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Soaking up sophistication

Special to the Sun

Many villages along New Jersey's coastline facing the Atlantic Ocean are primarily summer-residents only. Because their seasons are short, they've been able to resist erosion - meaning any capitulation to contemporary tastes.

Until quite recently, treasured attractions along the shore (pronounced "show-uh" here), such as the Miss America pageant, Wacky Golf or the East Coast's biggest Ferris wheel, created a prevalent style that was a bit oblivious, but endearingly cheesy nonetheless - something like a teenager with a bright-red sunburn. Think of this as the B.B. era, or Before Borgata.

With the 2003 opening of this glamorous Atlantic City hotel, a new high-water mark of sophistication was reached, and its decorous effect rippled not only across Atlantic City, but up and down the coast.

Visitors who'd never come to New Jersey before arrived in force (according to N.J. officials, 71 million tourists came last year, 69 percent of them from out of state). Suddenly, everyone was talking about year-round tourism and was mindful of the fact that 25 percent of the United States' population (including Baltimore, of course) is within a gasoline tank's drive away.

It's tempting, then, to think of post-Borgata Atlantic City as the bully who kicks sand onto all the other oceanside villages. Neighboring towns have either elected to emulate its boisterous chic and let the good times (and sushi) roll, or run the other way into saltwater-taffy nostalgia. Thus, places like Wildwood and Seaside Heights are known as "party spots," whereas Cape May and Ocean Grove affect a more prim demeanor.

Actually, do whatever you like on the Jersey shore. Munch on a funnel cake for lunch, but have fennel-crusted sea bass for dinner. With 127 miles of nearly continuous beach front, the "show-uh" can, uh, show many different sides: chic and shabby, then and now.

HotelsIt's all the same ocean, beach and sunshine, but accommodations vary wildly along the shore, from super-sized, modern skyscrapers, to cozy cottages built in the 1800s.


• Harrah's Casino, 777 Harrah's Blvd., 609-441-5000; harrahs.com. Thanks to a $550 million expansion, this is the largest hotel in town -- at least for the moment. A 90-foot-high dome includes a "Tropical Paradise" with a lagoon, waterfall, rain forest and Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa. Summer rates: $119-$419.


• Daddy O, 4401 Long Beach Blvd., 609-494-1300. This addition to the lodgings scene brings a luxuriously low-key style of a boutique hotel to the beach. Summer rates: $195-$375.

• Green Gables Inn, 212 Centre St., 609-492-3553; gableslbi.com. This beloved guesthouse and tea room was just given a top-to-bottom refurbishing. Summer rates: $325-$500.


• Congress Hall, 251 Beach Ave., 609-884-8421. Southern New Jersey's Grand Dame of hotels will, in summer 2007, spin off a collection of Victorian houses for nightly or weekly rental. Call for rates.


• Starlux, 305 E. Rio Grande Ave., 609-522-7412; thestarlux.com. Swing out, sister! The soaring, all-glass lobby invites guests into a fond architectural homage to the doo-wop era. Summer rates: $99-$215.


• Buddakan, 1 Atlantic Ocean, 609-674-0100. A temple to modern Asian cuisine. Entrees range from $31-$50.

• Phillips' Classic Americana Seafood, 2100 Boardwalk, 609-348-2273. This is the region's premier name in Maryland-style crab cakes and regional fare such as baked haddock Parker House-style. Menu items range from $20-$80. (The top price is for a clam bake for two.)

• Spice Road, 1000 Boardwalk at Virginia Avenue, 609-449-1000. For a quick passage to India, visit the Trump Taj Mahal's new selection of eateries and shops.


• Island Grill, 311 Mansion St., 609-884-0200. Caribbean-influenced cuisine. How about some fresh-caught fish grilled, sauteed and blackened, or maybe a barbecued pulled-pork sandwich? Entrees range from $15.95-$23.95.

• Karen and Rei's, 1882 Route 9 N., 609-624-8205. New American cuisine, including juniper-rubbed venison and cranberry duck.


• La Spiaggia, 357 W. 8th St., 609-494-4343. The restaurant (the name means "the beach" in Italian) offers a contemporary twist on classic Northern Italian cuisine, from pork medallions with Kahlua to squid-ink tagliatelle.


• Latitude 40N, 816 Arnold Ave., 732-892-8553. Grilled mahi-mahi and tempura tuna in a homey, nautical setting.

Nightlife Do you crave the glare of neon lights more than sunlight? Headliners ranging from Gwen Stefani and Norah Jones to Earth, Wind and Fire and Tony Bennett will be appearing in the next few months in Atlantic City. But there's also plenty of new talent waiting to be discovered at venues where the spirit of the youthful Bruce Springsteen still lingers. For those older than 25, an outing to one of these uproariously rowdy spots is an anthropological field trip - expect big hair, and even bigger attitude.


• The Stone Pony, 913 Ocean Ave., 732-502-0600. This place is a rock 'n' roll shrine, thanks to Bruce Springsteen, who jammed here in the 1970s and '80s.


• House of Blues Foundation Room, 801 Boardwalk, 609-236-2583. Hipper-than-thou lounge that combines elegant dining, viewing of live sports events, a fireside lounge and "sacred prayer rooms."


