Bright, 50's-style neon signs line the beachfront streets. In true New Jersey fashion there's a diner on every corner – but here, a classic-style diner that offers the best of a classic era in a perfect resort town. There's miles and miles of beach, with sand softer and whiter than any sand you have seen before. Where is the world am I? I'm in South Jersey at Wildwood Crest – the southernmost point in the state, and a stones throw across the bay from Rehoboth Beach, DE.
I think there has been a stigma associated with the shore after a TV show (which shall remain nameless) may have created the impression that the shore is full of rowdy twentysomethings that make it an unpleasant, if not sometimes seedy, place to bring your family. I have been visiting the Jersey Shore since childhood, and haven't felt the impact of that yet.
Each year when I visit Wildwood, NJ and the surrounding area with my family, it always turns in to a health-cation for me. Traveling with my brother, who recently ran his first 5k this year, and my mother, who has more energy than anyone I have ever met, I always end up running/walking/swimming/kayaking/biking somewhere around 20 miles each day without even trying.
This year, the first morning upon waking up, my brother and I laced up our shoes and hit the “road” - meaning starting on the beachfront pedestrian walkway, hitting up the Boardwalk, and finishing it up on the sand. A great loop that you can't experience in many places on the east coast. This day was humid. Edging up to 90*, the first 5 miles up to the end of the Boardwalk were torture. Sure there was a breeze, but it was like a hot sweaty breeze, as if your own breath is being blown back upon you. Switching it up to the sand and trekking that was a little bit better, and we completed it early enough before the beach goers started to line the shoreline with chairs and umbrellas.
Then we dove in to the ocean.
The next day, needing a little respite from the continued humidity, we grabbed a couple ocean kayaks and headed out on the bay. We stopped by the rental location and were “greeted” by the worker, who was probably just there making some summer cash before high school started back up on the fall. He seemed like he was not very excited to have us set sail that morning. It was a pretty choppy day on the Delaware Bay, to the point where he asked “are you SURE you want to kayak for two hours?” Yes. We're sure. While most of his guests are probably families with children looking to float around and have a good time, we have been on a kayak or two in our day, and I was looking forward to getting out in the ocean instead of a lake for a change and actually getting some real rowing miles in.
The dock worker pushed us off and told us to go left and stay along the dock side. We immediately disregarded that, again, as we are pretty experienced in the Kayak department, and headed out directly across the bay to a series of islands that I had seen many times by boat, but never had a chance to explore myself. After 20 minutes of hard paddling, waves jumping over me in this cheap sit-on-top model, we finally make it to, what we believe to be an old military Marine base. The docks that once lined the island shore had long since deteriorated, leaving only pillars where they once stood. We got out and walked the shore and soon left because, quite honestly, I did not even know if it was legal for us to be there. The signs were all sun-bleached so I could not tell. Oops.
We jetted to the next island where saw some big conch shells that had washed up. I wanted to go grab one as a natural souvenir of the trip. The first thing I said to my brother was “watch out for glass,” as there was a lot of pieces speckling the shore, but I soon realized it was not just pieces of glass that we were seeing – there were entire bottles lying around. Later research shows these are prohibition-era liquor bottles, made somewhere between 1900-1930. We knew they were old upon finding them, and can only assume that particular island was a favorite boozy hangout for the adjacent Marine base. We must have been the only two to ever explore that island recently, which made it all that more exciting. It was a great ocean kayaking experience.
Keeping up with our exercise-crazed family vacation, it was bike rental time. For something like $8 for two hours, we grabbed bikes and set back out for the bay area – because it's where all of the best seafood on the island is hiding. Being an incredibly flat area, we made it over in about 10 minutes to what is said to be one of the best seafood spots in town – Boathouse Restaurant. A perfect waterfront destination and exactly what you think you would find in a small beachside community. We stashed the biked and headed in for some oysters and an IPA. Perfect detour if you ask me.
After circling the majority of the island, we headed back for another stroll down to the Boardwalk for dinner. Full of arcades, cheap eats, rides, music, shopping, it's been there since long before I was born, neon lights guiding all of the kids and families down to the piers for ice cream, saltwater taffy, pizza and more. If you've been there before, you know to “watch out for the tram car, please” and you know that you're either going to get Mack's Pizza or Sammy's Pizza and you will never switch to the other side. We got Mack's and took the tram back home. Clearly if I'm sitting on the tram I am too worn out to walk, which is shocking.
The highlight of my trip has always been taking a fishing boat out in to the middle of no where, with no land in view, and just hanging out in the sun for a while. And in a TOTAL aside: It's actually where I found out that I got my job in Ithaca. Sitting on the top deck of a boat, a random buzz came through my cell phone and I had a voice message. In the middle of the ocean! Hours away from cell service! It was a weird little blip of signal and I listed to the voicemail to learn that I had a job offer. Ad then all service was lost again. So I floated out in the water, stuck in my own head, trying to ask myself if I should move from Los Angeles to take a job in rural upstate NY. I so very badly wanted to call all of my LA friends and ask them what to do. To tell my coworkers that I had another opportunity and I was actually-kinda-maybe considering. But I couldn't. And I wouldn't be able to for AT LEAST the next 6 hours.
I asked my brother what I should do. “Should I take it?” I asked.
“Wy not?” he said.
And that was that. I totally took a chance and I have never been happier.
But anyways – back to the Jersey Shore. The boat is intended for fun, but has a competitive edge where you can cough up two dollars in to the pool and perhaps win the pot for biggest fish. You'll actually find some big ones out there – fluke, flounder, sea bass for dinner, and sea robin and skate for bait. You'll probably even catch a jellyfish or two when you're out there, you just never know. Mom caught a big fluke early in the game, and we waited and harassed the captain to turn around and head home for the rest of the trip before someone topped her catch.
Fortunately she did win, and was nice enough to share her winnings with me. No, not the money. I was much more interested in the fish. We filleted him up and had the fish shack at the dock fry up the fluke, grab us some lemon and tartar sauce, and share the “winnings” of the freshest fish that I have eaten in recent memory.
I spent the remaining days of the trip running down to the Boardwalk in slightly less humidity, eating soft-serve ice like it was my job, and swimming in the crashing waves. The pretty neon glow of the hotel signs, the old Italian vibe complete with many bocce courts and copious amounts of Italian Water Ice, the Philly vacation-goers – accent included. It's all a part of what make the shore an amazing place to be in the summer. An amazing place to go back to. And a shocking vacation destination if you've been poisoned by pop culture and bad television. It's one of the most relaxing, beautiful beaches I have been to on the East Coast, and I know I will be back next year. And the year after.
See you on the boards!