More than 125 mi/200 km of coastline reveal the state's roots, from the first lighthouse at Sandy Hook to Cape May's gingerbread Victorian houses. Many locals spend their summer days "down the shore," and visitors may want to do the same. With so many beach towns to choose from, a little help is in order. We've worked our way from north to south, hitting the highlights.
On the northernmost reach of the Jersey Shore, at the Gateway National Recreation Area, you'll find a barrier peninsula with long stretches of undeveloped beach and shoreline, as well as the oldest operating lighthouse in the U.S., Sandy Hook (built in 1764). Consider taking a riverboat cruise of the area for views of the historic Highlands and Sandy Hook Bay areas.
Heading south, you'll find beach town after beach town. Just south of Asbury Park, one interesting community is Ocean Grove, a Methodist camp-meeting resort (and a "dry" town) noted for its beautifully maintained Victorian bed-and-breakfasts and well-supervised beach. It's also home to the Auditorium at Ocean Grove, one of the oldest continuously operating music halls in the state, where regular summer concerts are offered.
Spring Lake, a seaside town with uncrowded beaches and the longest noncommercial boardwalk in the state, is in a class by itself. In addition to the beaches, it has a beautiful lake and a landscape full of parks, footbridges, shade trees and rows of masterfully restored Victorian homes (many of which are now bed-and-breakfast inns). It's one of the most unspoiled of the shore resorts, worth a visit at any time of year and ideal for those who seek a quiet retreat from the commercialization of many of the other beaches. If it looks a bit familiar, it might be because it's been used as a setting in a number of films, including Ragtime.
At the other end of the spectrum, Seaside Heights has commercialism galore along its boardwalk. Fun seekers flock to its carnival games, amusement-park rides, funnel cakes and frozen-custard stands. Its beaches are nice and family-oriented. Nearby, at Double Trouble State Park near Toms River, you can see what cranberry bogs look like, explore an old sawmill village or hike through typical coastal pinelands.
An extreme contrast is offered just to the south by Island Beach State Park, a 10 mi/16 km stretch of undeveloped dunes and beaches, along with pristine maritime forests and marshes. In addition to swimming, fishing, hiking, canoeing and horseback riding, the park is a great place to indulge in bird-watching and to observe coastal flora and fauna in its natural setting.
Just south of the park, but across an inlet on the northern tip of Long Beach Island, is Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, with a lighthouse dating back to 1857—it was built after more than 200 ships wrecked in the Barnegat Shoals within a 10-year period during the 1840s. Long Beach Island itself is an 18-mi/29-km barrier island with a string of resort communities that has become popular, and it is often crowded in the summer. If you're traveling with kids, visits to family-oriented Fantasy Island Amusement Park or Thundering Surf Water Park in the borough of Beach Haven on the southern end of the island should prove a big hit.
If you're driving the length of the shore, however, you'll have to exit Long Beach Island at midpoint in the town of Ship Bottom, via the Route 72 causeway, to proceed any farther south. You can either follow the Garden State Parkway south to Atlantic City, or take quaint U.S. Route 9 a few miles/kilometers south to the borough of Tuckerton and Tuckerton Seaport, a recreated maritime village emphasizing the unique culture of New Jersey's "baymen." A fascinating extra feature—The Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve Visitor Center & Exhibit—is open to the public free of charge (http://www.jcnerr.org).
Ocean City, 20 mi/32 km South of Atlantic City, is a wholesome, family-oriented town with one of the best boardwalks in the state. It is also a "dry" town—where selling and serving alcoholic beverages is strictly prohibited—a ban put into effect by the Methodist clergymen who founded the community and retained to this day, despite the rescinding of other local "blue laws." A popular seaside resort since the 1870s, it has lots of history, too: The Ocean City Historical Museum has examples of marine life, Victorian furniture and relics from the Sindia, a four-masted, steel-hulled sailing ship that was carrying a load of luxury items from the Orient to New York when it was wrecked in a gale off the Jersey coast in 1901.
The coastal region continues with Sea Isle City, Avalon and Stone Harbor, known for some of the priciest beachfront real estate in the country. This is also the setting for the Wetlands Institute (https://wetlandsinstitute.org), which sits on more than 6,000 acres/2,428 hectares of protected wetlands. Hands-on exhibits focus on efforts to conserve the native diamondback terrapin. There's also an aquarium and an observation tower. Kayaking, fishing and crabbing tours depart from the dock.
Toward the end of the Jersey Shore, near Cape May, is one of the most popular Jersey-shore communities, Wildwood. Kitschy and honky-tonk, Wildwood's 3-mi-/5-km-long boardwalk is lined with fast-food stands, five amusement piers and nonstop nightlife—Chubby Checker introduced the twist at the Rainbow Club there. It's a popular setting for teenage summer romance, and the families who vacation there tend to return year after year. The beaches are clean and wide, and you don't have to buy a tag to enjoy them. A little farther south is Cape May, the southern end of the Jersey shore.
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