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Unexpected New Jersey

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Photo: Martha Camarillo

There’s a mesmerizing, super-8-film quality to the perfect beach day, when the air is gelatin-smooth and the sun flickers off the water. On a narrow strip of Brant Beach, New Jersey, last August, kids on skimboards surfed the shallows of the outgoing Atlantic while their younger siblings—water wings at their elbows, zinc oxide painting their noses—splashed in the gullies it left behind. In the sky, a biplane pulled a flapping banner that read Country Kettle Fudge, Since 1961 “a Shore Thing,” and just when we were thinking this picture couldn’t possibly get any more retro—not an iPod or cell phone was visible—a clean-shaven Wally Cleaver look-alike walked past, barefoot, carrying a strip of wood from which hung four small bells. He shook the rig above his head, bells tinkling; all the kids on the beach turned their heads in unison and yelled, “Mom!”

We looked back in the direction from which he’d come, and there, idling at the entrance to the beach path, gleaming white, was his vintage 1960’s Good Humor ice cream truck.

You’ve never tasted a Creamsicle so sublime.

We’ve taken in our share of beach idylls over the years: the pristine, powdery-white sand of Grande Saline in St. Bart’s; the glistening, black-lava beach of Maui’s Waianapanapa State Park; and, just a short jaunt from our hometown (Charleston, South Carolina), Sullivan’s Island, whose mellow vibe is as lovable as the golden retrievers that bound in the surf.

But New Jersey? For years, we’d been content to limit our experience of the Garden State to turnpike pit stops, because we couldn’t shake the pop-culture clichés: the brutality of The Sopranos, the trumped-up scamp bravado of Bon Jovi, the abiding “You from Jersey?” in-your-faceness of it all (to say nothing of the turnpike realities: chemical factories belching fumes, wretched pileups, mandatory full serve at gas stations).

Then, an interview with a blueberry farmer in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens took us to a forested stretch of the state’s coastal plain, a few miles inland from Atlantic City, where we found a New Jersey we’d completely overlooked: pristine farmland brimming with the berries, corn, and tomatoes of high summer. The farmer’s fields of sandy soil, bordered by towering pines, had a heavy, marshy air so much like the South Carolina low country it was downright eerie. Among rows of rangy plants, clutches of toddlers and their parents plucked blueberries, eating as many as they dropped in their buckets. From Philadelphia and Staten Island, they were headed to rentals in Beach Haven and Cape May, enacting the same ritual as the travelers from Nashville and Louisville who comb the pick-your-own okra farms and muscadine vineyards en route to the sea islands of Edisto, Kiawah, and Fripp.

The more New Jersey reminded us of home, the more we became enchanted, drawn toward the coast and its quirky stories. We bought a wooden canoe from a mariner in Point Pleasant Beach who introduced us to a “Barnegat Sneakbox”—a Jersey-coast original, a waterfowl-hunting boat designed in 1836 that appears to be the spawn of a rowboat and a fighter plane. A college professor friend from Philadelphia said he knew of shore communities so tightly knit that “if you meet somebody who summers on a certain street in Ventnor, you’ll know what church they attend in Philly.” Our research about the Shore only turned up more cool stuff. How could we have gotten this far in life without having met Lucy, the elephant-shaped house turned museum that stands on the dunes in Margate?

The tumultuous history of American leisure has its beginnings on the Shore with the founding of Cape May, the nation’s first seaside resort and the southernmost point in New Jersey. Settled by the wealthy families of Philadelphia, it spurred more than a century of Victorian-era land speculation. Summer communities sprouted up along the coastline—from old-money enclaves like Mantoloking to the humbler summer colonies of Long Beach Island. By the 1920’s, the showiest towns, Atlantic City and Asbury Park, had become bona fide cities—with casinos, amusement palaces, and grand hotels—whose livelihood depended on the flow of tourist traffic. The narrative of the Shore in the latter half of the 20th century is of its slow climb back to prosperity: first from the setback of the Depression, and then from the rise of cheap commercial air travel in the postwar period. Vacationers who once came for weeks at a time, sustaining the local economies, could jet off to exotic locales like Miami or the Caribbean instead. Most towns weathered these blows better than Atlantic City and Asbury Park, and the layers of setback and revival, hokum and heritage, that built up behind the dunes have given this strip of coastline a gonzo charm—and even a beauty—like nowhere else on earth.

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