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A beachgoer’s guide to the southernmost South Jersey Shore

Visitors walk and ride along the boardwalk in Wildwood, N.J. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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The term “Jersey Shore” will forever be tied to a certain MTV reality show. Thankfully, the 141-mile reality — which includes both a wildlife refuge and Atlantic City, in addition to the requisite beaches and boardwalks — is a bit more nuanced.

At the tip of the Cape May peninsula, the southernmost Jersey Shore towns — Cape May, Wildwood, and neighbors Avalon and Stone Harbor — offer a tourism experience that is worlds away from the shore life of the popular imagination. Quaint Cape May, kitschy Wildwood and tony Avalon and Stone Harbor each have a distinctive character that sets them apart from not only their northern counterparts, but also each other. Like a boardwalk shaved-ice stand, the area has a flavor for everyone.

Here is what you can expect from a trip to Cape May, the Wildwoods or Seven Mile Island, where Avalon and Stone Harbor are side by side:

Cape May

If you are looking for charm and history, Cape May has both in spades. The southernmost community on the Jersey Shore, Cape May is the United States’ first seaside resort, having incorporated back in 1869. With its original Victorian homes maintained in beautiful condition, Cape May is a like a step back in time.

Ronda Britt, a 45-year old survey statistician from Arlington, Va., made her first trip to the town in 2007. “We actually went to visit Atlantic City, but stopped in at Cape May on the way,” she says. “We fell in love with it.”

Every year since, Britt has returned. She has made the Montreal Beach Resort her go-to spot when in town, landing there for its oceanfront balconies, pool, restaurant and on-site liquor store. “It’s centrally located, and I can walk everywhere,” she says. “Cape May is very compact, which makes walking most places very doable.”

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There are several traditional beach hotels in addition to Britt’s favorite, but it’s Victorian B&Bs that Cape May is known for. There is no shortage, and they range from small and cute to big and grand, such as the sprawling Angel of the Sea. Most include a seated or continental breakfast, and some even offer a high tea.

Despite its throwback character, Cape May has plenty of traditional beach activity. With options such as an arcade, an oceanfront promenade, gift shops and a climb up the Cape May Lighthouse, families can stay easily entertained on and off the beach. For a fun diversion, try looking for “Cape May diamonds”: small quartz stones that wash up on Sunset Beach near Cape May Point.

Cape May has a few bars and some live music to choose from, but it tends to be one of the quieter shore locations. Do check out the foodie scene, however. “The quality of the restaurants in Cape May is so much higher than other beach towns,” Britt says. “You won’t find a bunch of tourist traps or chains here.”

Visitors from the south can get to Cape May by hopping on board the Cape May-Lewes Ferry in Delaware. This is Britt’s preferred way to travel. “It might take a bit longer, but it’s part of the fun,” she says. “For us, there’s no comparison to Cape May.”

Hotels/inns: Choose from dozens of historic Victorian B&Bs.

Activities: Dolphin-watching cruises, climbing the Cape May lighthouse, beachcombing, shopping in the pedestrian mall.

Unique feature: Its well-preserved Victorian homes and inns.

Favorite local restaurant: The Blue Pig Tavern in Congress Hall, for its grand Victorian-inn vibe.

The Wildwoods

Just north of Cape May are the five communities that make up the Wildwoods — although most people lump them together and consider them simply Wildwood.

Of the shore towns we are profiling, it is Wildwood that offers up the classic boardwalk experience. Morey’s Piers and Water Parks, which dates back to the 1950s, serves up everything from kiddie rides to speedy coasters as a family-friendly tram makes its slow, tourist-friendly rounds. Jutting out onto the wide expanse of beach, the piers deliver a full complement of amusement-park activities, including games, food of all kinds and a full schedule of special events.

For those less inclined to spend their time on the piers, it can be argued that Wildwood has some of the biggest and best beaches in the area. Cheryl Nickel, a 64-year-old materials manager from Philadelphia, has been drawn to their beauty her entire life. “The big attraction in Wildwood is the beach,” she says. “I started coming as a kid with my parents, and now I go down with my kids and grandchild.”

