By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
I went to Ocean City with an open mind, trying not to feel pressured by the thousands of people who recently voted it the best beach in New Jersey. But could those constituents be trusted? Were they maritime scholars, or did they vote while buzzed on saltwater taffy?
To uncover the truth, I hit the beach and boardwalk of O.C. last week, noting the texture of the sand, the prevalence of pizza and the decibel level of laughing, splashing children. I needed to know if 4,258 people were right.
"The public says it prefers Ocean City to the others," said Stewart Farrell, director of the Coastal Research Center at Richard Stockton College in Pomona, N.J., one of the organizers of the recently released survey. "We'll see what they have to say in subsequent years."
The second annual poll, which ranks the top 10 strands in the Garden State, is run by the New Jersey Marine Sciences Consortium and New Jersey Sea Grant, organizations that research and advance marine and environmental topics. With 127 miles of beaches trimming Jersey's oceanfront shoreline and more than 40 municipalities on the U-pick list, selecting the winner was not as easy as choosing a favorite Baldwin brother. So some academic analysis was incorporated as ballast.
To determine the top tier, the officials borrowed some of the criteria created by famed sand-and-sea ranker Stephen "Dr. Beach" Leatherman, who releases an annual list of America's best beaches, and combined the results with the people's votes (22,315 total). "We kind of wanted the public to be the deciding factor," said Farrell, explaining the math behind the tally: 67 percent popular vote to 33 percent beach science.
In addition to being named best overall in the online poll, Ocean City took home two wins in the four ancillary categories: day trips and eco-tourism. (Best beach for a family vacation went to Long Beach Island; Wildwood, last year's No. 1 beach, snagged honors for shore events.)
"As far as the different beaches go, Ocean City is a little nicer than Wildwood and less expensive than Cape May," said Robert Emmons, a Jersey dad visiting with his wife and two daughters, ages 5 and 4. "There's always something to occupy the kids: the beach in the day, the boardwalk at night, or the rides, restaurants and shops."
I ran into the Emmons clan at Gillian's Wonderland Pier, a theme park on the boardwalk that's packed with rides ranging from mellow (Wet Boats) to shriek-inducing (Runaway Train Coaster). In a nod to kids, the venue unapologetically practices ageism, banning adults from a number of attractions. If only I were 31 inches tall again.
But I'm not, so I headed out to the boardwalk. The wood walkway stretches 2 1/2 miles and is lined with stores offering all the necessities of summer: saltwater taffy, kettle corn, mini-golf, pizza, kites, pet hermit crabs. During an hour way past "Goodnight Moon," families were out and about, licking ice cream cones, awaiting a slice of cheese at Mack and Manco, or strolling the boards, the rhythmic bumps along the planks putting babes in strollers to sleep. As I passed a group of teenagers singing along to a guitarist playing two-chord pop songs, I said a silent thanks to the Methodists who founded a religious seaside resort here in 1879 and never had a taste for chilled buckets of beer and frozen fruity cocktails. "Ocean City really does have everything for everyone," said Farrell, "except 21-year-olds wanting to raise hell at the bar." O.C. stays true to its teetotaling roots, banning alcohol sales.
"Here, we can go out at any time and there is nothing our children can't see or be a part of," said New Jerseyan Joanne Jacobson, on holiday with her husband, 6-year-old twin daughters and her father, who drove in from Arizona.
I asked Eric Jacobson, the twins' father, how the family was spending their day in the sun. "We talk about all these things we can do with the girls, but all they want is the water and sand. We had to drag them away for lunch."
To be sure, self-eviction from O.C.'s strand can be tough. The eight-mile strip of sand runs uninterrupted from Great Egg Inlet in the north to Corson's Inlet State Park in the south, with the boardwalk in between. Vulnerable to storms and erosion, the beach is a beneficiary of some of the $25 million budgeted annually by Jersey legislators for shore protection and maintenance in the entire state. That translates to 650 yards of sand in some sections, a buffer zone of dunes tufted with grass and daily raking.
The more academic portion of the survey focused mainly on the health of the beach and water; however, it also touched on elements crucial to the summer-lovin' experience at O.C., such as parking (numerous paid lots and metered spots), lifeguards (on every block) and amenities (bathroom facilities nearby, on-site sun chair and umbrella vendors, food and drink everywhere).
With the criteria in hand, I organized my own informal study, enlisting the help of Jim Keating, on break from digging a crater with his 4-year-old grandson. As we stood in the shallows, we could clearly see my chipped toenail polish, slick rocks and the rippled patterns in the sand. I determined that water quality was "clear and clean." Keating's assessment was more specific: "Tastes pretty good; no worms or bugs." For pests, I was going to say "few to none" until I looked down and saw a swarm of bugs using my legs as a chaise longue. An unpleasant sight, but they didn't bite and had slow reflexes. As for views and vistas: With the boardwalk at my back, there was only the vast ocean and a seemingly endless horizon.
"Ocean City is number one with us," said Keating, looking out to sea, then back at his industrious charge, "and we're from Atlantic City."