Keep in mind it’s a carnival town. Its Boardwalk is sprawling, loud, tacky, a little bawdy and a little seedy. And, if you go with the right mind-set, a hell of a good time.
The Morey family runs three mammoth amusement piers, a collective riot of rides, arcades, water parks and coasters. In this latter category, Great White is one of the best wooden coasters in the nation. The Moreys continue to invest in blue-ribbon rides; new this season is a higher, glitzier Wave Swinger (a.k.a. the flying swings).
In recent years the Boardwalk has seen new restaurants with outdoor seating, complete with netting above your head to keep the seagulls at bay. (Our pick: Jumbo’s, which makes a decent chicken sandwich and stocks Dogfish Head.) On Mariner’s Landing, look for a new taco shack with on-trend fillings like Korean barbecue beef, or stick with the tried-and-true — an order of Curley’s Fries.
While the Mack’s Pizza “stop” sign is a Boardwalk fixture, for nostalgic boomers, Douglass Fudge, with its pine paneling and elegant tartan boxes, is one of the few old Wildwood landmarks left, and worthy of a visit.
No one goes to Cape May for stimulation. So it’s no surprise its beachfront promenade is a quiet repository of a few stores, two arcades and not much else. Surf Side Delights is a small grill serving perhaps the best pork roll sandwich at the Shore (732 Beach Avenue); for a diner-style breakfast, try Oceanview Restaurant — it faces the water, a rarity for a Shore eatery.
Of the two aforementioned arcades, the northern one (at 732 Beach Avenue) is your standard-issue Tween Central, but the southernmost (at 406 Beach Avenue) boasts a beach volleyball court and shady seating for watching the games.
The real lure here? Bikes, bikes, bikes. Get up early (you can’t ride after 10 a.m.), rent wheels from the friendly folks at Cape Island Bike Rentals, take a spin, then squeeze in a round of mini golf across the street at Stockton Golf, which has hydrangeas throughout. There are worse ways to spend a day at the Shore.
Just briefly — yes, we know Stone Harbor doesn’t have a Boardwalk, or a promenade. But its 96th Street shopping district serves the same purpose. Our picks for best retail: the Bread and Cheese Cupboard (baked goods extraordinaire); Seashore ACE (the nicest hardware store you’ll ever visit); Island Art Stone Harbor (a bit tacky in spots, but some of the old photos and signage are awesome); Skirt (the down-the-Shore version of the stalwart Main Line boutique); and Shades (sunglasses galore, including Chanel; 261 96th Street).
You need to know that the Sea Isle stretch is not — absolutely, positively not — a Boardwalk. The locals are sort of fanatical about this. It is a beachside promenade, a name they hope will conjure strolls rather than 20-somethings stumbling home from too many beers at the Springfield.
Because said promenade is made of concrete, bicycling and running are wonderful here. There’s also ample seating, including a shady octagonal pavilion at the mouth of John F. Kennedy Boulevard perfect for imbibing frozen treats. (Our pick: the “Skinny Minnie” from Goldie’s Dips Ahoy, a nonfat frozen yogurt topped with a scoop of sorbet.)
Shopping is mainly concentrated at the Spinnaker Seaside Shops, located on the ground floor of a massive condo building, where Sessoms’ Nautical Gifts sells authentic coconut heads worthy of Gilligan’s Island. The Book Nook is one of the last remaining independent bookstores at the Shore. Get there, because Kindle screens do not mix with sun and sand (3500 Boardwalk).
The draw of the Ocean City Boardwalk can be summed up in one word: constancy. And so the hit parade remains, year after year: Manco & Manco (now under a bit of duress with its owners indicted for tax evasion) for pizza, Ove’s for doughnuts, the Old Salt for tchotchkes, the Pirates of the Golden Galleon for mini golf, Shriver’s for candy, Johnson’s for popcorn, Henry’s for sweatshirts (and the best throw blankets at the Shore).
The venerable Music Pier serves as the walkway’s anchor, each year hosting events like the Miss New Jersey Pageant and doo-wop concerts by acts you thought were dead. The fact that the town is booze-free is reinforced by its amusement attractions: Gillian’s Wonderland Pier (owned by the mayor, the son of the former mayor) almost exclusively caters to the under-10 set; Adventure Island Waterpark (formerly Gillian’s Island Water Park), a few blocks north, has new owners who made a half-million-dollar investment in upgrades.
Shopping in Ocean City is more miss than hit, but one exception is Ocean Treasures, which sells some terrific retro signage perfect for gazing at during the long, hard winter as a reminder that the sun will eventually come out tomorrow (966 Boardwalk).
While the A.C. Boardwalk may be the most famous along the entire Shore, it isn’t the reason people show up here. (That would be gambling.) That said, if you can embrace Atlantic City’s general gritty schizophrenia, there are a few worthwhile stops along the boards.
The Pier Shops at Caesars offer some of the Shore’s best high-end shopping (Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany), and some nice city restaurant branches to boot (Buddakan, Continental). The legendary Steel Pier is going through yet another overhaul trying to reclaim the old magic, but its centerpiece, the new, luxe observation Ferris wheel with climate-controlled cabins, won’t open till early 2015.
Down the boards a bit, the best show in town isn’t on a casino stage, but outside Boardwalk Hall, where Duality, the free nightly light show that celebrates the city’s architectural history, will leave you downright mesmerized.
As for the rest, a rolling chair ride ($5 for a short trip) is still a worthwhile throwback spin, but the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, while a fitting monument to absurdity, isn’t really worth the $17 price of admission. Parades are a constant, including the recently revived Miss America Parade, at which, each September, competing divas try to outdo one another in ridiculous footwear as the crowd roars “Show us your shoes!” (They do.)