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Unexpected New Jersey

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Photo: Martha Camarillo

By the time of our epiphany in the blueberry field, circa 2000, the Jersey Shore story was on to a new chapter, evident when the sun went down and the orange penumbra of Atlantic City rose above the pines to the East. An A.C. renaissance was ablaze, stoked by speculators who had watched Las Vegas developers upscale their casinos in the 1990’s and reap windfalls. The year 2003 saw the opening of the Borgata, a 2,002-room luxury hotel and casino with celebrity-chef restaurants, wine bars, a spa—and neighboring casinos planned to sharpen up their acts to compete. By 2004, Asbury Park—Bruce Springsteen’s muse—was making news with its own rebirth, driven by an ad hoc coalition of artists and bootstrapping entrepreneurs who’d begun to revitalize the city’s downtown. Suddenly, big-money New York developers were buying parcels of land near the boardwalk, and locals were fighting to save what landmarks remained from Asbury Park’s early heyday.

We were eager to see what the strong arm of prosperity along the Shore had wrought; to see what—if any—of its strange and wonderful history remained. So we mapped a lazy route north from Cape May to Asbury Park, about 35 miles from New York Harbor, allowing for time to explore towns large and small in between. We were looking, in the birthplace of the summer seashore escape, for evidence that the American beach vacation still endured on a scale that was personal, humane, and real. Even the most loyal Jersey partisans will tell you that summer traffic on the Shore is no joy ride. So to avoid the weekend rush, we sped down the Garden State Parkway from New York City on a Wednesday afternoon in August and glided into Cape May, one of the best-preserved Victorian districts in America, with crape myrtles sprouting from the sidewalks and American-flag bunting hanging from impeccable gingerbread porches laden with rockers and wicker furniture. On one, two men snoozed, mouths agape.

We headed straight for the beach, settled under a Provence-worthy canvas umbrella and eavesdropped on our neighbors. Talk among locals that day centered on whether the ex-Helmsley tycoons Curtis Bashaw and Craig Wood have ruined or saved Cape May; the clutch of inns and rooms they’ve developed in the last decade—Congress Hall, the Virginia Hotel, the Star Inn, the list goes on—are the most consistently attractive offerings in town. When we retreated from the seaside, lightly grilled, we ducked into the Virginia Hotel for a quick drink and appetizers at the Ebbitt Room, whose cheeky style (Louis XIV chairs in bright-white crocodile leather) invited the question, Does Cape May need foie gras? Our answer was no, but we polished off the pistachio-dusted scallops and ravished the impressive cheese plate nonetheless.

We moved to the bar as evening descended, and watched as the town shuffled back to life, the streets filling with families looking to satisfy cravings for sea critters and beer. We followed a procession of minivans on a short drive to the Lobster House, on one of the fishing docks that hug the bay side of town. As with the Garden State Parkway, some careful scheduling is required to access the charms of the Lobster House. Do not show up at 7 p.m., as we did initially, or you will be informed of a one-hour wait and handed a vibrating beeper. Though you can skip the dining room and settle for gluey chowder and mangled clams from the outdoor grill and raw bar, you’d be better off taking a stroll on the beach—or through Cape May—and arriving at the Lobster House at 8:45 p.m. By then there is no competition for a seat at the handsome bar, and you’ll have the undivided attention of professional, white-jacketed bartenders. Order local oysters on the half shell, chilled lobster, and cold Dogfish Head beers.

We had booked too late in the season to find a room in Cape May, but we found one in Wildwood Crest. Although it’s just a 10-minute drive north from the Ebbitt Room, it seemed to be in a different land altogether—a vision out of John Waters’s fantasies. A beautiful collection of colored neon signs cast their glow on 1950’s-era cinder-block motels—Tangiers, Isle of Capri, the Biscayne, the Pyramid—tidy, basic, whitewashed to a glossy shine every May. As much as we like Cape May and its Victorian architectural perfection, Wildwood Crest is thrillingly democratic; there’s no fee for the beach here, and you won’t find a bartender in a white jacket. Children rule the sand at Wildwood Crest and its vest-pocket motel pools. For parents of Gen-X vintage, the attraction may be ironic, like a good B-52’s song, and pragmatic: the motels aren’t luxurious, but they’re a great value (barely topping $100 a night), and will the kids give a damn about thread count?

If they do, their parents can drive up the beach to Atlantic City and check in to the Borgata, where the sheets are Egyptian cotton. From a distance the casino, a tall black slab, looks somewhat insubstantial—as though a laptop fell from the sky into the marshlands. But once you drive into the porte cochère, which accommodates six lanes of traffic, you realize the power of some 2,000 rooms: a small army of valets descends upon new arrivals, and there’s likely to be a long, meandering queue to the check-in desk. An opulent corporate whimsy reigns: Dale Chihuly glass sculptures hang from the ceilings; what’s not marble is covered in brightly colored, harlequin-patterned fabrics; a powdery vanilla fragrance hangs in the air.

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