Growing up, I kept a mental countdown to three major things every year:
- The last day of school.
- The first day of my family’s weeklong vacation at the Jersey Shore.
Those days, we packed up the four-door from our home in the Philly suburbs and headed to Wildwood, where we’d spend seven glorious days lazing on the sprawling soft-sand beaches; riding scrolly rollercoasters cresting high above the ocean waves; and stuffing our faces with every kind of boardwalk junk food known to child. (Ahh, I can still smell the aroma of funnel cake wafting through the sea air.)
In later years, vacations took us elsewhere along the Jersey Shore: Ocean City, Sea Isle City, Avalon, Stone Harbor and—nowadays with my own family—Cape May, my happy place.
Here, like a necklace of gems, each of more than a dozen shore towns shines with its own beach bling within less than a 50-mile drive. And while you could hopscotch from town to town inland on the parallel Garden State Parkway, throw that idea out the car window when you can island-hop along a series of mostly two-lane roads—collectively known as Ocean Drive—that meanders from casino-studded Atlantic City to Victorian-infused Cape May.
Along the way, pull off at public-access points to put in a kayak and paddle around glassy bays. Pack a picnic to enjoy at a state park, or bring binoculars for a visit to a bird sanctuary. Hit the beach or stroll “the boards” to catch some rays and amusement rides. Stop to shop in one-of-a-kind boutiques and to dine alfresco on the fresh catch of the day—from the very waters you’re seated beside. And enjoy a frozen custard in the glow of a slow sunset.
Windows down. Music up. Sunglasses on.
Let’s go for a ride down the shore, cruising along the coast as we—per the signs along Ocean Drive—“follow the gull.”
PICK YOUR POINT
While Ocean Drive will change names as you ramble from town to town, rattling over a handful of small bridges, some dating back to FDR’s New Deal (tolls are one way; E-ZPass is accepted), it’s best to get caught up in the scenery, not the street names. In fact, wandering a few streets off the route rewards with a variety of views revealing different angles of coastal life. (Plus, doing so, especially when tourist crowds swell from Memorial Day to Labor Day, can save you time and traffic headaches.) The narrowness of the land, with water as its margins, means that you can get only as lost as you’d like.
Longport’s location on the southern end of Absecon Island makes for peaceful beach time.
ABSECON ISLAND TIME
From the Atlantic City Expressway, it’s an easy shot smack-dab into Atlantic City (AC). While the glory days of AC may be long gone, several attractions glimmer beyond its nine casino resorts and the world’s first—built in 1870—and longest—at five and one-half miles—boardwalk. Those include the Absecon Lighthouse, the country’s third-tallest lighthouse at 171 feet, and Historic Gardner’s Basin with an aquarium, waterfront dining, and cruises and boat charters.
Composing Absecon Island along with AC, mostly residential Ventnor, Margate and Longport offer an attractive patchwork of worthy stops. In Ventnor, stroll through Marven Gardens (which was misspelled “Marvin” in the Monopoly game), a neighborhood of historic homes and gardens. In Margate, visit Lucy the Elephant, a six-story, 90-ton wooden elephant built in 1881 to attract real-estate investors to the then-undeveloped city. Now a National Historic Landmark, the recently renovated Lucy is open seasonally for guided tours. And in Longport, pull off at the base of the Ocean City–Longport Bridge to enjoy dog-friendly Malibu Beach, where you can drop a line from a section of the old bridge turned fishing pier.
FROM OC TO SEA ISLE CITY
Over the bridge and through the marsh is family-centric (and dry) Ocean City (OC), famous for its two-and-a-half-mile amusement-packed boardwalk, expansive beaches, downtown shopping and water diversions. Nearby, Corson’s Inlet State Park offers hiking, fishing, boating, sunbathing and more.
Generations of families flock to Ocean City for both its well-maintained beaches and amusement-filled boardwalk.
The Corson’s Inlet Bridge from OC leads to the quiet village of Strathmere, where you’re greeted by the bayfront Deauville Inn restaurant, which has operated as such since the 1920s. The area is also a nesting spot for sea turtles; slow down to help ensure they cross the streets safely on their way to lay their eggs in the sands.
Strathmere rolls into Sea Isle City, lined with eateries, bars and unique shops. A 28-block-long promenade sits in the heart of town, where a band shell hosts free summertime entertainment. At the island’s south end, Townsends Inlet Waterfront Park is a popular spot for birders and nature photographers.
THE 7 MILE BEACH TWO-STEP
Over the Townsends Inlet Bridge, tony Avalon and Stone Harbor share what’s called 7 Mile Beach, where beach-going, boating, kayaking, paddleboarding and surfing are daily pastimes on the ocean and back bays.
These neighboring towns offer lively town centers brimming with clothing boutiques, restaurants, bars and mini-golf courses. Stone Harbor also has a small bird sanctuary and is home to the Wetlands Institute, which features nature exhibits, an elevated marsh walkway and a salt marsh trail.
OH, THOSE WILDWOOD DAYS
From the bridge connecting Stone Harbor to the Wildwoods, you’ll cruise into North Wildwood, Wildwood and Wildwood Crest. Wildwood lays claim to a 38-block-long boardwalk that serves up more than 100 rides and attractions; five miles of super-wide, beach-tag-free beaches; and an annual lineup of 180-plus events.
The Caribbean Motel in Wildwood Crest is an excellent example of Doo Wop architecture. Photo courtesy of the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement & Development Authority
You’ll also find the country’s largest collection of mid-century commercial (Doo Wop) architecture, mostly concentrated in the Crest’s Wildwoods Shore Resort Historic District. In North Wildwood, the 1874 Hereford Inlet Lighthouse is open seasonally for tours, and behind it, a paved seawall sets the stage for supremely scenic strolls.
ON THE WAY TO CAPE MAY
From the Crest, Ocean Drive vaults over a drawbridge (which often opens for large fishing vessels at this bustling seaport) and along a marsh-fringed road dotted with restaurants, marinas and seafood processing plants until reaching Exit 0: Cape May, America’s First Seaside Resort.
Cape May is a trove of Victorian architecture, where seaside mansions and gingerbread cottages impress at every turn. Stroll the oceanfront promenade or the pedestrian-only Washington Street Mall, which oozes charm with a variety of specialty shops and restaurants. Then rest awhile on an Adirondack chair on the lawn of the historic Congress Hall hotel, or take a horse-drawn carriage tour before hopping back in the car and heading to Sunset Beach in Cape May Point—perhaps birdwatching at the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, Cape May Point State Park or the Cape May Bird Observatory; visiting the working Beach Plum Farm; and touring the Cape May Lighthouse and World War II Lookout Tower along the way.
Magnificent sunsets and the SS Atlantus shipwreck are among the many draws to Sunset Beach in Cape May Point.
From Sunset Beach, you can see a concrete shipwreck jutting out of the water just offshore, a World War I-era relic. On select evenings throughout the summer, people gather beachside for a flag ceremony that honors veterans by flying their casket flags as “God Bless America,” “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Taps” play over a loudspeaker.
The ceremony is a moving 40-year tradition here and a perfect place to culminate an Ocean Drive journey. It’s also another reason why I’ll always count down to precious time spent at the Jersey Shore.