The Atlantic Coast of New Jersey often referred to on the East Coast of the United States as the Jersey Shore, has an abundance of shore towns that offer summer vacation opportunities for tourists. The actual shoreline covers a distance of 141 miles from Cape May to Sandy Hook. Along the shore, there are over 40 different communities and towns that range from quiet residential communities to lively tourist towns. The region is divided into two major sections: the mainland northern towns and the barrier islands to the south.
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Southern Jersey Shore
The southern section is dominated by four major tourist destinations: Atlantic City, Ocean City, The Wildwoods, and Cape May. Each place affords the traveler a wonderful opportunity to enjoy a beautiful beach, abundant recreational choices, multiple food options, family amusements, and daily entertainment.
I have been enjoying vacations at the Jersey Shore since I was a young child. I have fond memories of my mother taking my brothers and me to Atlantic City and the famous Steel Pier. The combination of amusements, shows, lights, food, and the excitement of so many people seemed larger than life itself.
My family also spent many laid back weeklong family vacations in the Wildwoods. I will never forget spending the day at the beach, playing in the ocean, the excitement of the boardwalk at night, and the cool breezes blowing from the ocean on hot, summer days. Today, I still find myself visiting the communities in the southern section because they have beautiful, large sandy beaches, abundant recreation, nighttime amusements, and a variety of entertainment options.
Each community has a different personality and seems to cater to a different vacationer profile. When you decide to travel to this area, you’ll have to make a choice of which beaches to visit, where to stay, and how to spend your nights. How do you choose? I have put together some suggestions that can help you to make the most of your visit.
Atlantic City is definitely the most famous of the southern New Jersey shore towns. Since it is only an hour’s drive from Philadelphia it is easy to reach by car, bus, train, and air. Atlantic City was made famous as the host city of the Miss America pageant, the site of Steel Pier, the location of the HBO TV series Boardwalk Empire, and the birthplace of saltwater taffy. Even the game of Monopoly was based on Atlantic City.
Much has changed over the years. During the 1960s and 70s, the city began to decline and fall into disrepair and the original Steel Pier was destroyed in a fire. The decision was made to introduce casino gambling. After that, the character of the city and the shore experience changed drastically. Today, eight major casinos and a series of hotels dominate Atlantic City.
The beach at Atlantic City is very wide and sandy, but not used as much as the other shore communities. It still features a 7-mile long boardwalk, but many of the stores and food establishments are old and show their age. The casinos dominate and define much of the character of the city. Only five casinos are actually on the boardwalk. The other three are on the northwestern side of the town in an area known as Renaissance Pointe, but most commonly referred to as the Marina.
Since the casinos have a vested interest in keeping their customers within their establishments, they tend to be designed as self-inclusive structures with very few services on the boardwalk. The shops, amusements, and food vendors on the boardwalk cater to patrons moving from one casino to another. Recently the casinos have begun to feature beach bars and other beach services for tourists during the summer. These have helped to draw people out of the casinos and onto the beach and boardwalk.
Ocean City, New Jersey, (not to be confused with the town of the same name in the state of Maryland) bills itself as “America’s Greatest Family Resort.” The focus of the community is very much based on creating a destination for families to vacation. Ocean City is one of the East Coast’s few dry towns. The sale of alcohol is banned within the city limits, even though there are numerous beer and liquor stores close to the town border.
The 2.5 mile-long boardwalk is family-friendly and consists mostly of food vendors, retail shops, snack foods, desserts, amusement rides, and mini-golf facilities. There are no games of chance or betting establishments on the boardwalk.
A major feature of the seaside destination is the Ocean City Music Pier where family-oriented artists, orchestras, and entertainment are held throughout the year. Ocean City also holds multiple parades and a special summer boat festival called Carnival in Venice. The beach at Ocean City is not as wide as some of the other beaches in South Jersey, but it is sizable enough to accommodate the abundant number of families who vacation there during the summer.
The Wildwoods are actually divided into three separate cities. North Wildwood is largely residential and populated with a few motels that cater to vacationers looking for weeklong stays.
The city of Wildwood is dominated by its many motels and a 5-mile long boardwalk.
Wildwood Crest is known for its wide sandy beaches and numerous extended-stay motels. Many of the motels in the Wildwoods were built during the 1950s and feature a distinctive style of architecture known as the Doo-Wop style. They are especially fascinating to look at at night when the abundant use of neon highlights the shape and features of the motels. The Wildwoods have beautiful wide, sandy beaches. In fact, it can be a long walk from any access point to the ocean.
