I sometimes feel sorry for my beach-bound brethren from Baltimore. On Saturday mornings, while most of them are stuck in 10-mile backups at the Bay Bridge, I’m zipping (well, relatively) up Interstate 95 and then cruising through beautiful New Jersey farmland. (It is the Garden State, you know.) In less than three hours, I’m on Ocean City beach, listening to Bruce Springsteen and debating with thick-accented Philadelphians about the “Iggles” chances this coming football season.
Like Ocean City, Md., O.C.N.J. lies on a barrier island, with a bay on one side and the Atlantic on the other. It has a lively boardwalk and spacious beaches, and you can even get good crabs here. But unlike Ocean City, Md., it lacks unsightly high-rises, endless traffic lights or parades of motorcycles sans mufflers. Truth be told, the two towns are about as different as Thrasher’s fries and Mom’s mashed potatoes.
First of all, Ocean City, N.J., is dry, as in, NO ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES ALLOWED. Not on the beach. Not at restaurants. And certainly not on the street outside your home. If the law sounds like a major buzz kill, rest assured that several liquor superstores lie less than a mile over the 9th and 34th Street bridges, solely to quench the thirst of O.C.’s 2.5 million visitors each summer. As a friend once told me, “Ocean City is about as dry as Bali during a monsoon.” (I believe he was drunk at the time.)
Still, keeping the booze hounds at bay has preserved the town’s family atmosphere. It’s a kind of sanctuary from the outside world, says Clara Plowfield, who owns Serendipity Bed and Breakfast with her husband, Bill. “I happen to love the fact that it’s a dry island. You’re not going to walk by a bunch of drunk guys at night. … It’s a very safe place and the fact that there’s no alcohol is a big part of that.”
Getting a jump-start on Prohibition were the town’s founders, Methodist ministers Ezra B. Lake, James Lake, S. Wesley Lake and William Burrell, who chose the island as a suitable spot to establish a Methodist retreat and camp meeting, on the order of Ocean Grove, N.J., or Rehoboth Beach, Del. As legend has it, they met under a tall cedar tree that still stands today at 6th Street and Asbury Avenue. (Ironically, Simon Lake, the brothers’ father, died two years later after accidentally amputating his foot while pruning a nearby tree.) According to Ocean City Ghost Tours, whenever the town council debates the merits of repealing the dry laws, Lake’s ghost rushes the bushes outside.
Blue laws, restrictions that prohibited “non-essential shopping” as well as “dancing, singing, fiddling or other music for the sake of merriment” on Sundays, were established in 1879, and abolished in 1986, but the founders’ original ideal of a family beach town remains.
Just how family friendly is this town? When the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce decided to throw a film festival for the first time this June, it included only G-rated films. Smoking is permitted on the boardwalk— but in designated areas only. Heck, Jimmy Stewart used to vacation here.
“It’s all about old-fashioned family fun,” says Mike Manley, who makes the trip to Ocean City with his wife, Marilyn, from Morris Plains, N.J., bypassing the central Jersey resorts. “You walk down the boardwalk and see a juggler on one block, a banjo player the next, someone selling ice cream…”
“People have not gotten too sophisticated to be nice,” adds Marilyn. “It’s more ‘hometown’ than Cape May, which is a little too cute and gingerbread.”
The Eisenhower-era value system has kept the town in a charming time warp of sorts. The town’s main business district has more than 100 shops, from Hoy’s, a real five-and-dime established in 1935, to Wallace Hardware, the place to go for nails and a hammer since 1909. Walk along Asbury Avenue between 5th and 14th avenues and you half expect to run into the Beav on his bike.
The Chatterbox Café, a bright pink three-story building with a Spanish roof, has been serving hash browns and scrapple since 1937. But the locals say that nobody does breakfast like the Varsity Inn, a fixture on 8th Street since 1969. If you visit Luigi’s Italian Restaurant, a relative newcomer at 45 years old, you might be lucky enough to be served by Michelina “Mickie” Saunders, who began waiting tables here in 1963— after retiring from a career as a supervisor at Prudential.
“The most important thing in the restaurant is the good food and the help,” says Saunders. “Being courteous to the people and families, especially the children.” Luigi’s not only serves big plates of red-sauced pasta, but still uses a bell and flashing number display to alert waitresses it’s time to pick up a plate.
There’s definitely something about this town that John Waters would appreciate— except nothing is done in irony. While other beach towns have contests to build sand castles, O.C.N.J. has french fry-sculpting contests. And taffy-sculpting contests. And something called a Doo Dah Parade, an anything-goes event highlighted by a contingent of marching basset hounds dressed in crazy costumes. The biggest event of the summer is the annual Baby Parade (Aug. 14) where thousands of parents push audaciously decorated strollers along the boardwalk.
