When summer temperatures rise, the entire state of New Jersey tips eastward and rushes to the beach. The revered Jersey Shore is studded with resort towns, from classy to tacky, that fulfill the platonic ideal of how a long summer day should be spent. Super-sized raucous boardwalks where singles more than mingle are a short drive from old-fashioned intergenerational family retreats. Tourism flourishes.
So for many coastal communities affected by 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, the 2014 summer travel season promises to be an important one. Especially from Sandy Hook to Atlantic City, the length that suffered the brunt of the storm’s impact, communities galvanized by a spirit of solidarity in Sandy’s aftermath are anxious to test – if not prove – how well they’ve returned to business as usual. Up and down the coast, there’s been a building boom: storm-damaged homes are razed and rebuilt; sea walls, dunes, and beach replenishment projects are beginning in earnest; and shuttering businesses are reopening.
So pack your beach bag and (re)discover the revitalized Jersey Shore this summer.
The Jersey Shore is studded with boardwalks. The two-mile Grand Daddy of them all is Wildwood, where kitsch is pushed beyond vulgarity to a joyful sublime ideal. Grab a seat on a bench for some of the east coast's best people watching: Groups of bikini-clad and tank-topped twenty-somethings compete with families for elbow room and beachfront space. Though you’ll find a spot on the sand, as all three beaches here (Wildwood, North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest) are the widest in the state. In a strange twist of fate, the beaches even gained sand after Sandy.
There’s always a line for a table at Shore staple pizzeria Mack's Pizza (www.mancospizza.com) on the boardwalk. Off the boardwalk but worth a driving detour is Wildwood Crest, an archaeological slice of 1950s Americana – whitewashed motels with flashing neon signs, turquoise curtains and pink doors. The sea-green-and-white Starlux (www.thestarlux.com) has the soaring profile, lava lamps and boomerang-decorated bedspreads to qualify as 'authentically' retro.
Seaside Heights, still rebounding from Sandy’s direct blow as well as a boardwalk fire in September 2013, is hoping to get back on its oft-inebriated feet. Iconic events like the Polar Bear Plunge and Clownfest are returning (in February and September 2014, respectively), and its overwhelming boardwalk and rollicking amusement pier will be up and running. Once darkness falls, Seaside Heights becomes such a scene of hedonistic mating rituals – check out the Bamboo Bar (www.bamboobar.com) of the Jersey Shore reality show infamy – that an evangelical church has felt the need for a permanent booth on the pier.
Atlantic City’s iconic 8-mile boardwalk, lined with gargantuan casinos and the lifeline of the city, was the world’s first. The late 19th- and early 20th-century town, known for its amusement pier, and the glamorously corrupt one of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire set in the 1920s, is no longer. The continuing expansion of gambling in nearby states continues to challenge the city’s raison d'etre, and gray-haired retirees and vacationing families are as common as bachelors and bachelorettes. The trendy art-deco Chelsea (www.thechelsea-ac.com) is probably the best non-casino hotel on the boardwalk. For gigantic oily subs and cheesesteaks, head to White House Subs (http://whitehousesubshop.net), an icon of the good ol’ days.
Point Pleasant is a quintessential bumper-car-and-Skee-Ball boardwalk. On July weekends, its long beach is jammed, umbrellas shading every inch of sand and the surf clogged with bodies and bobbing heads. Families with young kids love the big but not overwhelming boardwalk, and the squeaky-clean amusement rides, fun house and small aquarium – all run by Jenkinson's – are geared to the height and delight of the 10-and-under set. Though Point Pleasant isn’t only for little ones. Martell's Tiki Bar (http://tikibar.com), a place margarita pitchers go to die, makes sure of that. Look for the neon-orange palm trees and listen for the live bands.
Ocean City is a dry town with a roomy boardwalk packed with genuine family fun and facing an exceedingly pretty beach. There’s a small water park, and Gillian’s Wonderland (www.gillians.com) has a heart-thumpingly tall ferris wheel, a beautifully restored merry-go-round and kiddie rides galore. If you haven’t yet, beat the heat with a delicious Kohr’s soft-serve frozen custard, plain or dipped. While saltwater taffy is offered many places, Shriver’s Taffy (www.shrivers.com) is, in our opinion, the best: watch machines stretch and wrap it through plate-glass windows.
Ocean Grove is a perfectly coifed, sober, conservative and quaint Victorian seaside town, with a boardwalk boasting not a single business to disturb the peace and quiet. Founded by Methodists in the 19th century, the place retains what's left of a post–Civil War Tent City revival camp – now a historic site with 114 cottage-like canvas tents clustered together that are used for summer homes. Towering over the tents, the 1894 mustard yellow Great Auditorium shouldn’t be missed: its vaulted interior, meticulous acoustics and historic organ recall Utah’s Mormon Tabernacle. Get a balconied room at the 135-year-old Quaker Inn (www.quakerinn.com).
Nearby in prosperous Spring Lake (once known as the ‘Irish Riviera’), quiet streets are lined with grand oceanfront Victorian houses set in meticulously manicured lawns. If you're interested in a low-key quiet base, stay at the bright and airy Grand Victorian at Spring Lake (www.grandvictorianspringlake.com), directly across the street from the beach.
Founded in 1620, Cape May – the only place in Jersey where the sun both rises and sets over the water – is on the state’s southern tip and is the country's oldest seashore resort. Its sweeping beaches get crowded in summer, but the stunning Victorian architecture, including 600 gingerbread-style houses, is attractive year-round. The classic and regal-looking Congress Hall (www.congresshall.com) has a range of beautiful quarters, plus a long, oceanfront porch lined with rocking chairs.
Asbury Park’s downtown is probably the hippest on the Shore, thanks to a revitalization effort led by wealthy gay men from NYC who snapped up blocks of forgotten Victorian homes and storefronts to refurbish. Take a stroll down Cookman and Bangs Aves, lined with charming shops, bars, cafes, restaurants and a restored art-house cinema. Moonstruck (www.moonstrucknj.com), a popular Italian eatery housed in a striking Victorian building with tables on the wraparound porches, overlooks a lake separating Asbury Park from adjacent Ocean Grove.
Discover every inch of the Jersey Shore's beaches, boardwalks and more in Lonely Planet’s Eastern USA travel guide.