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Unexpected New Jersey

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Photo: Martha Camarillo

At the northern tip of Long Beach Island, the road dead-ends at Barnegat Light, anchored by its landmark bold red-and-white lighthouse, whose silhouette is visible for miles. On the sand-swept road into the village we stopped at the one-room Barnegat Light Historical Society Museum, staffed by kindly retirees. Menus from the 1920’s from the town’s two fancy hotels—the Oceanic, which fell victim to shifting sands, and the Sunset, which burned to the ground in 1932—show a decadence and a savvy treatment of local ingredients: huckleberry pie, clams, corn, oysters, fish. But the centerpiece of the museum is the lighthouse’s 1856 Fresnel lens, fabricated in Paris by Henri Le Paute and composed of more than 1,000 individual prisms fitted into a massive iron frame.

The old beacon is awesome from afar, and seemed even more so after we climbed the 217 cast-iron steps to the top and imagined the five-ton lens rotating in the tower’s top chamber, barely larger than the glass itself. Barnegat Bay, between the beaches and the mainland, stretched out below us, and we watched sailboats making their way through the channel that links the Atlantic to the wharves on the back side of Barnegat Light.

Two commercial fishing docks on the bay make this tiny town the third-largest port on the Jersey Shore (after Cape May and Point Pleasant). In one of these marinas, we found a take-out fish-and-chips shop called Off the Hook, ordered baskets of super-fresh fried scallops, and sat on the sun-splashed patio. The owner, Kris Larson, stopped by our table, and when we told her we’d never had scallops as fresh, she told us her family owns three “scallopers,” docked just steps from the shop.

Kris’s father,  John Larson, the former sea captain who owns the Viking Village fishery, happened to stop by and offered to guide us around the marina. He showed us the heart of a working dock: the two-story ice machine that generates the 20 tons of cubes a day that long-line fishing boats use to chill their catch. We watched as a crew readied a trawler. An enormous hose pumped ice into the hold of the boat as deckhands hustled around, throwing duffel bags packed for two weeks at sea on board.

When we left Long Beach Island the following morning (the causeway was deserted), we reflected on the dramatically different flavors of the Shore points we’d encountered. Mantoloking, where we ogled enormous cedar-shake mansions, had the hedgerow hush of some of the most exclusive streets of the Hamptons, and beaches that were virtually empty. A few miles north, in the cute Victorian town of Sea Girt, the beach was as busy as any we’d seen on our trip.

That afternoon, in Asbury Park, we found ourselves in another mode entirely, one that Fellini might appreciate: flanked on all sides by tattooed mod kids on vintage Vespa and Lambretta scooters, put-puttering in what seemed to be a parade. We followed them toward the boardwalk on the beachfront, where a monumental carousel sat riderless behind a chain-link fence, idle but strangely beautiful. Just a few blocks down the street was the Stone Pony, the club where young Jersey boy Springsteen played gigs in the seventies. Outside, a white limo was parked at the curb and a bride and groom were having their picture taken in front of the club. The Vespa posse gave a thumbs-up and sounded meep-meeps at the happy couple. Any moment now, we thought, and that gleaming white ice cream truck is going to roll into view.


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