If you hear “Jersey Shore” and immediately imagine Snooki and JWoww, or think Real Housewives flipping over restaurant tables, or have a flashback of the Sopranos sending a rival overboard to “sleep with the fishes,” I’d like to apologize. As a loyal, Springsteen-loving, lifelong Jersey girl, I used to be embarrassed by these stereotypes (oh, and Joe Piscopo’s “Are you from Joisey… what exit?” shtick didn’t help). But as I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to suspect that the negative media imagery was all a ploy to keep travelers from discovering our biggest secret: We have some of the loveliest, quietest, and quaintest beaches anywhere in the country.
Are you looking for rolling dunes, golden shores, lapping waves, art galleries, boutique shops, and Victorian homes? You don’t need to go to New England or to the Outer Banks, Florida, or California -- the Jersey Shore delivers all this and more, especially if a local like myself points you in the right direction.
So forget everything you’ve heard about “Joisey,” and take a look at my insider picks for the loveliest spots along the 130 miles of sparkling New Jersey coastline, organized from north to south. Enjoy!
1. Ocean Grove
There are no bars in quiet Ocean Grove -- no liquor stores, no happy hours, or, for that matter, no restaurants that serve alcohol of any kind. That’s because Ocean Grove is a dry town, first established in 1869 as a religious tent revival destination. Today, the wholesome atmosphere remains, as do the more than 100 canvas tent houses, but they’re now used for enjoying the sand and sun instead of sermons.
Beyond the revival tents, Ocean Grove's shady, tree-framed streets are home to the largest collection of Victorian architecture in the country, landing the town a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
And of course, in addition to the historic streets, there are the golden beaches to enjoy, with a quiet atmosphere that makes them popular with everyone from families to solace seekers.
Pro Tip: The Porch Crepe Cafe is where to head for delicious sweet or savory crepes, salads, and refreshing smoothies. Enjoy them in a rocking chair on the wide Victorian porch, or have them delivered right to your beach chair, and you won’t have to miss a minute of sunshine.
2. Spring Lake
Grab your bike or lace up your sneakers when you get to Spring Lake to explore its 2-mile boardwalk, the longest uninterrupted, noncommercial stretch of boards in a state obsessed with boardwalks. Since it’s an undeveloped walkway, you won’t find the rides, games, lights, and noise of other boardwalks; instead, it’s all quiet sand and sea here in Spring Lake.
You may hear the town referred to as the Irish Riviera, a moniker it earned in the 1900s when it became a favorite escape for New York City’s movers and shakers. Today, you’ll still notice the town’s old-world charm and grace in its historic architecture, especially the private Spring Lake Bath and Tennis Club (try to sneak a peek while you’re in the neighborhood).
Another highlight is the town’s namesake lake, which spouts crystal-clear water from underground springs and is framed by weeping willows and rock gardens. Stroll around the lake, and you’ll spot stately historic homes and stylish summer cottages; then head back to the beach for a relaxing afternoon listening to the waves.
Pro Tip: The charming Breakers on the Ocean Hotel offers an elegant overnight stay with ocean views. It’s also a favorite destination for civilized sipping with expansive water views.
3. Barnegat Light
If you’re visiting the Jersey Shore, you’ll probably hear locals talking about LBI, or Long Beach Island, one of the coast’s most popular destinations. The long barrier island isn’t just one beach, however, but a series of small sand-facing towns, each with its own personality, spread over 18 sandy miles.
At the northernmost tip of LBI is the pocket-size precinct of Barnegat Light. Measuring just 1 square mile, this quaint town is out of the way of regular beach traffic, although it offers the widest beaches on LBI, so you’ll always find plenty of space to spread out. The large, empty sidewalks and streets are perfect for bicycling and walking, so you can leave the car in the driveway while you’re here. The waters at the northern tip are known as a prime fishing spot, and you can also parasail or paraglide in addition to more standard boating.
As for the name, it comes from the Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, the area’s main attraction. Tour the historic lighthouse if you’re up for a steep climb (there’s no elevator here), or just peruse the museum-like information center. You could also try the .2-mile maritime forest trail that winds around a rock jetty on the beach.