• Princeton Bar & Grill, 2008 Dune Drive, 609-967-3457. A perennial favorite of those looking for love and live music. This year, a much-needed redecoration promises to remove decades of spilled beer and burger grease from the Princeton.


• The Boiler Room, 251 Beach Ave., 609-884-6507. Brick walls and red lighting provide a warm setting for the best of South Jersey's live jazz and blues.


• Surf Light Theater, corner of Engleside and Beach avenues, 609-492-9477. For more than half a century, this local institution has offered first-rate theater in a classic summer-stock setting.


• Temptations, 612 Boulevard, 732-830-3410. DJs spin numbingly loud techno music. Girls and boys gone wild with piercings, exposed flesh and tattoos galore. Not for the faint of heart.


• The Show, 1 Atlantic Ave., 609-289-4200. Think water isn't sexy? Then watch the world's largest indoor fountain dance in a spectacular jazz rendition of Eddie Cooley and John Davenport's classic 1956 song "Fever." Best of all, it's free.

• Steel Pier, Virginia Avenue and 1000 Boardwalk, 866-386-6659. It's been drawing crowds since 1898, but rumor has it that this is the last summer for this fabled open-air amusement palace. Its owner, Donald Trump, plans to raze the pier after Labor Day to build a new casino.


• Maritime Forest Trail. Hike this atmospheric path and see the coastline as it once was: an atmospheric bramble of holly trees, shad bush and hackberry plants. There is also a variety of shorebirds, such as oyster-catchers and terns.

• Barnegat Light House, northern tip of Long Beach Island, 609-494-2016. A climb up the 217 steps to the top offers the best "bird's eye" view of the Jersey shore. SEASIDE HEIGHTS

• Wacky Golf, Casino Pier; 732-830-1730. The shore's most colorful miniature golf course, with its zoo of animal obstacles, stretches across 25 (not 18!) holes on five rooftops above the Seaside Heights boardwalk.


• The Boardwalk. Of all Jersey's boardwalks, Wildwood's is the longest, loudest and lewdest. Think you're above it all? You can be when you hop aboard the 15-story, neon-lit Ferris wheel. Mariner's Landing Pier, Schellenger Avenue and Boardwalk.

Shopping If you hope to come home with more than just sand in your shoes, the Jersey shore provides many opportunities for world-class shopping.


• The Pier at Caesar's, 1 Atlantic Ave., 609-289-4200. All the latest fashions from Hugo Boss, Betsey Johnson, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Scoop and many more.


• Ron Jon Surf Shop, 901 Central Ave., 609-494-8844. Even if you've never "hung 10" in your life, a pilgrimage to the mecca of surfing culture is still a must. It has swimsuits, skateboards, clothes and, oh yes, surfboards.


• Point Pleasant Antiques Emporium, Corner of Bay and Trenton avenues, 732-892-2222. Considered by those in the know to be the best place to shop for antiques on the Jersey Shore. More than 100 dealers under one roof.

EventsMaySpring Arts and Crafts Festival // Cape May Convention Hall, Beach Drive at Stockton Place, Cape May / 800-275-4278, 609-884-5404 or capemaymac.org. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. May 19. An array of arts and crafts for show and sale. $1 admission.

Actor and Playwrights By the Sea // Dante Hall Theater of the Arts, 14 N. Mississippi Ave., Atlantic City / 609-344-8877. 7:30 p.m. May 19. Night of one-act plays. $8.

Cape May Music Festival // Various locations in Cape May / 800-275-4278, 609-884-5404 or mac.org. May 20-June 14. The 18th annual festival features a variety of musical genres Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday evenings. Times and prices vary.

JuneSouth Jersey Shark Tournament // South Jersey Marina, Cape May Harbor, Cape May / 609-884-2400 or sjmarina.com. June 7-10. The 27th annual event kicks off the big-game fishing season in Cape May.

Drawin' the Wildcard Tattoo Extravaganza // Atlantic City Convention Center, 1 Miss America Way, Atlantic City / 866-DTW-SHOW or drawinthewildcard.com. June 8-10. Tattoo convention with artists, vendors, more. Call for times and fees.

Atlantic City Seafood Festival // Bernie Robbins Stadium, 545 N. Albany Ave., Atlantic City / 609-344-8873 or 609-561-8994. 10 a.m.-7 p.m. June 16-17. Food, entertainment, crafts, more. Call for fees.

JulyCape May Kids Playhouse // Cape May Convention Hall, Beach Drive at Stockton Place, Cape May / 800-275-4278, 609-884-5404 or capemay mac.org. 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays, July 2-Aug. 13. Jugglers, magicians, puppeteers, clowns and more. $4; $2 ages 3-12.

AugustBB King, Al Green and Etta James // Trump Taj Mahal Casino Hotel, 1000 Boardwalk, Atlantic City / 609-449-5150 or ticketmaster.com. 8 p.m. Aug. 4. Blues and soul concert by the three music legends. $65-$89.

SeptemberCape May Food and Wine Festival // Various locations in Cape May / 800-275-4278, 609-884-5404 or capemaymac.org. Sept. 16-20. Cooking classes and workshops, tours of Cape May restaurant kitchens, more. Fees vary.

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