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Downashore at last! This summer, you will find yourself with a myriad of vacation options as diverse as the sunny little towns that dot the Atlantic coastline. From family-friendly to romantic and fun after dark, there’s a shore full of new places, events and people to celebrate this season.
Brigantine is more than just a company town for the gaming industry. Broad, clean uncrowded beaches, an 18-hole Scottish Links golf course and affordability, not to mention proximity to the action, make Brigantine popular with both second home owners and vacationers. Weekly and monthly rentals abound, but second homeowners comprise the majority of summer residents.
What Brigantine may lack in terms of a dining scene or boardwalk, it makes up for with recreational programs, including surfing clinics and sports leagues, designated surfing, fishing and four-wheeling beaches (permit required), a dog park and even surf chairs for disabled beach-goers. Marinas dot the bayside of Brigantine and fishing charters from Fish Finder are a great way to spend the day. At night, the Laguna Grill beach bar in the Celebrity Resort is one of the area’s only beachfront restaurants. Beach-goers can also carry cocktails from the bar to their beach chair.
Spotlight on: The Marine Mammal Stranding Center, a nationally recognized non-profit that assists in marine mammal rescues, offers free tours of its facilities as well as dolphin- and whale-watching excursions. www.marinemammalstrandingcenter.org
HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” seems to have rekindled public fascination with AC’s notorious past that has in turn highlighted plenty of other ways for the resort to hold a visitor’s interest. Atlantic City’s casinos are known worldwide, but there is a lot more to America’s Playground than slot machines, celebrity chef restaurants and high-rise hotel towers. Visitors in the know patronize family-owned restaurants like the iconic Knife and Fork, the Ducktown Tavern (where one order of lasagna can feed two hungry people) and the Gilchrist, a greasy-spoon breakfast fave in Gardner’s Basin. The beaches are free in Atlantic City, and relatively uncrowded, even in the height of the season. The Boardwalk, the first of its kind originally built to keep sand out of the city’s grand hotels, is still a draw, with the venerable Steel Pier giving families a thrill and the Pier Shops at Caesars offering designer shopping on a pier jutting 900 feet over the ocean. The Walk is an outdoor outlet mall with national brands and well-known chain restaurants that stretches from the foot of the Atlantic City Expressway to the Boardwalk.
What’s New? The biggest new attraction is the 6.3 million sq. ft. Revel, the mega-resort that celebrated its grand opening Memorial Day Weekend. The wow? Sassy shows at Ivan Kane’s Royal Jelly Burlesque Nightclub, and not one but two Iron Chef eateries: Jose Garces’ Amada and Marc Forgione’s American Cut steakhouse. www.revelresorts.com
Also new: After a $150 million renovation, Trump Marina Hotel Casino has been reborn as the Golden Nugget, complete with a new spa, lounges, guest rooms and showroom. www.goldennugget.com/atlanticcity
Not feeling flush? The old Hilton on the beach is now the Atlantic Club, playing to locals and lower rollers. www.atlanticclubcasino.com
Stretching south from Atlantic City toward the tonier towns of Margate and Longport, Ventnor is a year-round town where renters can find funky converted garage apartments, high-rise condo rentals and some rambling beach houses within walking distance to the surf. Numerous small, family-owned restaurants like Hannah G’s, famous for creatively stuffed omelets, and Jagielky’s candy store give this shore town a hometown feel. A quiet boardwalk that stretches 1.7 miles along the shore is perfect for strolling and bike riding. Ventnor has designated beaches for surfing, Hobie Cats and kayaks, plus a fishing pier and volleyball courts on two beaches.
Time to Eat: Grab a sub from the original Sack o’ Subs (a worthy rival to Atlantic City’s famous White House Subs) and enjoy a beach picnic, or head over to the bay for some fishing or crabbing from the docks. If you’d rather bring your own than catch your own, Sage is a local favorite for fine dining and BYOB affordability. www.sageventnor.com
Margate is an upscale town that sits to the south of Ventnor and Atlantic City on Absecon Island. Margate’s year-round population of 7,500 swells to more than 23,000 when the summer residents descend. Margate boasts exceptional community facilities: tennis courts, ball fields, playgrounds, a weekly farmer’s market — even a dog park. The Jewish Community Center offers a vast complement of classes, clubs, teams, trips and an enormous health club. Head down Amherst Ave., where fishing charters and boat rentals dot the bayfront. Beach-goers enjoy delivery service from Dino’s subs and, in the evening, Steve and Cookie’s is still the best table in town. Robert’s Place, a hole-in-the-wall bar, serves up some of the best hot wings at the beach. Margate’s mascot, Lucy the Elephant — a three-story pachyderm that was built to lure turn-of the-last-century real estate shoppers downbeach — is not only a landmark, but a must-see.
