Photograph by Clint Blowers
Two weeks before we left, I started to get so excited that I staged our supplies on the front porch. They fit into one pile: beach chairs, beach towels, sunscreen and tequila. I thought to myself, “What else could one family possibly need during a week at the Shore?”
This was our first-ever vacation to the Jersey Shore.
This “Shore thing” was new to my husband and me. We’d moved to Philly five years earlier, in 2001. We were only aware of “the Shore” — not the existence of the physical beach, of course, but the proper terminology for it — because we’d both gone to Penn State and met lots of people who talked about “the Shore.” In fact, I remember the very first time I heard the phrase “down the Shore.” It was move-in weekend during freshman year, and I stood outside my dorm room on the fourth floor of Runkle Hall, waiting for another girl so we could head to the dining hall. She emerged from her room wearing a hot pink string bikini top and a floral sarong.
“How long will it take you to get dressed?” I asked.
“What?” she replied, then gazed down at her ensemble. “Is this bad? This is what I wear all the time down the Shore.” Instantly, I formed my first impression of “the Shore” — “a place where strippers gather.”
Once we moved here, Thad and I discovered that every year, on or around January 1st, most Philadelphians (not just strippers) began talking about how they couldn’t wait to go “down the Shore.” Then, on or around December 31st, they stopped sulking about the end of that awesome summer they had “down the Shore.” These people were so fixated, so evangelical about this tract of sand, that I began referring to them as “Shore-agains.”
I won’t lie — it scared me a little. Of all the beach vacation spots in all the world, what was so special about this one? Was everyone who went there hot? Did the seaweed eliminate both cellulite and communicable diseases? Were the funnel cakes dusted with cocaine? I had to find out.
WHEN I ASKED a Philly-born-and-bred colleague to explain how one went about renting a house at the Shore, he looked at me, incredulous, as if I’d just asked him how to use a stapler.
“Where do you want to go?” he asked.
“To the Shore,” I said.
“Where at the Shore?”
“To the beach at the Shore.”
“I don’t care.”
“What?” he said.
Apparently there were many towns at the Shore, and Philadelphians were very loyal to the Shore towns where they’d vacationed since they were, give or take, in utero. This guy went to Ocean City. Our boss went to Margate. The woman in the next office went with her entire extended family to Long Beach Island, which she described as “great for little kids” since there were calm beaches on the bay.
Coincidentally, Thad and I had a little kid — a daughter who would be 16 months old that July. That was precisely why we found a quaint four-bedroom in Ship Bottom that was three blocks from the beach and three blocks from the bay for the weekly rate of $1,850, which was several hundred dollars more than our monthly mortgage payment. But hey. We lived in Philly now. And this was what people who lived in Philly did.
Then my mother called.
“What size sheets do we need?” she asked. She and my dad were coming with us, driving all the way from their home by Lake Erie, where we could swim in a sizeable body of water for free.
“Sheets?” I asked her. “We have to bring sheets?” I reread the lease and realized that we needed to, in essence, pack our entire house. King sheets. Double sheets. Single sheets. Bath towels. Kitchen towels. Washcloths. Dish detergent. Laundry detergent. Dryer sheets. Shout. Bar soap. Paper towels. Toilet paper. Tissues. Napkins. Paper plates. Plastic silverware. Sponges. Baggies. Foil. Charcoal. Matches. Dynamite. Valium.
With all that stuff, and all the food for the menus I planned (because who can afford to dine out when you’re paying almost $2,000 to sleep on your own sheets on someone else’s mattress?), we barely fit into our minivan, leaving us crushed and cramped for the 5.3-hour ride to travel 55 miles.
There had better be a buttload of coke on those funnel cakes.
AS IT TURNED OUT, the house was delightful. Ship Bottom was delightful. The weather, the bay beach, the real beach — all delightful. But at the end of the week, I felt like I’d been run over by a surrey … just like I felt at the end of every week up the city, or whatever Philadelphians called the 51 other weeks of the year at home.
I’d done all the same stuff — cooked three meals a day, washed loads and loads of laundry, shopped for groceries — except with much more sand. In the last hour before we had to move out, as I frantically swept and Windexed another person’s house more thoroughly than I’d ever cleaned my own, glaring into that packed minivan and picturing myself having to unpack it, I caught my husband’s eye and stated aloud what we both were thinking:
“Vacationing at the Shore sucks.”
IF THERE IS a statement one should never utter to anyone who grew up in the Philadelphia region, it’s this: “Vacationing at the Shore sucks.”
“Disagree!” scolded a colleague.
“How dare you talk doo-doo about the Shore! It was like my second home growing up,” reprimanded a college friend. “Tsk, transplant, tsk!”
“I would die — wither, shrivel, go fetal and just fade away — without Memorial Day through Chowderfest,” explained Christa, one of my neighborhood friends. “I can’t even breathe in Camden County in the summer; it’s like having my face in an armpit. But the second I drive over the bridge and suck in the salt air … it’s my heaven.” Christa blamed my poor opinion of the Shore on me: “You must be doing it wrong.”
Unfortunately, I couldn’t do it how Christa did it. She and her family stayed in a tiny little cottage behind her parents’ house in Beach Haven, that she’d stocked with everything they needed, including floss and a paring knife that was actually sharp.
