The outside world tends to associate New Jersey with its highway exits or its jewels of pop culture. Boyhood home of Jon Bon Jovi! Boyhood home of Bruce Springsteen! Current home of Tony Soprano!
Sure, New Jersey's all that. But drop your copy of People magazine, and you'll discover there's more to the Garden State than garden-variety icons. In fact, once you've driven past the Meadowlands and Elizabeth's unrestricted industrial zone filled with power plants and smokestacks, there's beauty to be found in the state. Trust me: I lived there for more than 20 years.
Admittedly, New Jersey isn't Disney World. It isn't even Six Flags. But for millions of people in and around the tri-state area, the Jersey Shore is a haven of boardwalks, bars and carnival fare unfound anywhere else in America. Save for a few state fairs and small-town festivals, big business hasn't arrived and renamed streets, carnival rides and boardwalk food after famous cartoon characters.
While much of the shore is reserved for family functions, there's still plenty for the college set to conquer. Here's the definitive list of what to do after you've driven around for hours looking for the Jon Bon Jovi house they gave away on MTV a few years ago:
1) Point Pleasant. One of Jersey's oldest boardwalks, Point Pleasant offers something for everyone: an aquarium for the oceanography fan, games of chance for the resident gambler, and two of the best summertime bars on Earth. Jenkinson's, named for the family that pretty much controls the whole boardwalk, offers live music and an electric let's hook up atmosphere. Things can get rowdy here - which is why they don't serve beer in bottles. Next door is Martell's Tiki Bar, an indoor / outdoor venue that jets onto the beach and overlooks the lovely Atlantic. Like Jenkinson's, Martell's is a good place to meet swank, tanned boys and girls; beware of older, native New Jerseyans who visit the place in a feeble effort to recapture their youth. After the bars close, Joey Tomato's offers some of the best pizza around.
2) Seaside Heights. Another boardwalk, though Seaside is more stereotypical than Point Pleasant's beach planks. How so? Well, there are still booths here where you can get T-shirts or license plates airbrushed with your name, your loved one's name, and an image of the Tasmanian Devil. Seaside is where it's at. There's a ton of carnival rides, a ton more bars, and plenty of opportunities to meet less-swank but still-tanned members of the opposite sex.
3) Red Bank. Known affectionately as New Jersey's SoHo, Red Bank is probably the coolest town in the state. Aside from housing "Clerks" star Kevin Smith's corporate offices and comic books shop, Red Bank offers an eclectic assortment of Irish pubs, coffee houses and an all-night diner that looks like it came straight out of "Grease." Aside from the nightlife, shops like Backwards Glances and Jack's Music offer good opportunities to spend cash, while the view of the beautiful Navesink River is spectacular from several points in the town.
4) Diners. Aside from spandex, big hair and Frank Sinatra, Jersey might be best known for its diners. If you're on the Shore, you won't want to miss the Ocean Queen in Brick, the Circus Drive-In in Wall Township and Eatontown's All Seasons, which serves French toast 24 hours a day. Eatontown also hosts The Americana, a 50's-style diner that shines and sparkles alongside Route 35.
5) Music. There's a reason why Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Sinatra, Whitney Houston, Skid Row, Blues Traveler, Tonic, Naughty By Nature, PM Dawn and others sprung from here. The live music scene is active throughout the state, from the college markets of Princeton and New Brunswick to the classic rock epicenter of Asbury Park. Nowadays, the Shore music scene is limited to the bright, pastel bars that just happen to have stages. The Tradewinds in Sea Bright has hosted everyone from Live and 311 and to Sting, The Wallflowers and Creed. Further down Ocean Avenue is Asbury's legendary Stone Pony, which is rumored to be reopening later this summer. The Fastlane hosts a good show every once in a while, while The Saint, with room for about 150 people, hosts many up-and-coming acts. (Don't laugh: Jewel, Days of the New, Creed, Incubus, Ben Folds Five and Orgy have played there.)
6) Bars. Where there's a beach, there's a bar. And where there are endless of miles of beach, there's a bar on every street corner. The Shore boasts hundreds of swill joints, from tropical paradise The Tradewinds (see above) to the boardwalk-central joints of Point Pleasant and Seaside. At Belmar's Bar Anticipation (Bar A to the locals), outdoor volleyball courts and college-only nights make for a rowdy good time. In Red Bank, The Globe and The Dublin House rule the roost, while Ortley Beach's Planet Surf is one of the only places where they let you take a beer onto the sand.
7) Beaches. Be warned: In New Jersey, you pay to visit the beach. In order to get the most bang for your buck, try Point Pleasant or Belmar. However, there's also Sandy Hook, which boasts one of the state's only nude beaches, and Manasquan, a favorite spot for the local surf crowd. Just remember that because a town has the word "beach" in its name does NOT necessarily mean it's suitable for sunbathing. I give you Bradley Beach, Cliffwood Beach and Union Beach. If a town doesn't have its own exit on the Garden State Parkway, you really shouldn't be there, anyway.
8) Atlantic City. Though you won't be able to gamble unless you're 21 (or have an ID that says you're 21), Atlantic City still offers an assortment of activity. There's a vibrant bar scene, and if you don't mind venturing into the town's shadier areas, you can look for all the streets found on a Monopoly board. However, casino life still reigns supreme in this gambling Mecca, so be of age, or be prepared to fake it.
9) Wildwood. Sure, it's a great beach, and yeah, the boardwalk is okay, too. But Wildwood is FAMILY CENTRAL. Kids everywhere. Plastic, multi-colored pails and shovels litter the beach. And that damn trolley always gets in the way. Stay away. Stay far, far away.
10) And finally, if you're visiting the Jersey shore, do yourself a favor and keep your mind open. The heyday of big hair, Camaro-rock and guido-dom is long gone, and for all the bottles of Drakkar slathered all over the state in the late 1980s, there's a lot of homey charm to be found. Granted, you probably won't encounter half the stuff they show on "The Sopranos," but you will experience a party atmosphere, clean beaches and one of the most venerable vacation scenes around.