Pro Tip: Daymark Bar & Restaurant offers fresh-from-the-ocean seafood, farm-to-fork meat and veggies, and craft cocktails served up in a retro diner -- it’s the perfect post-beach treat spot.
Take a break from fun in the sun to explore New Jersey’s rich maritime history at the Tuckerton Seaport & Baymen’s Museum. Located on Tuckerton Creek, it’s a quick ferry ride from Long Beach Island and offers easy access to the Atlantic Ocean. The town was once an active fishing port; today, it has found new life as a sort of living history museum focused on the town’s seafaring past. The 40-acre village includes 17 recreated historic buildings including a sawmill, decoy carving shop, and sea captain’s house. You can also take in the views from a nearly mile-long boardwalk. Tuckerton is great to explore in the off-season, too, since the buildings are open year-round.
Pro Tip: If the seafaring history has inspired you to take to the water, Captain Mike’s Marina offers boat rentals, including Carolina skiffs, pontoons, and kayaks, plus fishing and crabbing gear.
Located on Seven Mile Beach, a long barrier island on the southern end of the shore (along with Stone Harbor, mentioned below), Avalon extends a mile farther into the Atlantic than any other point in New Jersey. The secluded nature of the island, and its location away from the shore, means you can usually spot dolphins frolicking (and occasionally even a breaching whale) off the quiet shores, always a perk when you’re on the Atlantic Ocean.
Avalon has a preppy feel that’s evident in its boutique shops that favor pink and green and Lilly Pulitzer, and all of the main strip of Dune Drive twinkles with fairy-light-festooned trees throughout the summer. Entertainment centers on the two-story Pirate Island golf complex and beachside arcade.
For complete seclusion, head to the dunes at the south end of town, where the island is just a block wide. The rolling dunes covered with shrubbery create a natural barrier to both beach erosion and crowds.
Pro Tip: If you’re in Avalon in time for breakfast, head to Kohler’s Bakery for cream-filled donuts and coffee cake, a sweet tradition since 1949.
6. Stone Harbor
Located on the southern side of Seven Mile Beach, Stone Harbor has a family-friendly vibe, but without the hordes of people you’d find at the state’s ride- and game-filled boardwalks. Instead, stroll down 96th Street, and you’ll find independent boutiques, galleries, fudge and taffy shops, and delicious food destinations. Turn the corner to Springer’s for award-winning homemade ice cream (including the signature coffee and chocolate Springer Chip) that’s always worth the line that forms as soon as they open each day.
In addition to the ocean beaches here, you can also experience water activities on the bay side of the island, including at The Wetlands Institute, where you can explore protected marshlands on a daytime or sunset kayak adventure or take a skimmer boat to see nesting egrets and other endangered birds.
Pro Tip: For one of the most stylish stays on the shore, check in to The Reeds at Shelter Haven, a boutique hotel nestled into a bayside perch at the end of 96th Street.
7. Cape May
Take a step back in time in this historic beach town, America’s oldest beach resort (Ulysses S. Grant even vacationed here) as well as the southernmost point in New Jersey. The entire downtown portion of Cape May is a National Historic District composed of colorful Victorian homes that have been transformed into bed and breakfasts and eateries (check out the perennially popular front porch of the Mad Batter for decadent pancakes). The town’s genteel Victorian style fills the cobblestone streets, where horses and carriages trot past glowing gas lamps and brightly colored gingerbread trim on stately homes.
For complete immersion in the town’s history, stay at Congress Hall; for more than 200 years, the “Big House by the Sea” has charmed visitors not only during the popular summer months but during the winter months as well, when holiday decor and wood-burning fireplaces give it a festive glow.
Even if you’re just day tripping, grab a bite at The Blue Pig Tavern, the hotel’s farm-to-table restaurant that uses items from their own 62-acre farm just a mile away.
Pro Tip: Guided trolley tours give great insight into the history of the town; save your daylight hours for the beach, though, and try an evening ghost tour for an atmospheric nighttime adventure instead.