You’ll find that there’s something for everyone when you head “down the Shore” in New Jersey. In Point Pleasant Beach, you can roam through the classic Fun House or try your hand at Castaway Cove – a multi-tiered, pirate-themed shipwreck adventure mini-golf course. Travel back in time with a trip to Cape May, where the Victorian architecture makes the town look like a vintage picture postcard, and share a romantic meal of five-star coastal cuisine. For a day of classic beachside fun, there’s no place better than Ocean City, where stuffing yourself with Shriver’s taffy and Johnson’s popcorn and then riding the 141-foot Ferris wheel ranks as a rite of passage. Whichever you choose, the state’s unique boardwalk culture and welcoming community will make this a beach vacation you’ll always treasure.
With its fanciful Victorian architecture and sparkling sand, Cape May decorates the southernmost tip of the state like an antique gemstone. Visitors drive to the end of the Garden State Parkway – basically Exit 0, for those who love to ask that old, Jersey-joshing question – and seemingly right into another era. The clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages complements the sound of soft surf in this town, an enclave reputed to be America’s oldest seaside resort. Fittingly, the entire place has been declared a National Historic Landmark.
Cape May rates as one of the best beach spots to simply roost surfside appreciating Mother Nature’s inky, blue-green Atlantic. Or, opt to tax yourself page-flipping through a novel. Two miles of pristine, hand-raked fine sand await and lifeguards are on duty during summer months. However, like most New Jersey beaches, you need to purchase tags before your toes hit the sand. The seashores rarely appear over-crowded, but parking can be a beast in light of the historic nature of the town’s narrow lanes. So, ditch the car quickly and just enjoy the fact that walking around Cape May is like living inside an illustration from an antique greeting card. Free parking at Cape May Elementary School, where shuttles whisk visitors to the beach, is another seasonal option.
Cape May’s romantic aura lures lots of couples. The beach scene skews upscale, not uptight. You won’t find a boardwalk humming with amusement rides and neon lights. Instead, a paved promenade skirts the shoreline offering traditional arcade games, such as skeeball, and ample beach amenities. Traditional seaside treats are plentiful, but Cape May also supports intimate restaurants serving creative seaside cuisine. In the span of a block, expect a culinary tour from finger food to five-star fare. Public lockers and bathhouses are not available, so plan accordingly if day-tripping.
Sunset Beach, on the outskirts of town, lives up to its moniker. Go beachcombing for Cape May diamonds, aka sea-polished quartz, and then watch the water swallow the sun with an assist from the Delaware Bay.
Many of Cape May’s Victorian buildings provide bed-and-breakfast accommodations, but even if you’re residing in one of these “painted ladies” the heritage trolley tours offered through Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities (MAC) are fascinating. A dozen themed trips cover everything from gables to ghosts. MAC also sponsors the Emlen Physick Estate, Cape May’s only Victorian house museum, and it was instrumental in restoring the iconic Cape May Lighthouse (199 steps to the top!) as well as a World War II Lookout Tower. Fishing, whale-watching and extraordinary birding opportunities (Cape May sits within the second-largest migratory avian flyway in the world) attract eco-tourism enthusiasts. For shoppers, the open-air Washington Street Mall promises nearly 100 unique boutiques. Several scenic vineyards welcome wine lovers.
Best for: Couples seeking a couture sandbox, complete with a healthy dose of history.
Don’t go if: Your shore experience isn’t complete without bumper cars and a boardwalk.
Point Pleasant Beach
Hurricane Sandy rolled over Point Pleasant Beach at the end of 2012, but by Memorial Day 2013 the beach and boardwalk were open for business. This tiny town proved “Stronger than the Storm.” Clean, silvery fine sand sprawls across 2 kilometers of coastline. During summer a patchwork of blankets topped with families, lovers and day-trippers traveling from parts north covers the beach. The mix yields great people-watching. You’ll see everything from sweet grandparents scurrying after giddy tots to Snooki wannabes sporting big hair and tans that would send a dermatologist into cardiac arrest. Still, along that spectrum the family feel wins out. Point Pleasant Beach provides almost an universal fit, offering a little bit of everything so different family members can find their own slice of beachside bliss.
