If MTV's "Jersey Shore" becomes a franchise — and heaven help us if it already has — I hope they get around to doing a version that focuses on the shore I have come to know and love.
The "Shore" I see on TV is a caricature, a fun-house mirror distortion, a stew of stereotypes and idiosyncrasies. The shore I know personally is an iconic American playground: beaches, boardwalks and old-school amusement parks. It's the clatter of horse hooves on the streets of a vintage seaside town, the roar of a wooden roller coaster and the sound of waves rolling onto a deserted stretch of sand.
Yes, if you are looking for overserved, fist-pumping goombahs, there are plenty of places where you can find them on the Jersey shore. Fortunately, there are many more places where you can avoid them completely while enjoying some of the finest oceanfront on the East Coast.
It's worth noting that just one of the eight original "Jersey Shore" cast members, Sammi "Sweetheart," actually is from New Jersey. The rest are what the locals call "Bennys," a derogatory nickname for the unfortunate byproduct of human endeavor that oozes south from Staten Island and thereabouts to take up temporary summer residence along New Jersey's 127 miles of shoreline.
"These are folks who are here on vacation," said Bob Hilton of the Jersey Shore Visitors & Convention Bureau. "Does their behavior represent the Jersey shore? Probably not."
No, these are people who, despite being minutes away from some of the most spectacular beaches in the country, are spending vast amounts of time playing with their hair and doing laundry.
That's their Jersey shore. Here's mine, condensed into a trial-size three-day weekend.
DAY 1: THE BEACH
All of New Jersey is not the shore, and the shore is not all of New Jersey. Let's stipulate to that fact as we drive out of Atlantic City toward Long Beach Island. The drive takes an hour, no more, north on the Garden State Parkway to Exit 63, then down Barnegat Road (New Jersey Highway 72 East) to the causeway that spans Manahawkin Bay and leads to the island.
LBI — the native shorthand — is just 18 miles long and only a quarter to half a mile wide in most areas. Its history as a vacation destination goes back to the 1870s, but before the causeway was opened in 1914, LBI was accessible only by boat or train. Even today, the island feels as though it belongs to another era. Other than a lone Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop, there are no chain stores and no chain hotels.
"The limited access keeps the transient crowd away," said Brian Sabarese, a year-round LBI resident and general manager/partner of the sparkling Daddy O hotel in Brant Beach.
After the causeway, take a right and roll south down Long Beach Boulevard. For a place with such narrow parameters, LBI has a wide assortment of individual communities. The names are colorful — Surf City, Loveladies, Spray Beach — and sometimes maddeningly redundant — Beach Haven, Beach Haven Crest, Beach Haven Gardens, Beach Haven Terrace, Haven Beach and, of course, North Beach Haven and South Beach Haven. But because the island is mainly one long street with a bay on one side and an ocean on the other, it's hard to get lost.
Unless you want to. Follow the main road south until it ends and you're at a national wildlife area, a hauntingly secluded spot occupied primarily by migrating birds and the occasional greenhead fly (warning: they bite). New Jersey may be the nation's most densely populated state, but it sure doesn't feel that way when you are standing here on the southern edge of LBI in Holgate.
Head back north and stroll around Beach Haven proper, which is more or less the center of activity on LBI. Parking generally is free and not hard to find, even in high season. Nearly every east-west street leads to a public beach here. You'll need a beach-pass badge, but the fees are reasonable, and some hotels include badges with rooms. Or head to the island's northern tip, home to a historic lighthouse and a nautical museum, where you can learn why the coast of New Jersey is also a wreck diver's dream.
Have a swim and a seafood dinner. Get a good night's sleep and shake the sand out of your walking shoes. Next stop is another essential slice of Jersey-ness.
DAY 2: THE BOARDWALK
LBI hasn't had a boardwalk since 1944. A hurricane destroyed the structure, which was never replaced. So we move south down the Garden State Parkway to Exit 4 and Wildwood, one of the most popular boardwalks on the shore.
The drive is about 90 minutes, or roughly the time it takes to listen to Bruce Springsteen's "The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle" twice. I know, I know, Springsteen is associated with Asbury Park and its boardwalk, but as I said earlier, this is my Jersey shore.
