Unexpected New Jersey
Prepare to be surprised: Matt Lee and Ted Lee discover the joys of the mid-Atlantic’s underdog state, from Cape May to Asbury Park.
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.
Related: The Best Beaches in New Jersey
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.
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.
The games—row upon row of video poker machines and one-armed bandits, and the roulette, craps, and poker tables—cluster in the center of the hotel’s ground floor. The shops and restaurants cling to the periphery, but never so far away that you can’t hear the ka-ching of the gaming floor or watch the players in action. The casino does its best to keep you inside its doors, but we were eager to get out and see the town first.
Beyond the Borgata are some elements of the new Atlantic City that approach something you’d see in Las Vegas’s ersatz wonderland. The two-year-old Pier Shops at Caesars, an edifice stretching 1,000 feet into the Atlantic, houses the largest shopping-mall fountain in the world. The mall is chockablock with luxury retailers—Bottega Veneta, Prada, and Louis Vuitton—and just outside the doors of Stephen Starr’s sleek Buddakan restaurant are sandy alcoves with Adirondack lounges, where you can recline on an air-conditioned “beach” and watch the goings-on of the actual beach below.
But none of these features held our attention like the small collection of old photographs of Atlantic City on the wall of the Knife & Fork—a curious 1912 Flemish-style building that became a rowdy men’s club during Prohibition and was recently renovated as a steak house serving an excellent Jersey corn chowder. The pictures are small, almost an afterthought—you can’t see them from the tables—but it’s worth a tour around the room to scrutinize them. One is a group portrait of a hundred well-dressed men attending, the caption notes, Lobster-eating Contest, Jersey Hotel Man’s Association, 1950. Another photo from the 40’s or 50’s shows a gaggle of women in waitress uniforms running a race at an Atlantic City Hotel Staff Competition. In a third, a young Bob Hope stares down a policeman attempting to enforce the “shirt required” rule on the beach. In a city with scant evidence of its history (and with such a fabled past), the pictures were a kind of salvation, fleshing out the story of a place that seemed both exotic and familiar.
True, we did find a few new story lines back at the Borgata. At SeaBlue— the only Northeast restaurant helmed by chef Michael Mina—we sidled up to the blue marble bar next to two women in cocktail dresses drinking martinis and eating platters of crudo. They were from Sea Isle City, a town a few miles downshore, and were Borgata regulars, thanks to the gambling habit of one of their spouses. We enjoyed chatting and comparing cocktails—the delicious lychee gimlet was our favorite—and after a short while, a husband arrived, wearing gym shorts and a Sea Isle City T-shirt. His wife proffered her purse; he took two crisp hundreds from it and a sip of her martini, and went back to the slots. By the time we were tucking into lobster potpie, served in a copper four-quart saucepan, the Mister was back for more moola.
A safer bet than the Borgata’s slots is the legendary White House Sub Shop, an Atlantic City institution that soldiers on in the shadow of the glitzy casinos. Fiercely independent, with oddball rules—if you want a beverage to go with your meal, the cashier will reluctantly make change of a dollar bill so you can use the soda machine at the back of the store—on this bright August day the establishment seemed summer-weary. The place had just opened when we arrived at 11 a.m., and the sandwich jockeys appeared exhausted already.
The tuna sub, fortunately, was still a knockout. Slathered with a potent, sour hot-pepper relish, it was the perfect sustenance for the trip to Long Beach Island. About 30 miles up the coast from A.C., LBI is a narrow strip of sand just two blocks wide and 20 miles long that’s linked to the Jersey mainland by a narrow causeway. There’s only one route on and off the island, which gets backed up for miles on weekends. As we munched happily on our subs, we debated—worse than the Hamptons? Worse than Cape Cod?—and wondered why anyone would be willing to wait for two hours to drive 10 miles.
The answer came shortly after we’d dropped our bags at the Daddy O, a sprawling inn with some South Beach swagger. We walked the sandy block of picturesque shore cottages to the ocean. It was here that we found that Creamsicle of a lifetime, and realized you can have it all on the Shore—a weirdly wonderful concoction of old and new. Once you finish that drippy Popsicle, you can retire to the vampy, bordello-chic bar back at the hotel for a nice cold glass of Grüner Veltliner.
Despite the impression the causeway had created, Long Beach Island seemed remarkably uncongested, even relaxed. The genial stores and attractions that dot Long Beach Boulevard—the main drag that runs the length of the island—are the lifeblood of this place. We played a round of miniature golf at the Sand Trap and ducked into Ravioli & More, a take-out shop with a brisk trade in expertly done, house-made ravioli (pumpkin, lobster) and sauces (marinara, vodka). We bought a hermit crab (all sales final) at Things A Drift, a shop packed to the rafters with driftwood sculptures and seashells, and set out to explore the beach hamlets to the north, towns with picturesque names like Ship Bottom, Harvey Cedars, Loveladies.
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.
When to Go
Summer weekends require advance planning as far as lodgings and restaurant reservations are concerned. September and May see fewer crowds.
Fly into Newark-Liberty Airport and rent a car. Without traffic, the airport is one hour from Asbury Park, two hours from Atlantic City, and 21/2 hours from Cape May.