Chances are you’ve taken in your share of cruising idylls over the years, from the silky shores of Florida to the quintessential New England ports of Connecticut and Massachusetts. But what about the New Jersey Shore? Occasionally, boat owners will limit their experience of the Garden State to a quick overnight stop while en route to another place, and you have to wonder if this is because some of us can’t shake those pop-culture clichés: the Sopranos, Snooki, the spray tans. But the truth is, if you haven’t yet spent time exploring the Jersey shoreline, prepare to be surprised. There are different flavors along the way, in ports large and small, from the high-rises and high stakes of Atlantic City to true beach towns with vintage ice-cream trucks, kettle fudge and retro flavor. Even with the bright lights of Manhattan just a day’s ride away, there are great places to drop the hook or drag lines for the day. Let’s assume you’ll start your cruise from the south and explore New Jersey on your way north to New York waters.
CAPE MAY Some New Jersey natives call their state the birthplace of the summer seashore escape. Among their most beloved beach towns is Cape May, one of the best-preserved Victorian districts in America, with crape myrtles sprouting from the sidewalks and American-flags hanging from gingerbread porches punctuated with rockers and wicker furniture. But there are also pockets of cool carved out around town, including the rehabbed Congress Hall, a rambling and glamorous hotel with a speakeasy-style club in the basement.
What to Do: After a day at the beach, take a slow stroll through town before dinner along with the other tourists looking to satisfy cravings for sea critters and beer. Head to the Lobster House (906 Schellengers Landing Rd., 609-884-8296) and find a seat at the handsome bar, where a jacketed bartender will take your order for local oysters on the half shell. If you’re up for a short cruise, check out Wildwood, with its famous boardwalk that includes rides to thrill the kids. Dock at Schooner Island Marina (609-729-8900, schoonerislandmarina.com).
Where to Dock: Cape May has a nice, wide inlet for an easy approach, and there are several marinas nearby.Among the best full-service facilities are the Canyon Club (609-884-0199, canyonclubmarina.com) and South Jersey Marina (609-884-2400, southjerseymarina.com), which places you within walking distance of the center of town. Between these two marinas is the canal that leads to Delaware Bay. Both have floating docks.
ATLANTIC CITY This is the spot for those with an appetite for big-city glitz and glamour. In Atlantic City, you can indulge your appetite at the casinos and resorts that lure visitors with everything from celebrity chef-run restaurants to sprawling spas and mega nightclubs, all of which are never so far away from a gaming floor that you can’t hear the ka-ching.
What to Do: If you’re a fan of the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” (filmed in Brooklyn, by the way) you may want to catch a glimpse of what Prohibition-era Atlantic City was really like. Get a quick fix at the Knife & Fork (3600 Atlantic Ave., 609-344-1133), a Flemish-style building constructed in 1912 that became a rowdy men’s club during Prohibition. It was recently renovated as a steak house, so get a good meal and spend some time enjoying the intriguing collection of old photos on the walls.
Where to Stay: The main game in town is the full-service Frank S. Farley State Marina (609-441-8482; atlanticcitynj.com). This state marina is managed by the Golden Nugget Hotel and boasts 640 floating slips for yachts up to 300 feet. It’s a dock’s walk away from the hotel’s 74,000-square-foot casino and close to high-end retail therapy at the Pier Shops at Caesars.
MANASQUAN The Manasquan Inlet area on the New Jersey coast is a popular summer stop for boaters, largely due to the fact that three casual and friendly waterfront towns are just inside: Manasquan, Brielle and Point Pleasant. Manasquan Inlet is wide and well- marked with a bell buoy one mile offshore and steel structures at the jetties. A bustling waterway, the inlet, which has a 5-foot tide fluctuation, is used year-round by recreational boats, charter fishing fleet and commercial vessels. For this reason, locals tell first-time visitors to stay 1,000 feet offshore before turning straight into the inlet. When the wind is against the tide, steep swells can build quickly at the mouth, where depth is about 20 feet. Overall, the inlet is safe, but it can be tricky, particularly with offshore winds.
What to Do: Manasquan Beach is a good day trip, particularly if you’re cruising with kids who will like the promenade with its arcade. Manasquan is a small town just over a mile from Brielle, where there are bike rentals and shops. Manasquan also has many historic Victorian homes in the center of town.
BELMAR Yes, it’s a nightlife hub for Jersey’s many young and restless, but Belmar has many other things going for it, including walk-able jetties, many of which are friendly to the shore-bound angler, and a formidable fleet of party boats that regularly powers out to the reliable fishing grounds offshore. If you strike out in blue water, though, don’t take it too hard. You’re in Belmar. Food and fun are not far from the docks.
What to Do: Belmar is host to the state’s largest sand-sculpting contest to be held July 11, 2011 (njsandcastle.com), a town tradi- tion for more than 25 years. It’s a huge draw for kids of all ages.
Where to Stay: Shark River Inlet at Belmar has an approach that requires caution. In addition to multiple bridges, it’s narrow and shallow and conditions can be bad when the wind is against the tide. The first bridge is immediately inside with 15-foot clearance. It opens on demand, but the current can run 3 to 4 knots at times, so mariners need to be careful they don’t get too close before there is sufficient clearance, especially if there is a big party boat also waiting to get through. Once inside Shark River, Belmar Marina (732-681-2266, belmar.com/marina) has plenty of dockage and fuel and is walking distance to Belmar’s downtown shops and restaurants.
SANDY HOOK As you head north, you’ll hit Sandy Hook, a seven-mile stretch of barrier island that’s worth seeing before you plot your course northwest into New York waters. To tuck in here, round the point and head into Sandy Hook Bay, then travel south to find dockage in the Atlantic Highlands. Tie up and discover a place that’s close to the hustle and bustle of Manhattan but very far away in spirit.
What to Do: Rent a bike in Sandy Hook and pedal on the smooth tar multi-use path that wends it way along the scenic length of Sandy Hook. Make a quick stop at the historic Sandy Hook Lighthouse, built in 1764, which withstood canon fire during the Revolutionary War. Then, ride over the drawbridge at the southern end of the beach back to Atlantic Highlands and reward yourself with a waterside seafood feast in this small beach town nestled in the crook of Sandy Hook Bay.