Ocean City, New Jersey
Each summer, thousands of visitors flock to the New Jersey shore for summer fun. Young singles divide up beach houses for a summer's worth of partying. Couples come for a long weekend getaway. And families drive from the neighboring states to soak up the sun and family-friendly atmosphere.
Ocean City was founded as a beach resort in 1879 and quickly earned the nickname of "America's Greatest Family Resort." Since then, many things have changed down the shore, but Ocean City still lives up to its nickname. The town is still "dry," meaning there is no alcohol served or sold in town. The beach is still packed during the day, and the boardwalk is still the place to be at night. This could explain why thousands of families visit each summer, many returning to the same place they have stayed for many years.
Best Family Accommodation
Beach House Rental
One of the most popular ways to spend a week at the shore is by staying in someone else's place: the beach house rental. House rentals are abundant from Memorial Day through Labor Day and offer a range of choices from beachfront to bayside and everything in between. Weekly prices can start around $1,500 and reach $5,000 depending on the desired location, number of bedrooms and baths, and extra amenities. Good rental resources include the Press of Atlantic City, local real estate agencies and, maybe the best of all, word of mouth. A note of warning: plan ahead and book early. Many people have a favorite place they rent year after year, and reservations for the summer could be all taken by the time winter rolls in.
Best Beachfront Bargain
Web site: www.portocallhotel.com
The rooms and decor are standard beach fare, so this is not the place for guests seeking luxury and customized decor. However, the boardwalk address is ideal. The beachfront pool is a hit with the kids, while the sun deck is a great place to catch some rays without getting covered in sand. There a few dining options available on site, including the kid-friendly Jungle Room, where kids can eat dinner and play video games simultaneously. The kids' dream come true might be the parents' nightmare, but why not forget the rules for a few nights? After all, it's vacation and someone else is cooking the chicken fingers.
Best Suites on the Boardwalk
The Flanders Hotel
Web site: www.theflandershotel.com
This all-suite hotel has been standing on the Ocean City boardwalk since 1923. While it has undergone many changes through the years, the history remains and reportedly so does a happy ghost named emily who roams the halls dressed all in white while singing songs and playing tricks on the staff and guests. The Flanders Hotel provides comfortable suites with a private bedroom, pull-out couch, and small kitchen and dining area, as well as a pool and sun deck. The best part is the location - just a few strides from the beach and boardwalk fun.
Food & Drink
Best Takeaway Snack
Web site: www.johnsonspopcorn.com
Everyone has a favorite boardwalk snack, and there are certainly plenty of choices. A walk down the boardwalk tempts the nose with smells of gooey fudge and greasy fries. And then there's Johnson's Popcorn. So popular it warrants three separate addresses, Johnson's has been popping on the OC boardwalk since 1940. Over the years, they have developed a loyal fan base, and visitors are happy to wait in line to pick up a few bags or tubs of the famous salty-sweet caramel popcorn.
Best Ice Cream
Springer's Homemade Ice Cream
Web site: www.springersicecream.com
Sure, there are plenty of fine ice cream shops, many right on Ocean City's boardwalk. But the best ice cream in the county is scooped up and dished out at Springer's in Stone Harbor. The line never seems to die down here - it just builds throughout the day until it snakes out the door, down the steps and along the sidewalk of popular Third Avenue. It may seem silly to drive 30 minutes just for an ice cream, but after you taste the creamy goodness, all doubts will vanish. Where else can you find flavors like teaberry (just like the old-fashioned gum) and springer chip, which is made with coffee ice cream?
Best Upscale Dining
Union Park Dining Room
Web site: www.unionparkdiningroom.com
The ban on alcohol in Ocean City sure adds to the town's family-friendly appeal. However, visitors looking for some gourmet dining with a glass of wine should head to Union Park in Cape May. Located across the street from the beach in the old-fashioned Hotel Macomber, the restaurant is a favorite with foodies. Its creative menu combines unique sauces and flavors with fresh local seafood and great cuts of meat. The BYOB policy appeals to both amateur sommeliers and budget-conscious diners - you can bring along your own favorite, whether it's a well-chosen bottle saved for a special occasion or a $10 deal.
The Wetlands Institute
Web site: www.wetlandsinstitute.org
The Wetlands Institute preserves an entirely different kind of ecosystem found down the shore. In this marshy land, turtles meander through tall grass while seabirds skim the water searching for dinner. This is all best seen from the institute's observation tower. Children will love the hands-on museum and touch tank, and everyone can learn something during the walking tour of the marsh. Real nature enthusiasts might want to sign up for a kayak trip. Finally, the fun doesn't have to stop when you leave. Be vigilant when driving back over the bridge - the turtle crossing signs remind drivers that these slow-moving animals can wander into the road and cause a traffic jam.
Best Family Fun
Gillian's Wonderland Pier
Web site: www.gillians.com
It's hard to miss Gillian's Wonderland Pier on the boardwalk. This is mostly due to the 141-foot-tall Ferris wheel that defines Ocean City's otherwise flat skyline. But it is also due to the screams and yells of joy and sometimes terror that echo along the boardwalk. Gillian's has all the expected rides, like the carousel, Tilt-a-Whirl, bumper cars and log flume. There are roller coasters to get the heart racing and rides that spin and flip and race until your stomach is ready to give up. There's even a separate water park and a special section packed with kiddie rides for the little ones.
Historic Cape May
Web site: www.capemaymac.org
Definitely not your average beach houses, Cape May's lavish Victorian homes look like pieces of art. The town's historic homes boast gorgeous latticework, charming turrets, sprawling wraparound porches and a rainbow of colors. The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts offers year-round tours, on foot and by trolley, that give the inside scoop on these beauties and the town in general. The best part is that you can enjoy these old-fashioned homes all year long, as Cape May is one of the few shore towns that doesn't completely shut down come fall. The town gets truly decked for the holidays, and a visit in November and December seems more like a trip back in time than an ocean getaway.
Best Reason to Visit Atlantic City
Web site: www.theborgata.com
Atlantic City is just far enough from this family beach town that its freewheeling party spirit feels far removed. But it's close enough for a day trip. While this old casino town has always been second rate next to Las Vegas, the lavish Borgata brings a small slice of Vegas to New Jersey and is the best reason to make the trip. This $1.1 billion property has it all: 2,000 luxurious rooms, a relaxing day spa, 11 restaurants and an event stadium for shows. And of course enough blackjack, roulette and slot machines to make you dizzy with suspense - Lady Luck just might make your night!