A lively boardwalk backs the beach for about a mile. The compact size makes it easy to navigate, yet the attractions keep coming. Grab a guilt-free sausage sandwich and a bag of fudge, because you’ll burn off both surveying Jenkinson’s enjoyment rides, game pavilions and probably the best themed mini-golf course on the Jersey Shore – Castaway Cove, a multi-tiered shipwreck experience. Roam through the classic Fun House and try to flip fake frogs onto elusive lily pads. For a little shade, duck into the boardwalk’s aquarium. The facility is fully accredited. Benches inscribed with inspirational messages line the boardwalk, providing nice perches for gazing at the silvery blue sea. Another iconic hangout, Martell’s Tiki Bar, extends over the beach on a pier. Palm trees dot the sand in this area where you can have cocktails right on the beach. And yes, the trees are real! They’re scattered elsewhere, too.
Beach access is fee-based in Point Pleasant Beach and bathhouses cost extra. Restrooms are plentiful. All beaches have lifeguards working during summer. Umbrellas and chairs are easy to rent near the boardwalk, but parking will give you a headache. Free spots disappear quickly, while metered spaces and plenty can be expensive.
Fireworks are a summertime tradition in Point Pleasant Beach. A free show lamps the sky every Thursday night, with a big extravaganza on July Fourth. The Tiki Pub and Jenks Club draw crowds with live entertainment and dancing. Site visitors also flock to fresh seafood restaurants along the Manasquan Inlet, where seagulls escort a parade of fishing boats past diners on popular outdoor decks at Jack Baker’s Wharfside and Red’s Lobster Pot. Paddlewheel cruises along the Manasquan River are another pastime. Jenkinson’s Aquarium organizes free shorebird strolls as well as beachcombing sessions. Away from water, Uncle Vinnie’s Comedy Golf club calls along with a collection of more refined antique dealers. Plus, every September a “Festival of the Sea” celebrates local food.
Best for: Families and other folks looking to touch a lot of bases.
Don’t go if: Crowds cramp your style and tranquility trumps all else.
It’s hard to find a place more wholesome than Sea City, where going “down the Shoreline” feels a lot like attending a fantastic family reunion.
Eight mls of smooth beach beckon, perfect for swimming, surfing and simply worshiping rays, but the warm embrace of sunlight seems almost secondary to being hugged by this welcoming community. From sand-sculpting competitions to beauty contests for crustaceans, there’s always some event generating camaraderie that culminates in ample ribbons for excellence and effort.
A boardwalk, boasting two amusement piers and a water park, trims the beach for almost 3 miles. Whimsical miniature golf courses, arcades buzzing with video games and outlets specializing in signature seaside snacks abound. Shriver’s has been enticing beach patrons with salt water taffy since 1898. A relative newbie, Johnson’s Popcorn arrived in 1940. Its Salty-N-Sandy combination of artisan cheddar and original caramel – regularly hand-mixed in copper kettles to the delight of onlookers – suits the setting. Plenty of vendors supply umbrellas and chairs, too. The only thing missing is alcohol. Originally founded by Methodists as a religious retreat, Ocean City remains a “dry” town.
Strolling the boards proves as popular as walking the beach, and surveying the whole scene from atop Ocean City’s landmark. 141-foot Ferris wheel ranks as another rite of passage. “Family Night” rolls around every Thursday during summer time, upping the ante on old-fashioned fun with free face-painting, balloon art, roaming magicians and more. Plus, this beach boardwalk loves a good parade. You’ll find from Miss NJ contestants aboard convertibles to merchant mascots in surreys to a brigade of babies with and without carriages.
While most people gravitate toward swaths of fine sand close to the boardwalk, quieter stretches exist toward both ends of the strip. Sand dunes with patches of native scrub give these areas a windswept vibe. Lifeguards protect the seashores and tags must be purchased for entry. Comfort stations dot the boardwalk, but a fee for bathhouses applies. There are open-air showers for rinsing. Parking options include municipal and private lots as well as metered and free street places.
Sea City occupies a barrier island between the Atlantic and Great Egg Harbor. Angling excursions and island sightseeing cruises depart from this back-bay area. You can even journey aboard a pirate ship dubbed Sea Dragon that sports family-friendly drinking water cannons. Stand-up paddleboards, sailboats and jet-ski rentals are available as well. Every July a festooned flotilla lighting up the bay during the “Night time in Venice” parade. Bike paths lace the island, with generous boardwalk access till noon. For a dose of culture nothing beats the Music Pier, a historic boardwalk auditorium and home to the Ocean City Pops. Two boardwalk theaters await as well. Sea City also rests conveniently between your glitzy casinos of Atlantic City and the gracious Victorian splendor of Cape May.
Best for: Family members with younger children and anybody seeking old-fashioned fun in a location nicknamed America’s Greatest Family Resort.
Don’t go if: You’re a Jersey Shore fan seeking to pound beers and participate in wet T-shirt contests. Ocean City offers the latter, but it’s a tossing competition!