Boardwalks of the Jersey Shore

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In the words of Junot Diaz, It’s Where All of New Jersey Comes Together

By Ilene Dube

Whether made from Brazilian hardwood or recycled soda bottles, chances are a boardwalk will be making contact with your feet in the coming months. Boardwalks are about mingling: people-to-people, of course, but also a place where the scent of sauerkraut and mustard meets the sea air; the screams from carnival rides mingle with the crashing surf; and the steady rumble of pedestrians, cyclists and skateboarders overlaps with the serenity of those sitting on benches. At night, the peaceful dark sky is lit up with neon letters hawking cotton candy, Creamy Nut Hut Fudge, Philadelphia cheese steak and saltwater taffy.

Constructed pedestrian walkways overlooking beaches and the ocean can be found all over the world, but most are on the East Coast of the U.S. and some of the best known are on the Jersey Shore. The very first boardwalk was built in Atlantic City in 1870, in an area once frequented in summer by the Lenni Lenape. Beautiful beaches, fresh sea air, luxury hotels, restaurants and shops, as well as a railroad line from Camden, drew visitors from all over the world. The original boardwalk was constructed for housekeeping reasons: to keep sand out of railroad cars and hotels.

That first, with boards placed in a herringbone pattern, was only intended to be temporary and made to collapse for storage after the season, but it became the beach’s most popular attraction and an amusement pier was added. Build it and they will come—soon the boardwalk was rebuilt as a raised platform.

The first boardwalk built on pilings in Ocean County was at Point Pleasant Beach in the 1890s. Permanent boardwalks were also constructed at Seaside Park, Bay Head, Lavallette, and Beach Haven.

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By the early 1900s many shore towns had planked walks, boardwalks or promenades. What had once been a practical means of getting to and from the beaches became a place to stroll, watch people and congregate. Women and men in the latest fashions, who wanted to see and be seen, knew the wooden walkway was the place to do so. Saltwater taffy, that sticky chewy gooey mixture of sugar, cornstarch, corn syrup, butter and salt, was invented in Atlantic City, and the first skee-ball tournament was held there in 1932.

As it became the entertainment mecca known as “America’s Playground,” some of the famous feet to tread AC’s boards belonged to Marilyn Monroe, Jimmy Durante, Ed Sullivan, Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Bing Crosby. The Beatles ate Atlantic City’s famous subs on the boardwalk, and Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon opened a bowling alley.

Interestingly, to film the TV series Boardwalk Empire, set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, a section of the boardwalk was re-created in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Boardwalks evolved to become a commercial enterprise, carrying tourists from hotels to vendors. Economic downturns and hurricanes played havoc with leisure time at the Shore, but America’s romance with the boardwalk was renewed in 1964 when the Drifters were the first to record the classic “Under the Boardwalk.” After Hurricane Sandy, boardwalks at Seaside Heights and Belmar were rebuilt, and others at Tom’s River and Lavalette were restored. Long Branch was the last to reopen, in April.

Both the Atlantic City and Wildwoods boardwalks made National Geographic’s top 10 list. From Sandy Hook to Cape May Point, there’s a boardwalk to fill your needs.

Wildwoods Sign with People

It’s come a long way since it was a 150-foot platform in the 1890s. Today, at 2.5 miles, the Wildwoods boardwalk is sensory overload. There are three amusement piers with more than 100 rides and attractions, including world-class roller coasters, wet-and-wild beachfront water parks, carnival-style midway games, flashing arcades, retail shops and enough food stalls to satisfy the craving that beach air seems to stir.

The refrain you hear ad nauseum, “Watch the tram car, please,” was recorded in 1963 by North Wildwood resident Floss Stingel, and the trams are replicas of five original electric trains custom built for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Operating in the Wildwoods since 1949, the rebuilt trams can run for up to 12 hours on a single charge from 2,000-pound electric batteries.

Throughout its 100-plus year history, the Wildwoods Boardwalk has twice scooched closer to the ocean with the changing shoreline. It has been replicated in both Disneyland and Hershey Park, Pennsylvania.

Among the dizzying attractions planned for the coming season are the Grand Prix Raceway on Morey’s Adventure Pier—the largest go-kart track in the Wildwoods—to a new whimsical store filled with carousel horses and decorations from rides past on Mariner’s Pier. The family can bounce like kangaroos on the Kang’ A Bounce on Surfside Pier, and if you’re into repurposed shipping containers, you’ll ogle the 11 here, brightly painted by artists and now making up the new ticket office at Morey’s Adventure Pier. One of its many features is the “the Great White,” the tallest and fastest wooden roller coaster on the East Coast.

Cycling is permitted along the 2.5-mile stretch until 11 a.m. weekdays, 10:30 a.m. weekends. If your trunk is stuffed with beach chairs, umbrella and sand toys, you can rent bicycles, including tandems and surreys, throughout the Wildwoods.

Wildwoods Boardwalk

Among the events scheduled:

New Year’s in North Wildwood, Friday, June 10, and Saturday, June 11, with the top Mummers Brigades and Mummers String Bands, kicking off Friday night at 7 p.m. with a pub-crawl.

Latin Heritage Festival, Saturday, June 25, a culinary extravaganza with a Latin flair and including music, entertainment, an artisan area and children’s activities.