Tasty News: Chef/owner Nick LoBianco and his wife/partner, Stephanie, have opened not one, but two fab Margate/Ventnor restaurants in the past year: LoBianco New American Cuisine for artful modern Italian and Salt Ayre Bistro in Ventnor for sustainable fresh seafood, awesome steaks and organic poultry. www.restaurantlobianco.com; www.saltayrebistro.com/
Extravagant beachfront homes sit alongside comfy beach cottages in this one-half-square mile town at the southernmost tip of Absecon Island. This tiny borough is short on commerce and long on leisurely beach vacations. The usual Saturday chaos of weekly renters coming and going is non-existent here, as the few rentals that are available are offered for a minimum of a month at a time. The town’s fishing pier is legendary among anglers. For sunsets and happy hours, check out The Shore, a bayside bar and grill at the Seaview Harbor Marina, one of the finest marinas on the Jersey coast.
Folks may wonder why Longport’s southern end starts at 11th Street. That’s because First through 10th Streets slowly moved to Ocean City between 1900 and 1916. Longport is the perfect shore town for people who value peace and quiet but like easy access to the action when the mood suits.
Eye-Opener: Ozzie’s luncheonette (2401 Atlantic Ave.), one of the only restaurants in town, bustles at breakfast thanks to its homey menu, nostalgic vibe and proximity to the beach. Try the breakfast burrito with homemade salsa.
“America’s Greatest Family Resort” works hard to deserve its tagline and the numerous accolades it has received for its squeaky-clean image, beautiful beaches and renowned boardwalk. Ocean City has a knack for lighthearted special events like the annual hermit crab races, hosted by Martin Z. Mollusk, a Doo-Dah parade celebrating the end of tax season and more traditional sidewalk sales, baby parades and more. A bustling boardwalk complete with amusement parks, mini-golf and memorable munchies, like Johnson’s caramel corn (watching them mix it in giant copper bowls is an event in itself) and Manco & Manco pizza, draw stampedes of visitors every night in season and, even though it can be crowded, it’s a happy, easy-going group. Ocean City is a dry town, but Circle Liquor in nearby Somers Point delivers.
Shopping, Everyone? Asbury Avenue shopping rivals the boardwalk’s retail offerings and boasts longtime family-owned favorites like Ward’s Pastry (730 Asbury Ave.), a vacation must for crumb buns and mile-high lemon meringue pies. For upscale gifting, check out the swanky P. Francis (709 Asbury Ave.). New this season: Uncle Joonie’s Steak & Shake (955 Asbury Ave.) for cheesesteaks.
Sea Isle City
While Sea Isle lacks Ocean City’s boardwalk or Avalon’s cachet, families return year after year for its clean beaches, town center and bayfront seafood shacks. Sea Isle is a fisherman’s paradise with a substantial fleet of fishing charters taking four-, six- and eight-hour excursions, as well as trips to the Spencer, Lindenkohl and Carteret Canyons for trophies. Captain Robbins, one of the best-known operators, has been taking fishermen from Ludlums Landing Road dock for 60 years. JFK Boulevard, the main street into town, intersects with Sea Isle’s one-and-a-half-mile oceanfront promenade to form a town center of shops and restaurants, where the sunburned set meets nightly for a stroll and a cone. Rental units are plentiful in Sea Isle and are nestled cheek-to-jowl, but don’t be lulled into last-minute planning. The best of the bunch are reserved a year in advance, and Easter is not too soon for a rental-hunting road trip.
Chilly for Charity: Legions of fans love the annual polar bear plunge that takes place every February, with hundreds of locals and intrepid visitors braving icy waters to raise money for charity. New this year: a special Polar Bear seasonal beach tag on sale for $25. With just 3,000 available, they’re going fast.
One of the most affluent Jersey shore towns, Avalon truly is “cooler by a mile” than other shore towns — in terms of community initiatives like dune grass planting, the shore’s first electric car charging station and even a trolley that helps keep the good times rolling while keeping the drunk drivers off the main drag. Summer residents swell the tiny population and an impressive lineup of sports leagues, special events, camps, classes, movies on the beach and concerts in the park keep the locals, visitors and half-timers entertained. Vacation rentals are abundant and command top dollar here, but the accommodations, helped along by stylish shops like Armadillo Ltd. and the Preppy Palm, as well as Antiques, etc. are impressive.