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Wildwood is also known for its retro Doo Wop Motel District, much of it intact, thanks to a local preservation league. It’s stretched out over several blocks, and you’ll find mid-century architecture, complete with all the neon signs, bright colors and plastic palm trees that entails. For a look back at the town’s doo-wop history, check out the Doo Wop Museum, which contains artifacts, furniture and more from the bygone era.

Nickel likes to get her exercise on the town’s sea wall, which runs along the beach as a flood-protection barrier. The wall is being extended and upgraded to better protect homes and businesses from storm surges.

Beyond walking the sea wall, a typical day for Nickel might include relaxing on the beach, followed by dinner and a night on the town with her sisters, both of whom have property in town. While she has seen Wildwood change over the years, it has retained its character, she says, and she would not want to summer anywhere else. “It’s such a nice, friendly place to be.”

Hotels/inns: Look for the dozens of Doo Wop motels for a fun, kitschy, retro feel.

Unique feature: Morey’s Piers and Water Parks draws visitors from up and down the shore.

Favorite local restaurant: The Boathouse, for its waterfront view and reasonably priced menu.

S even Mile Island — Avalon and Stone Harbor

You might not think of the Jersey Shore as a place to spot celebs, but the increasingly high-end sister towns of Avalon and Stone Harbor — combined forming Seven Mile Island — have played host to more than a few. Oprah Winfrey, Anne Hathaway and Bradley Cooper are among those who have been spotted taking in the restaurants and shops in recent years. The opportunity for Hollywood-style stargazing speaks volumes about the area’s transformation.

Seven Mile Island and its wide, well-maintained beaches are a great setting for a quiet family retreat. Buildings top off at three stories and most of the local businesses are of the mom-and-pop variety, although there has been a small influx of chain retailers in the past few years. Restaurants span the spectrum, including cheesesteak places, pizza joints and locations for fine dining. It is what the towns lack, though, that sets them apart: You will not see a boardwalk; loud, flashy bars; or neon signs beckoning you to amusements.

Fran Chadwick and her family bought a vacation home at the northern end of Avalon in 2008. Both she and her husband were regular visitors during their childhoods and young adulthoods. When her kids were younger, the family often stayed for short stints to accommodate sports and other activities back in North Wales, Pa. These days, however, Chadwick and her husband plant themselves there for the summer.

Upon entering Stone Harbor to the south or Avalon to the north, you will immediately notice the difference in house sizes compared with neighboring shore towns. Gone for the most part are the old, traditional beach cottages of the 1970s and ’80s. In their place are sometimes massive two- to three-story waterfront homes.

Chadwick has seen the transformation firsthand, and says she likes the fact that many homes are occupied by owners for most of the season, lending the area a neighborhood feel. With the exception of a couple of blocks on the periphery of both towns, hotels are nearly nonexistent. Your best bet for lodging, then, is to rent a house, but be prepared for a minimum stay of at least one week.

There is shopping galore along Stone Harbor’s main drag, as well as a movie theater and beach-town perennials, such as miniature golf courses and candy stores. Don’t miss the sticky buns at the Bread and Cheese Cupboard or the pancakes at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House, with locations in both towns. Drop by the old-style Hoy’s 5 & 10 for necessities, such as plastic shovels and beach towels.

Chadwick expects to remain in Avalon for the long haul, finding it strikes just the right tone for her family. “My kids have grown up here and worked locally over summers,” she says. “There’s no place like it.”

Hotels/inns: The kid-friendly Concord Suites in Avalon or the Stone Harbor luxury hotel Reeds at Shelter Haven.

Unique feature: Learn about local nature and preservation efforts at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor.

Favorite local restaurant: The Princeton Bar & Grill in Avalon for open-air dining.

Loudin is a writer based in Maryland. Her website is Find her on Twitter: @MissZippy1.

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