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Ah the shore!

“We’re going down to the shore.”I couldn’t wait to hear my mother say those words each summer. Who cared if it meant an hour long drive crammed into the back seat with numerous siblings? The smell of the salt air brings back wonderful memories of sandcastles, races along the beach, digging for clams and jumping over and diving through the waves. As a child, the Jersey shore was paradise.Somehow, those waves have gotten smaller since I was a kid. But get me anywhere near the East Coast, and I have to visit the ocean, and to me the only respectable beaches are in New Jersey. Before I get complaints about using the words respectable and New Jersey in the same sentence, listen up. Jersey has 127 miles of sugar-coated white sand beaches, and the gently sloping terrain makes them ideal for wading and swimming. Stretched out along the Jersey coast are numerous beach towns, each offering visitors a different type of atmosphere. From Sandy Hook in the north to Cape May in the south, beachgoers should pick where they stay or visit based on their age, attitude, inclination or whim.Atlantic City was a famous beach destination long before Charles Darrow placed its streets on the Monopoly board in 1934. Back then, the boardwalk was the most expensive real estate in town and still is today. Large hotels lined the popular 4.5-mile wooden walkway for decades, and millions of tourists from all over the East Coast flocked to the resort town.A carnival atmosphere complete with rides, fairway games, side-show attractions and cotton candy were all part of the scene. The Steel Pier, across from the Trump Taj Mahal Casino on the boardwalk, still has carnival rides and a few games, but most of the gambling takes place inside the casinos today, and the hustlers are now selling condo units instead of enticing tourists into the side-show attractions.Most adults won’t mind the change. The old salt water taffy, invented in Atlantic City, macaroons that melt in your mouth, large soft pretzels, cheese steak sandwiches and thin crust pizza are still part of the scene. But it’s a more orderly, perhaps even a little more elderly, crowd that jogs, cycles or hikes down the boardwalk in between casino stops.But it’s a shame to see that none of the gambling revenue generated by all those casinos lining the boardwalk has gone towards urban development. Atlantic City used to have a vibrant downtown shopping area, but now the nicest term to describe the area is “slum.” So, while the Atlantic City beaches are “free,” without the annoying tag fees many towns along the shore impose on visitors, families may want to visit the boardwalk so they can say “been there,” but tourists can find lots of other beach towns with a better family atmosphere only a few miles from Atlantic City.Locals claim Ocean City and Cape May are still traditional family beach towns. Margate, home to “Lucy the Elephant,” is more suburban than Atlantic City and caters to visitors in their 20s and 30s. Brigantine is for golfers. Avalon and Stone Harbor are expensive summer resorts, where visitors literally pay for the peace and quiet. Avalon has a wonderful yacht club, and the Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary is an ornithologist’s paradise. Thousands of herons make their nest there every year. Wildwood, once known as a “teenager hang-out” is now benefiting from the upswing in real estate values along the Jersey coast and is also becoming a hot spot for family vacationers.Ocean City has a smaller boardwalk and is the only “dry city” along the shore. Dry means no alcohol is sold, and many families like that because it keeps the rowdier crowds away. Putt-putt golf, a 140-foot Ferris wheel and other amusement rides are the main attraction in Ocean City. Like most of the other shore towns, it offers a good variety of seafood restaurants and souvenir shops, and it’s where local tourists take their children for a weekend at the beach.Cape May, at the southern tip of the state, offers an entirely different atmosphere. Beautiful tree-lined streets shield Victorian homes from the harsh summer sun. Many of the homes are bed and breakfast establishments or offer upscale dining. A “must see spot” for all visitors is the Cape May Lighthouse. Built in 1859, its 159 steps lead to a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay.Beachgoers can spot dolphins all along the Jersey shore, but they are more abundant, and get closest to the beach, near Cape May State Park. The park has an interpretive center and trails that guide hikers through marsh, swamp, dune and forested environments. From mid-September through October, thousands of Monarch butterflies use the town as a rest stop before crossing 13 miles of open water to Delaware. It’s no coincidence that hawks make their home in Cape May at the same time.Cape May is a great place for a couple to spend a few nights. Swimmers, hikers, kayakers, surfers, and anglers can find a beach to suit their particular sport. Rates at the bed and breakfast inns vary, but a night runs from $199 to $350 with special weekly rates available.A family of four can rent a cottage for about $2,300 per week between mid-July and Labor Day in both Cape May and Ocean City. A cottage in this price range is a block or two from the ocean. No beach front property along the Jersey shore is inexpensive to rent, and prices can climb as high as $6,000 to $12,000 a week. However, there’s a large selection of rentals more reasonably priced within a few blocks from the beach.The Internet lists many summer rentals, but always ask two important questions. Most shore rental properties will be within walking distance of the ocean because Jersey beach towns are built on barrier islands that are thin strips of land, but a house on the bay should rent for far less than one on the beach.Most families want to visit the shore during the peak summer months of July and August. However, East coast schools don’t begin their summer break until about June 15, so families from Colorado should take advantage of the two-week lull. Stores and restaurants are open, the ocean is warm, rentals are less expensive, and the “crowds” are still waiting for summer to begin.Grab your pail and shovel, get ready for some great seafood and create your own summer memories at the Jersey shore.

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