Like LBI, Wildwood is a throwback. It grew into a resort destination in the 1950s, when postwar fun-seekers jumped in their cars and flocked to its beaches and nightlife. This is where Bill Haley and His Comets rocked around the clock and where Chubby Checker twisted. After those glory days faded, so did some of Wildwood's shine. Gradually, many of the hotels and restaurants were restored, however, and the result is a kitschy coolness, with plenty of retro architecture that reflects the town's doo-wop heritage.
Compared with the boardwalk at Seaside Heights, home of the MTV show, Wildwood is tame and unintimidating. The boardwalk here extends out into three piers, each packed with water parks, rides and arcades. Impress your friends with your sweet stroke at the batting cage. Get a fake tattoo and an embarrassing T-shirt. Take a ride on a classic wooden roller coaster, enhanced by an ocean view, then grab some of the famous french fries at Curley's and wash them down with fresh-squeezed lemonade while you people-watch on the boardwalk. The beach — free and wide — is just down the steps, and there are fireworks every Friday night in summer.
Before bed, have a drink in the Astro Lounge at the StarLux Hotel, where you can spend the night in Space Age splendor. Tomorrow, another, much different side of the Jersey shore awaits just down the parkway.
DAY 3: THE CAPE
From Wildwood, it's a short hop to Cape May, a classic American seaside town.
Cape May sits on a peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay at the southernmost tip of the state, which makes it a popular destination for bird watchers and whale-spotters. In the summer, beachgoers don't even have to leave their blankets to see dolphins popping in and out of the water.
Cape May's historic district features some gorgeous examples of Victorian architecture, including the grand Cape May Inn on Ocean Street. Stop in and have a drink on the veranda or lunch at the inn's restaurant, Aleathea's, and pretend you are the Great Gatsby. The inn dates to 1894 and has been updated considerably, but the guest rooms have no telephones, and the elevator is manually operated. Take that, progress.
Down the block is the Washington Street Mall, an outdoor pedestrian concourse with dozens of mom-and-pop shops and restaurants. Cape May is an excellent walking city, but if you want a slightly different point of view, take a carriage ride and experience the town the way your great-grandparents might have 100 years ago.
Those were simpler times ... no blenders, hair gel or spray-on tanning lotion required. The Jersey shore was popular then and remains popular now for all the right reasons. Its appeal will surely outlive any TV show. This is one of America's jewels, and no matter how many bling-bearing Bennys descend upon it, its charm will never be tarnished for me.
Atlantic City is the closest major airport to Long Beach Island and Cape May, but you'll need to rent a car for the rest of the trip. LBI is about an hour's drive from Atlantic City Airport, while Cape May is about an hour and 40 minutes away.
The Garden State Parkway is the shore's main artery, stretching 173 miles from the New York state line on the north end to Cape May on the south. The drive from Long Beach Island (Exit 63) to Wildwood (Exit 6) will take you about 90 minutes in off-peak traffic times.
WHERE TO STAY
Long Beach Island has only a few hotels, so you'll want to book early. Daddy O opened in 2006 on the site of a 1920s-era hotel called Wida's in the town of Brant Beach, just south of the causeway. The new building, a 22-room hotel with a full-service restaurant and bar, stands out among the more weather-worn motels and beach cottages that surround it. There's a rooftop deck with ocean and bay views, and the vibe is hip and upscale. Daddy O, 4401 Long Beach Blvd., Brant Beach, 609-361-5100, daddyohotel.com. Rates start at $240 for August.
If you're looking for something more family-oriented, the Engleside Inn in Beach Haven has an outdoor heated pool, a full-service restaurant and a sushi bar, plus a more casual outdoor bar and grill. The rooms are low on frills, but they're clean and the location is right on the beach and a short walk to the heart of town. Beach-access badges are included with your room. Engleside Inn, 30 Engleside Ave., Beach Haven, 609-492-1251, engleside.com. August rates start at $250.
For a retro-cool Wildwood experience, check out the StarLux hotel, with its all-glass Astro Lounge. It's the kind of place where George Jetson would feel at home. And yes, there are lava lamps. StarLux, 305 E. Rio Grande Ave., Wildwood, 609-522-7412, thestarlux.com. Starting rates range from $162 to $233 through August.
The Inn of Cape May is a sprawling white Victorian beauty overlooking the beach. What it lacks in modern amenities it more than makes up for in character and location. Inn of Cape May, 7 Ocean St., Cape May, 609-884-5555, innofcapemay.com. Rates start at $185 through most of August.