Super Green: Known for its grassroots green initiatives, the Borough of Avalon offers an electric vehicle charging station in front of the Public Safety Building at 31st St. and Dune Dr. Another way to save energy is to kayak instead of drive — there’s a free kayak park bayside at 57th St. and Ocean Drive, with 196 spaces available on a first-come, first-served basis. www.Avalonboro.org
Piping plovers, red knots and other migratory birds join in-the-know visitors looking to rest and recharge in Stone Harbor, home to the Wetlands Institute and Stone Harbor Point, true destinations for dedicated and casual birders. Not just guidebooks and field glasses, there’s a sailing and social scene anchored by the members-only Stone Harbor Yacht Club. Main Street America is evident on 96th St., where most of the town’s 100 largely family-owned boutiques and shops flourish. Flip-flops and a cooler of beer are welcome at most restaurants, including Kushimba, a 10-table BYOB steak and sushi restaurant run by a local schoolteacher; and Jay’s on Third, a well-regarded spot where the chef serves locally grown veggies and environmentally responsible seafood. The town’s year-round population mushrooms from 1,200 to 20,000 between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but the bustle never seems to invade these shores.
Put on your to-do list: Have a beer (or two) at the year-old Stone Harbor Bar & Grill, with its lively bar and billiards scene and tasty pub menu. stoneharborbarandgrill.com
Wildwood’s free five-mile beach, with its trolley that ferries beachgoers from the street to the waterline, is not the only super-sized attraction here. With its 1950s throwback Doo Wop architecture, 2.5 mile boardwalk with more rides than Disneyland, including one of the east coast’s tallest Ferris wheels, Wildwood is a one-of-a-kind shore town that’s actually three towns in one. Wildwood itself is where the action is, while North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest to the south offer a quieter vacation experience. The town’s Morey brothers operate some of the world’s best amusement parks: Surfside Pier, Mariner’s Landing and Adventure Pier and beachfront water parks Raging Waters and Ocean Oasis. Budget-conscious coaster fans will take advantage of the annual passes and other value packages.
New for 2012: Fun: 3-D Dragon’s Lair Black Light Mini Golf (dragonslairminigolf.com) l Morbid Manor for spooky fun on Sportland Pier (www.morbidmanor.com); River
Adventure at Raging Waters at Morey’s Piers (www.moreyspiers.com). Food: among the new options this season are Tony Luke’s (www.tonylukes.com/stores) and Chickie’s & Pete’s (www.chickiesandpetes.com/locations/shore-boardwalks), along with Pacific Grill (pacificgrillwildwood.com) for Pacific Rim flavors and and Jumbo’s Seafood Grill on the beach (www.moreyspiers.com/s1/50/jumbo-seafood-grill) for seafood, steaks and craft beer.
Silky, white-sand beaches, charming, restored Victorian homes and B&Bs, quaint stores and restaurants make Cape May a year-round romantic destination. Head over to Sunset Beach at least once for the sunset flag-lowering ceremony and collect a few quartz pebbles, known as Cape May Diamonds, as souvenirs. Active vacationers will enjoy the Salt Marsh Safari — a birding and wildlife tour of the salt marshes, as well as fishing boats that leave daily and backbay kayaking from Miss Chris Marina.
Three to try: SeaSalt Restaurant, located in the Ocean Club Hotel, offers a fine dining experience featuring the creative cooking of chef Lulzim Rexhep, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients paired with specialty cocktails and wines.
Old Grange Restaurant: New last season, this historic setting in Cold Spring Village finds executive chef Tony Clark at the top of his game, delivering a polished dining experience more urban than country, in a setting that’s relaxed and very much downashore.
Cape May Brewing Company: Opened in 201l, this brewery offers tours, tastings and seasonal beers like the Cranberry Wheat, a New Jersey specialty.
Long Beach Island
LBI is an 18-mile-long beach lover’s paradise made up of Barnegat Light (the northernmost community of the island) and the chill towns of Brant Beach, Loveladies, North Beach, Holgate and Harvey Cedars. Head south to find bustling Surf City, Ship Bottom and Beach Haven, the island’s main action center. Families flock to the Victorian Fantasy Island Amusement Park, with its nonstop entertainment, turn-of-the-20th-century carousel and plenty of water features. Then there’s the kid-friendly miniature golf at Settler’s Mill and water adventures at Thundering Surf Water Park and Golf.
Onstage original: Despite a fire last season, the show must — and will — go on for Surflight Theatre, celebrating its 63rd season this year. Besides crowd-pleasers like “Annie” (June 19 to July 21) and “The Sound of Music” (July 24 to Aug. 25), original work is staged. Get your tickets for the all-new musical comedy, “Once Upon a Time in New Jersey” (Aug. 28 to Sept. 15) — think “The Sopranos” meets “Happy Days.” www.surflight.org
Beth D’Addono is a frequent contributor to Special Sections and Inside magazine.