads, many of the women favoring breast implants, big hair, and a black-and-gold Donatella Versace look. All are overseen by bouncers—veritable caricatures of hypermasculinity—who loom large on boxes constructed as checkpoints against the black walls.
While this post-adolescent adrenaline is heady, a single hit is plenty. Indeed, when we cruised a half-hour up the shore to D'Jais in Belmar, the alert response of the doorman when we arrived was, "Something's wrong!" He then carded us (undoubtedly for being too old rather than too young) and aimed a flashlight in our eyes. Unable to find just cause, he grudgingly waved us in. One example of what went on inside: a bachelorette party where the bride-to-be, in a white veil and hot pants, danced onstage with a tag team of male admirers for what was purported to be the last time.
The next day, driving north from Seaside Heights on Route 35 with no planned destination, Mike and I almost immediately discovered a spot where all this zigzagging between beach and disco, family and frat house, the delightfully retro and the excruciatingly trashy, relaxed into a comfortable equipoise: Joey Harrison's Surf Club in Ortley Beach. An almost 30-year-old institution, the Surf Club is a sprawling concrete-and-bleached-wood complex on the beach with three bars, a dance floor, outdoor showers, and a food court shaded by the ubiquitous aquamarine awnings. With three lifeguards to a chair, the beach is a safe bet for kids and their parents, frat boys and their girlfriends, and anyone else in the mood for a high-amp remake of the sixties' beach blanket B-movies. That afternoon a party band was performing under a thatched roof. Its members were cranking out feel-good Grateful Dead and Hall & Oates classics from a low stage hemmed in by a PG-rated mosh pit of grade-school-age kids.
Between the Coronas spiked with lime, the heat of the Caribbean-force sun, and the waves that seemed so tiny from shore and so tall when confronted, I actually found myself trying to calculate a difference in time zones as I ducked into a cool pavilion to phone Manhattan. Hard to believe we were a mere 90 minutes away by Corvette.
Brad Gooch's new novel, Zombie, will be published by Overlook Press in August.
North Shore Inn 806 Central Ave., Barnegat Light; 609/494-5001, fax 609/494-7172; doubles from $120.
Warren Hotel 16 Mercer Ave. at First Ave., Spring Lake; 800/278-0137 or 732/449-8800; doubles from $165.
Mustache Bill's Diner Eighth and Broadway, Barnegat Light; 609/494-0155; breakfast for two $15.
Sisters Café 1321 Third Ave., Spring Lake; 732/449-1909; dinner for two $85. Comfortable spot with an excellent tomato salad.
BARS AND CLUBS
Temptations 612 The Boulevard, Seaside Heights; 732/830-3037; weekend cover up to $20.
D'Jais 1801 Ocean Ave., Belmar; 732/681-5055.
Joey Harrison's Surf Club 1900 Ocean Ave., Ortley Beach; 732/793-6625; weekend admission $5.