Wildwood Crest Sundown Celebrations, every Thursday, July 7 through August 18, with live music, children’s activities, street performers and stunning sunsets. www.wildwoodsnj.com

Ocean City’s boardwalk attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. From May to October, families have made it their tradition to flock here for wholesome alcohol-free entertainment—even smoking is restricted to designated areas.

Amusement parks offer thrill rides, go-karts, water parks, movie theaters, and high-tech arcades. Miniature golf theme parks feature fantasy island adventures with pirate folklore, such as Gillian’s Wonderland Pier at Boardwalk and 6th Street and Playland’s Castaway Cove at Boardwalk and 10th Street—both are jam-packed with rides.

Spanning 2.5 miles, the Ocean City boardwalk offers cycling, walking and jogging. (Cycling is limited to 5 a.m.-noon from May 15 to Labor Day.)

Restaurants and snack bars offer everything from pizza, ice cream and fudge to fine dining, and for those who love to shop, there are art galleries, apparel and novelty shops.

What to do at night? Every Thursday in July and August is family night on Ocean City’s boardwalk, with free live entertainment including music, magicians, yo-yo demonstrations, parades and face painting. www.oceancityvacation.com

In 2012, Superstorm Sandy devastated the Asbury Park Boardwalk, but it has been rebuilt and when you visit today, it’s as if the storm never happened. Although many of the historical buildings and landmarks such as the old casino have closed, Asbury Park still evokes nostalgia.

AP was developed in 1871 by Manhattan brush manufacturer James A. Bradley. Soon after, the boardwalk was constructed and featured an orchestra pavilion, public changing rooms and a pier extending into the ocean.

Today, visitors enjoy views of the beach and rock out at the Stone Pony, known for launching legends Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen. The Kiefer Sutherland Band will appear May 24, followed by Slightly Stoopid on August 19.

The 3,600-seat Convention Hall has hosted the likes of Frank Sinatra, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder and the Boss, with its state-of-the-art stage, spacious floor space and location right on the boardwalk.

At one-mile long, the boardwalk—an ideal day trip, 60 miles south of New York City and 90 minutes north of Atlantic City—offers something for the entire family, with Asbury Splash Park and the Silverball Museum Arcade.
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Even amid casino closings, the four-mile-long Atlantic City boardwalk remains an attraction, extending 1,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean at its Steel Pier, with kiddie rides, a family-restaurant and a separate bar. Here you can climb the 228 steps in the Absecon Lighthouse, one of the oldest lighthouses in the country, also the tallest lighthouse in New Jersey. From its top you gain a whole new perspective of Atlantic City.

Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville is located inside the Resorts Hotel Casino where you can get nachos, cheeseburgers, “Jimmy’s Jammin’ Jambalaya,” and a vegetarian and gluten-free menu, along with the signature cocktail in numerous permutations (“Last Mango in Paris, “Feelin’ Hot Hot Hot”), live entertainment and a tiki bar.

Fralinger’s, the original saltwater taffy maker, is still in business. Too gooey? Try the fudge and macaroons.
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Sandy destroyed about a third of Ocean Grove’s one-mile boardwalk. The ultimate rebuilding was called a “miracle project” after FEMA funding was twice denied, on the grounds that it is a seaside community whose oceanfront is owned and maintained by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a non-profit religious organization. FEMA was finally swayed when a group of federal and state lawmakers unearthed documents saying the boardwalk has been recognized as public property and a public roadway since the early 1900s.

In Ocean Grove you will find arts and craft shows, mega flea markets, guided historical walking tours, free concerts in the Boardwalk Pavilion and performances in the legendary Great Auditorium. www.oceangrovenj.com/events.html

Jenkinson’s Boardwalk in Point Pleasant is home to many fun rides and games. Featured rides include the carousel, Crazy Bus, Dizzy Dragons, Boardwalk Bounce and more. At Jenkinson’s Aquarium you will find everything from lizards and fish to starfish and penguins.

The mile-long boardwalk at Seaside has the Funtown Pier and the Casino Pier which features a merry-go-round built in 1913. A year after Sandy, Britain’s Prince Harry paid a visit. Seaside’s boardwalk suffered a fire in 2013 and is still rebuilding.

If you like to stroll, the boardwalk at Avalon Beach is seven miles long. The boardwalk at Sea Bright, on the other hand, is short and sweet at 170 feet long. It was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy and rebuilt by volunteers from the New Jersey Fireman’s Mutual Benevolent Association and the Foundation to Save the Jersey Shore.

Looking for something quiet? Try the boardwalks at Avalon, Avon-by-the-Sea, Cape May, Lavallette, Sea Girt or Sandy Hook.

Many of the boards are built these days from materials more sustainable than wood, often from recycled plastics such as Trex and Timber Tech, and some are made of asphalt or concrete pavers. In colors with names like Winchester Gray and Spiced Rum, and without the smell of creosote and the splinters, they have a hollow sound and have been called soulless. On the other hand, towns that even think about using Brazilian hardwoods have been called far worse.

An Asbury Park a mural reads: “The boardwalk was where all of New Jersey came together, where New Jersey, for better or worse, met itself.”

The quote is from Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and New Jersey native Junot Diaz. “I would never have become the person I am as an artist if it hadn’t been for New Jersey and specifically if it hadn’t been for those 127 miles of shoreline that make New Jersey so special,” he said during Sandy recovery.

For more boardwalks, directions, hours of operation, amenities and attractions, visit www.visitnj.org

Boardwalk Rides