The town’s main attractions remain its boardwalk and beaches. The boardwalk, stretching from 6th to 14th Street, is lined with the usual assortment of arcades, hoagie shops, T-shirt-and-hermit-crab stores and mini-golf courses. For taffy go to Fralinger’s or Shriver’s. For fudge, hit The Original Fudge Kitchen or Rauhauser’s. O.C.N.J.’s equivalent to Dolle’s popcorn is Johnson’s. For pizza, it’s Mack and Manco’s. Gillian’s Wonderland Amusement Pier and Playland have the best kid-sized rides. At 9th Street, the circa-1928 Music Pier hosts the Ocean City Pops Orchestra and various pop musicians throughout the summer.
The 8-mile-long beach isn’t quite as wide as Ocean City, Md.’s, but it’s gotten bigger in recent years. Dunes were built up in the early 1990s to stop erosion and to protect the town from flooding. The upkeep costs money, so be prepared to pay a $5 day fee on weekends ($8/weekly) to lie on the sand. Also be advised that the widest, prettiest and least crowded beaches are not by the boardwalk, but start where the boardwalk ends at 23rd Street.
Despite all its anachronistic charms, Ocean City has not been immune to change. The real estate boom has hit O.C. like a tidal wave, as well-to-do Philadelphians have flooded into town, snatched up the old beach bungalows, and replaced them with much larger, much blander two-unit duplexes— something that hasn’t sat very well with the preservation-minded in town.
“Prices have appreciated just so much,” says Linda Taylor, rental manager for Ocean City Realty. “Five years ago, you could buy a duplex on the beach for a million dollars or less. Now, just one floor of that duplex is going for more than a million.”
People are demanding more from local stores and restaurants, too. Upscale boutiques are opening along Asbury Avenue, offering designer clothes and trendy furniture. (Certainly not a bad thing.) The long-standing joke in town was that if you wanted a good meal in Ocean City, you had to leave and come back with carryout. Now there’s Cousin’s, an excellent Italian eatery where Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell often dines (he owns a house in town). Island Grill offers a “safari menu” of buffalo, antelope, kangaroo and other game meats, in addition to more traditional seafood and steaks. And you can even get good bagels—and sweet potato pancakes— at Studibagel’s Café.
Still, Ocean City remains comfortably old-fashioned at its core. Not too sophisticated, not too fancy. And not a pain in the butt to get to. Just what a beach town should be.
For more information: 800-BEACHNJ, oceancityvacation.com
The nicest hotel in town is the bright pink Port-O-Call right on the boardwalk at 15th Street, 800-334-4546. Many of the old Victorians have been transformed into bed and breakfasts. Try the Bayberry Inn, a flowery Victorian at 811 Wesley Ave., 609-391-1183, Northwood Inn (401 Wesley Ave., 609-399-6071) or, for organic breakfasts, Serendipity (712 9th St., 800-842-8544). For stays of a week or more, the best bet is to rent a house. Three- or four- bedroom beachfront houses range from $2,800 to as much as $6,700 per week; off the beach, prices begin at $1,000. Try Ocean City Realty 609-399-8200, Hager, 800-345-7865 or Berger, 609-399-0076.
The best restaurants in town fill up very fast; if you don’t have a reservation, forget it. (Many do offer takeout.) Cousin’s has delicious Italian cuisine in a transformed beach house. Luigi’s Italian Restaurant is at 300 9th St., 609-399-4937. Oves Seafood Restaurant has decent fish on the boardwalk at 858 St. Charles Place, 609-398-3712. Several good restaurants can be found just outside of town in Somers Point, over the 9th Street bridge, or in Marmora, over the 34th Street bridge.
You can find the usual seaside bric-a-brac and beach necessities in the two main shopping areas— Asbury Avenue between 5th and 14th Street and along the boardwalk. Asbury Avenue also has several good antiques shops and cafes. Denovum has funky Nouveau-like furniture and décor, 908 Asbury Ave., 609-814-9084; Casetta Little House is good for shabby chic, 1034 Asbury Ave., 609-398-4600. Hit Flying Carp (743 Asbury Ave., 609-391-1546) for women’s clothes and Kabat Men’s Shop for men’s suits and Tommy Bahama shirts, 757 Asbury Ave., 609-399-4600.
Ocean City Ghost Tours offers an entertaining look at the paranormal side of the beach town. Tours depart from 9th Street and Central Avenue every night at 8 p.m. Tickets, $12, adults; $6, kids. 609-814-0199. You can rent waverunners from Bay Cats at 3rd Street and Bay Avenue, 609-391-7960. They also offer guided kayak nature tours in the bay. For a list of nearby golf courses, see oceancityvacation.com or call 800-BEACHNJ.