Escapes: Off-Season Attractions Along the Jersey Shore
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Peering out of an elephant's right eye, I saw how far I had come.
On only one tank of gas, I had been transported to the pink interior of a 65-foot-tall elephant named Lucy. Standing inside her wooden head, I pressed my peeper against hers for a pachyderm's point of view: the ceaseless roll of ocean waves along the southern coast of New Jersey. Her head is immobile, so only passersby can see what she never will: street traffic, condos and an advertisement for a painting and sandblasting company affixed to the canopied howdah on her back.
I had not come upon Lucy by chance, though I am sure that plenty of people have halted at the sight of a giant gray elephant mooning the tiny island town of Margate City. For my vacation, I had relinquished all planning to Expedia's Local Weekend Getaways, which lists a handful of destinations within a full tank's range of Washington. (For a getaway on a quarter-tank, see last week's Escapes column, "Far-Flung Surprises, Close to Home.") The tool also includes attractions and hotels that rank high among TripAdvisor users. I followed the advice of these phantom travel agents with near-blind faith.
Egg Harbor Township appeared among more mainstream destinations such as Pittsburgh, New York and Virginia Beach. I was surprised to see it included; the more obvious choice, I assumed, would be Atlantic City, about seven miles away. But I gave credit to the people and Expedia for expanding my horizons. And watching my wallet.
"I can't imagine it being a tourist area, but all of the surrounding areas are," said Anthony Bayham, who grew up in Egg Harbor and now owns the Jewelry Hut on the boardwalk in Ocean City, about 13 miles south on the Jersey shore. "The price of staying in EGH is much cheaper than in Atlantic City. The only downside is that you have to drive everywhere."
After the 180-mile ride from downtown Washington, I had enough petrol left over for exploring. I'd need it. Of the five noted attractions, only one -- Storybook Land -- was actually in Egg Harbor. However, Margate City, home of Lucy, had a history with Egg Harbor: In the 1800s, the patch of land on Absecon Island was part of the township, not becoming a municipality until 1909. Built in 1881, the Asian elephant can claim Egg Harbor as her birthplace.
"You can go anywhere in the world and see museums, parks, casinos, lighthouses," said Richard Helfant, executive director of Lucy the Elephant. "But there's only one six-story elephant on the planet."
Lucy, however, isn't the only oversize sculpture around; the Mother Goose at Storybook Land is as tall as a tree, though you can't climb her. The amusement park, open since the 1950s, is based on nursery rhymes and fairy tales ingrained in our bedtime rituals. But the attraction is fair-weathered, and on a blustery day I could experience it only on my tiptoes, craning my neck over the shuttered gate to see Momma G's massive head.
As the rain poured down, I mentally ran through my checklist of distractions, ranking their waterproofness. The Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses more than 43,000 acres of coastal habitats, is a rest stop along the migratory flight path. Birds don't wilt in the rain. I pointed my car north.
"We have one of the four best auto routes of 548 natural refuges," boasted Steve Atzert, refuge manager. "You are getting out into marsh that you would otherwise need a boat to see."
Comfortable in my car, with the defroster cranked up and the wipers at full speed, I rambled down the eight-mile road, paying heed to the 15-mph speed limit. Along the trail, cages encircled diamondback terrapin nests, protecting the turtle eggs from threats, including tires. Up ahead, nimbus clouds of birds played chicken in front of my windshield. With winds gusting up to 30 mph, I watched tree swallows flying in place and gulls gliding by sideways. The egrets were wiser, hunkering down on the lee side of an island.
Seeking my own refuge, I fled the marsh for the swamp I call Atlantic City.
After the Imax show of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" at the Tropicana (just following my instructions), I stopped at a casino sports bar that was holding a bikini contest during halftime of a football game. "Elise wants to be a journalist, and her favorite show is 'Family Guy,' " a hostess read from an index card, cueing a brunette dressed in what appeared to be a black doily. "Laura's favorite drink is Bacardi 101, and her turnoff is bad breath," she continued. In pranced a coltish blonde wearing a sparkly two-piece and hopefully chewing a mint.
I left before the winner was announced -- I hate to see pretty girls cry -- but found another beauty pageant in a different boardwalk town the next day. At Ocean City's Music Pier, a large poster board displayed photos and short blurbs of the contestants hoping for a shot at Dog of the Year. Samson, I learned, is a 4-year-old basenji who "loves lying in the sun, eating ice cream and taking long walks on the beach." Bet he enjoys dog breath, too.
Touted as "America's Greatest Family Resort," New Jersey's Ocean City is the sweet to Atlantic City's sin. The beach destination wins over families with its preponderance of sugary foods, theme park rides and absence of alcohol. "We don't have the bars and we don't have the tattoo parlors," said Michael Neumann, a retiree who helps out his son at their store, Linda's Gifts.
In the summer, the boards are a thicket of strollers, walkers and tomato-red legs. But off-season, the parade slows to a trickle. Which meant more Shriver's candy and no amusement park lines for me.
With my bag of taffy, I boarded the Ferris wheel at Playland's Castaway Cove, the only rider for that set of spins. I rose upward, erasing the distance between earth and sky. To my right, the Atlantic roared, and to my left, the bay stretched out like a giant puddle of paint. On the first rotation, I marveled at the water. On the second, I glanced at the land. On the third, I scoped out my next move -- Wildwood, maybe? -- determined to use up every last drop of gas.