Same thing with another mom-pal. Her parents had a home in Avalon, so she went down with her two kids whenever she wanted. “It’s a pleasure and a joy,” she announced. Well, of course it was. She didn’t have to BYO ketchup, or figure out how to fasten a beach cart, a cooler, five boogie boards and a grandmother to the roof of her car. More importantly, she didn’t have to pay to sleep there.
Still, the consensus of every Shore-again we knew was that we weren’t “doing” the Shore properly. They’d say, “If you just rented a big house with your whole family, you’d get it.” Or, “If you just found a group of friends and got smashed after the kids went to bed, you’d get it.” Or, “If you just went to Wildwood/Sea Isle/Stone Harbor/Cape May, you’d get it.” No one could define for us exactly what this “it” was that we weren’t getting. But the more I didn’t get “it,” the more I wanted “it,” whatever “it” was.
So we tried again. Four years later, we rented the same house (for $200 more!) in the same town (start a tradition!), and this time, we brought our first daughter, our second daughter, my parents, our 17-year-old niece, and her friend (family bonding!). At the end of the week, in the last hour before we had to move out, as I sped down Bay Boulevard to B&B Department Store to buy a coffee pot to replace the one that crashed to the floor while I was moving the butcher-block island to clean under it for a second time, I screamed out: “Vacationing at the Shore sucks!”
“Agreed. Waste of money,” wrote my friend Dan after I dared to complain about “the Shore” on Facebook. Did this mean I wasn’t the only one who didn’t get “it”? Dan was supposed to get “it.” He grew up in the Northeast, worked in Center City, lived in Lafayette Hill. He had three kids and a big family who all lived nearby. He could afford the Shore, no problem. It was almost sacrilege for a guy like Dan to admit such truths in public. I assumed that immediately after he hit POST, his Shore-again neighbors stoned him to death, then dumped his body in the Pine Barrens to be consumed by those ravenous late-July black flies. But no. Minutes later, Dan posted again: “By the time you’re done, the ‘all-in’ costs of a week down the Shore rival a trip to Disney. Not quite as much, but close enough to piss me off while I’m doing laundry and cooking.”
Other Shore Haters — a.k.a. “Shaters” — weighed in: “It’s not really ‘getting away’ if I can zip back home in an hour to pick up my son’s retainer.” “When I was a kid, we went every summer. My mom never went to the beach. She folded laundry and made breakfast and dinner and watched her soaps. I recognized then … this is not a vacation.”
No, it wasn’t. It WASN’T!
Yet even when I read an online article in April about overrated summer destinations that listed the Jersey Shore at the top of its “where to avoid” list, I still couldn’t embrace my Shater self. The writer was spot-on: It’s “hot,” “humid,” “crammed” and “in-your-face,” and it has “toxic” prices. If you vacation down the Shore in the summer, the writer advised you to do one thing: “Get out of there.”
So why had we just signed another lease for a summer rental?
VERY GOOD FRIENDS of ours were total Shore-agains. Like, went to Cape May on their first date. Like, painted the trim on their South Jersey house in bright Victorian colors. Two years ago, Shore-again Sherri had an idea: Let’s get three families together and rent a house at the Shore! We said, “That would be awesome!” even though we were 97.2 percent sure it was not going to be awesome.
I argued hard for LBI (since, you know, we’d had such good experiences there). But when Sherri found the three-story on North Street in Cape May with a giant farm table that would seat every person in our families — 13 in all, including our baby girl — I was sold. Splitting it three ways wasn’t a huge bargain; it still cost us $1,300 for the week. But Sherri had a brilliant idea: Each family would cook two dinners, and each couple would get one kid-free date night. That would be five fewer dinners a week than I usually cook, and one additional date night a week than we usually have. It sounded … a little bit … like … a vacation.
I wasn’t surprised that Cape May was delightful. But the most delightful part was listening to Sherri’s three- and five-year-olds beg to do their Shore rituals — “When can we go to the lighthouse and pick diamonds?” “When can we eat crabs?” They totally got “it.” And since we did exactly what the Shore-agains did, our kids started to get “it,” too. Maybe the right way for us to do the Shore was “Cape May; with friends; get the hell away from the children for one night.”
This was “it.”
I won’t lie — it scared me a little. While I liked this newfound liking of the Shore, I didn’t want us to suddenly go all Joel Osteen about it. We would not become one of those insane Philadelphia families that have EXIT 0 bumper stickers on their minivans and a plaque above the kitchen sink that announces, “The Shore is My Happy Place.” Our kids had to understand that while, yes, Cape May is “the best ever,” and while, yes, it’s nice to live in a “big rich-people house” for a week, there would be no string bikinis in the dining hall. Not ever. Our girls would not walk around in too-small short-shorts emblazoned with the names of Shore towns across their butts, dammit. And thus, after we returned home and spent nine days unpacking our car, we consciously did not mention that we’d be going back to Cape May next summer.
Then we went to the Shore-agains’ house for New Year’s. It had to be that — being with the other family we Shore-d with, seeing the purple and lime green window trim and the lighthouse sun catcher in the window. It had to. Right? Because after we woke up on January 1st, our eight-year-old said to me, zealously:
“I can’t wait to go to the Shore this summer.”
Originally published as “Beach Bummed” in the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.