Nobody does boardwalks like New Jersey. With all due respect to Coney Island and Virginia Beach, no place in the country matches the breadth and depth of boardwalk culture found along the Jersey Shore. This coastal institution was invented in Atlantic City in 1870 to keep people from dragging sand into the hotels along the beach. In the years since, Jersey boardwalks have given the world both salt-water taffy and Springsteen. The state's 127-mile coastline hosts an eclectic mix of boardwalks ranging from wholesome to honky-tonk. Below is a south-to-north tour of five of the state's six most famous seaside promenades. (Atlantic City is excluded, in part because its boardwalk has been Trumped by casinos as the town's main draw.)
-- Jeff Schlegel
WILDWOOD. People come to Wildwood for its beaches -- the widest and cheapest (i.e., free) in New Jersey -- for the scores of 1950s-era doo-wop motels that sport space-age angles of Jetsonian proportions, and for the boardwalk, a roughly three-mile-long human circus of noise, junk food and amusement rides. The boardwalk -- part honky-tonk, part family playground -- has a few quirks that give it an endearing quality. The bocce court with Italian music playing on the loudspeaker and the Boardwalk Chapel, between a tattoo parlor and a pizza parlor, has been the voice in the carny wilderness for 61 years. Barkers offer passers-by the chance to touch live sharks or fire paintballs at live targets. Vendors sell T-shirts with bawdy messages, and there's no shortage of pizza and soft custard.
Despite development pressures, Wildwood is trying to preserve its roughly 150 doo-wop buildings and the heritage of its golden days from the '50s and '60s, when it was a music hot spot.
"We claim that Wildwood is the birthplace of rock-and-roll," says Paul Russo, owner of the retro-'50s themed Cool Scoops ice cream parlor in North Wildwood. Bill Haley fired the opening salvo of a musical and cultural revolution when he and his Comets played "Rock Around the Clock" for the first time in public at the HofBrau Hotel in 1954. And Chubby Checker did "The Twist" for the first time in 1960 at the Rainbow Club. In October, the boardwalk's convention center will host the second annual Wildwoods Fabulous Fifties Weekend featuring Checker and Buddy Holly's original Crickets. 800-992-9732, www.wildwoodsnj.com.
OCEAN CITY. This attractive resort has never dispensed a drop of alcohol. Founded in 1879 by a group of Methodist preachers as a Christian retreat and camp meeting place, Ocean City remains a dry town and is quite proud of it, thank you. "We roll up the sidewalks at midnight," says Elaine Burton, store manager at Fralinger's Salt Water Taffy. Keeps out the riffraff, says Burton, who touted such wholesome boardwalk happenings as the baby parade, hermit crab races, french-fry and taffy-sculpting contests, and classical concerts and plays on the Music Pier. Ocean City is short on booze but not on fun. The wide, two-mile-long boardwalk is crammed with arcades, mini golf, souvenir shops and rides.
The central boardwalk is a hotbed of salt-water taffy, including Fralinger's at 11th Street and Shriver's Salt Water Taffy and Fudge at Ninth Street. Shriver's has a Victorian feel, along with a glass-enclosed room where visitors can watch taffy and fudge being made. Any notion of a nasty taffy tiff among rivals is quickly dispelled by a clerk at Shriver's. "We're all one big happy family," she says.
And for those in need of adult beverages, the Circle Liquor Store is conveniently located in Somers Point at the entrance to the bridge to Ocean City. 800-232-2465, www.oceancity-nj.com.
SEASIDE. It's known as Jersey's lowbrow boardwalk town, a teen haven and blue-collar summer retreat that's long on tacky and short on good taste. On the plus side, it was home to MTV's summer beach house in 1999 and 2002, and it made Surfer magazine's list of top 10 surfer towns. The boardwalk ambiance here is heavy on the carny, but it's also an unpretentious atmosphere that screams "Loosen up and enjoy." That's summed up at the Bamboo Bar on the Boulevard in Seaside Heights, where a sign reads, "Helping ugly people get lucky since 1941." At about three miles, the boardwalk passes through both Seaside Heights and Seaside Park, with the rides and stands on the Heights end. The Funtown Amusement Pier is noted for the Tower of Fear, a 225-foot-tall ride that takes you straight up and then teases you by vacillating up and down before free-falling back to earth. The Casino Pier is home to a gorgeous carousel, a 90-year-old masterpiece of 58 elaborately hand-carved animals, intricate trim and whirling carnival music from a Wurlitzer military band organ.
Along the boardwalk, the aroma of sausage, funnel cake and pork roll is a constant yet pleasing presence. This is no place for dieters, and after sampling a fried Oreo at Cuzin's Freedom Fries, I ventured to 3 Brothers From Italy for slices of Sicilian pizza. The sand on the floor seemed to defeat the original purpose of a boardwalk. 800-732-7467, www.seasideheightstourism.com.
POINT PLEASANT BEACH. In essence, Jenkinson's Boardwalk is Point Pleasant Beach. The boardwalk stretches about a mile south from the Manasquan Inlet, and the section with entertainment and dining facilities is only about a third of its total length. Within this short space are a food court, sushi bar and full-service restaurant in Jenkinson's Pavilion. There's also Jenkinson's Aquarium, as well as the Jenk's nightclub. The boardwalk also features a fun house, four arcades, three mini-golf courses and an amusement park with 27 rides.
Point Pleasant Beach bills itself as family-oriented. It offers children's beach shows on Monday evenings, family games (a version of the old "Beat the Clock" game show) on the beach on Tuesday evenings, and Radio Disney concerts on the beach Wednesdays. Sunday nights it shows family movies on the beach. The town owns the boardwalk, but the beach is owned by an assortment of private entities who charge admission. The owners of Jenkinson's Beach (not the Jenkinsons, by the way) control the biggest slice, and they operate most of the boardwalk businesses above their beach. That's commonly called Jenkinson's Boardwalk. 732-892-0600, www.pointpleasantbeach.com.
ASBURY PARK. Two words summarize this once-grand resort: abandonment and Springsteen. The former is evident on the north end, where the beach is fairly quiet and the boardwalk almost completely empty. Changing times and race riots in 1970 had left Asbury Park a faded, seedy remnant of its storied past by the time local hero Bruce Springsteen sang about it. Places made famous by Springsteen -- Palace Amusements from "Born to Run," the Casino from "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" -- are demolished or in utter disrepair, respectively. But on the south end, there are tentative signs of life as you pass through the enclosed walkway between the restored 1930s Beaux-Arts convention hall and Paramount Theatre buildings. The nearby Fifth Avenue Pavilion is fully open with vendors selling food and sundries, including pizza and portobello mushroom wrap sandwiches at the Beach Place. There is optimism in the air.
"I'm bullish on Asbury Park," says Ed Gasper, owner of the Beach Place.
Gasper says three of the boardwalk's eight pavilions are open, and he believes the town is in the early stages of a turnaround that will eventually attract enough visitors to entice developers to follow through on grandiose plans, such as turning the derelict Casino site into a modern entertainment magnet. In 2004, the mile-long boardwalk was rebuilt. This year the Casino walkway connecting Asbury Park's boardwalk with neighboring Ocean Grove was reopened. Officials say the town saw a 15 percent jump in beach and boardwalk revenue in the past two years, and construction vehicles buzz near the boardwalk, working on shorefront residential projects. Asbury Park is a reinvention in progress, with condos under construction selling for $1 million while the city languishes with some of the state's worst poverty and unemployment levels. 732-775-7676, www.cityofasburypark.com.