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Cruising the Jersey Shore in a Convertible

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.

The Facts

HOTELS
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.

RESTAURANTS
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.

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