There are abundant daytime and nighttime activities for families and adults in Wildwood. The 38-block long boardwalk is active from Memorial Day through the end of September and features an assortment of food vendors, restaurants, amusement rides, water park rides, games of chance, retail shops, and many more things for tourists. It really has a carnival-like atmosphere and can get very crowded on summer nights.
One locally famous feature of the boardwalk is a tram system that shuttles visitors up and down the boardwalk while barking out the repeated warning, “Watch the tram car, please.”
Cape May is situated on a peninsula at the very southern end of New Jersey. Known as America’s oldest seaside resort, it was incorporated in 1869 and is famous for its beautiful grand Victorian houses that line the avenue facing the Atlantic Ocean. There are also many more beautiful Victorian mansions and cottages that can be found throughout the city. It is a treat to simply walk the streets of Cape May to see the beautifully preserved homes.
Cape May does not have a boardwalk, but it does have an oceanfront promenade that separates the wide, sandy beach from the town. In the town of Cape May can be found a variety of restaurants and retail shops along with a pedestrian mall that has many gift shops and food vendors for tourists. Cape May has a distinctly different feel to it than the other southern New Jersey towns. You are more likely to find a quaint Bed and Breakfast than a motel here and the nightlife is more sedate than carnival-like.
Other Quiet Jersey Shore Towns
There are other towns and communities in the southern section such as Brigantine, Ventnor City, Margate City, and Avalon, but they tend to be more residential. If you like a quieter, community vacation, all of these areas offer some small motels and beach home rental options.
Southern New Jersey also has other attractions to see such as lighthouses, wildlife preserves, a ghost town, and even a large elephant-shaped structure known as Lucy. There is much to see and do here.
Summers at the Jersey Shore
Vacationing in Southern New Jersey is very popular during the summer months. Vacation homes, motels, hotels, inns, bed and breakfasts, and resorts book up quickly, especially on the weekends. To book a place for a weekend stay may require that you stay a minimum number of nights. There are few deals to be had so preplanning is essential. It is very popular and can be a lot of fun. To make the most of your visit make sure that you pick the location that fits your style. So how do you decide where to vacation if you have never been here before? I do have a few guidelines that might help to shape your decision.
Where to Stay on the Jersey Shore
Atlantic City is very much targeted toward adults. In fact, it seems to me that there is very little there for children. Even though some of the casinos advertise themselves as family-friendly resorts, there is actually very little for children to do there. If you are an adult who likes gaming, fancy restaurants, big-name entertainment, along with some nice beaches, then Atlantic City is your choice. If you are looking for a place to take the family, then set your sights on somewhere else.
Ocean City is ideal for families with children up to an elementary/middle school age. It is also very popular with religious groups and families who simply prefer a wholesome lifestyle. The community has multiple events, recreation opportunities, and a nice family-friendly atmosphere. The absence of establishments that sell alcohol and the lack of games of chance on the boardwalk makes for a place that mostly features food, miniature golf, amusement rides, shopping, and arcades. Children will love the boardwalk and it is a great place for families to bond in a safe, family-friendly environment.
The Wildwoods appeal to a vast spectrum of people because it has three different communities to offer. The City of Wildwood is great for families with older children. Wildwood Crest appeals to multiple family gatherings who are looking for a place to get together. It is also a place for people who love the beach. It is quieter and you can always take a trolley bus up to the boardwalk if you want a little nighttime excitement. If you’re looking for great beaches, exciting nighttime entertainment, and amusements across a wide range of ages, then the Wildwoods will have something for everyone in your family.
Cape May is great for couples that are looking for a peaceful place to be together. The beautiful Victorian properties and the variety of relaxing restaurants make it a great place to get away to for a few days. It also has a more upscale feel to it than the other Jersey Shore communities. At the same time, Cape May is great for families who are looking for a shore community atmosphere. If you want a peaceful shore getaway in a community-like setting then Cape May would best fit your needs.
All four major Jersey Shore towns are open year-round but are most lively between Memorial and Labor Day. In the spring and fall off-seasons, the shore communities do attract fewer vacationers but are especially popular with retirees. The towns are much quieter but do have a fair number of tourists who like to enjoy the beach and boardwalks at a more peaceful time of the year. Regardless of the time of year, do considerer visiting one or more of the Southern New Jersey shore towns. Just do your homework, make plans, and book early to find the location that fits your style of travel.