Who knew the serene beaches in Cape May County, N.J. – The Jersey Cape — are laden with downy white sand that rivals the sugar-sand beaches on exotic tropical islands? You don't learn this stuff from watching Snooki and her gang, who hang out on those taupe-colored dense sand beaches 100 miles north.
A gleaming, 30-mile ribbon of powdery-white sand beaches connects the resorts of Ocean City, Sea Isle City, Avalon, Stone Harbor, the Wildwoods, and Cape May. Each town radiates a distinctive vibe, while abounding with superb beaches, fabulous foodie indulgences, boundless outdoor pursuits and exquisite accommodations.
What's more, New Jersey's southern shore is an eco-paradise, teaming with unspoiled wildlife refuges, natural hiking and biking trails and indigenous gemstones buried in the sand. This multi-generational summer resort is suddenly attracting a sophisticated, stylish set; they revel in the region's largely-undiscovered arts venues, gastronomic eateries and a jazzed-up boardwalk scene. Whether you are a veteran of the southern Jersey coastal-scene or considering visiting for the first time, you will surely want "in" on some of its best-kept secrets.
North America's premier bird-watching perch is Cape May, N.J. Really! With 239 (and counting) recorded species, including the migration of peregrines, merlins, ospreys, and sharp-shinned hawks. It's no wonder that the area hosts the annual World Series of Birding in May and is favored by such globally renowned naturalists as Tory Peterson. Info: birdcapemay.org
2. More rides than Disney?
According to the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Authority, there are more rides and attractions than Disneyland, including a really cool Insectarium, along Wildwood's 2.5-mile boardwalk. Info: wildwoodsnj.com
3. Hank Sauce
Hold the ketchup — slather that cheesesteak in Hank Sauce, a handmade concoction created by a Sea Isle City, N.J., man who craved a savory hot sauce. Now locals can't get enough of it, so Hank (Chef Brian Ruxton) launched a Hank Sauce Restaurant in March serving "Florida-Latin" fare. Try the Ahi Tuna Roll, with Hank's mango salsa, wrapped in a burrito. Info: 8605 Landis Avenue, Sea Isle City, 609-486-5132, hanksauce.com
4. Dogs have it
Local residents declare America's best hot dogs to be the homemade franks at Maui's Dog House, offering 29 different toppings for their dogs and sausages. Info: 806 New Jersey Ave., North Wildwood, mauisdoghouse.com
5. Quiet beaches
Prefer those hidden, little-known natural beaches? Corson's Inlet, a strip of protected, undeveloped beachfront and sand dunes is nestled between Ocean City and Sea Isle City. It is lifeguard-protected but lacks crowds, ensuring prime fishing and surfing conditions. Careful – those dunes serve as nesting sites for the endangered piping plover, the least tern and black skimmers. Info: state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/corsons.html
Eureka! Free diamonds wash ashore on Cape May beaches. Cape May Diamonds are native translucent quartz stones that, when polished, resemble diamonds. Believed to have been discovered by Kechemeche Indians and used for trading with early European colonists, they are still abundant in the sand on Higbee Beach and Sunset Beach. Cape May's Sunset Beach Gift Shop will even polish and set them for you. Info: capemay4u.com/cape-may-diamonds.html
7. Marbles Tournament
Kid lose their marbles, and win new ones (and a scholarship!), at the annual National Marbles Tournament (June 15-18) on the beach by Scalanger Avenue in Wildwood. This year marks the 89th annual competition. Wannabe shooters practice year-round in the oceanfront open rings. Info: nationalmarblestournament.org
8. Doo-wop and rock
The largest concentration of mid-century architecture in the U.S. is in the Wildwoods — featuring the vibrant "doo-wop" style, including exotic themes, kitschy signs, and jutting rooflines popularized in the 1950s and '60s in films featuring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. But doo-wop isn't he only pop culture here. The song "Rock Around The Clock" was first performed by Bill Haley on the stage of Wildwood's Hot Brau Hotel on May 29, 1954. It quickly topped the charts and is credited with bringing rock 'n' roll into mainstream culture. Info: doowopusa.org
9. Dolphin sightings
The Northeast's largest concentration of bottlenose dolphins is known to flip around the shores of Wildwood Crest. Many are born here, just off the coastline. Info: wetlandsinstitute.org/education/seas-trips/cape-may-wildwood
10. Sugar sand
What beach erosion? Wondrously, Wildwood's five-miles of powder-sand beaches continuously expand. Reportedly inward tidal currents wash ashore finely-ground sugar-sand from neighboring beaches, increasing the sand mass each year while creating a natural sandbar playground for youngsters.
5 myths about the Jersey shore
1.The landscape is toxic and dotted with refineries. Cape May County is an eco-paradise, recognized around the country for its bird observatories, nature centers, protected wetlands and natural wildlife habitats. Bottlenose dolphins swims off these shores, and many indigenous and endangered birds nest here. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the silky-soft sand on Cape May County's beaches. Unlike the dense, darker sand on most northern beaches; it is most often compared to the velvety granules of tropical beaches. Note: Most beaches require beach tags, averaging $10-$12 per week.
2. There is no culture. Cape May County is rich with heritage and culture. Each town proudly possesses meticulously preserved historical landmarks of events that shaped our nation. Natives and visitors embrace the profusion of performing arts venues, with shows featuring local talent and top name entertainers, practically every night of the week in the summer. Cape May County's museums showcase a glimpse of the distinctive and indigenous treasures exclusive to this region.
3. The shopping experience is a homogeneous mall. The villages in each of Cape May County's towns are inhabited by independent boutiques, homegrown eateries and local crafts shops. Visitors encounter very few of the chain store establishments seen in traditional malls. Sustainability is a priority in this county, and there are farmers' and craft markets selling fresh and local provisions. Often parking is an issue because the towns shun unsightly multi-story parking lots. Happily, residents prefer to walk and travel by bicycle. For the record, the majority of New Jersey's 1,354 malls are to the north.
4. New Jersey's concept of fine dining is a diner. While diners do pervade much of the state, Cape May County is home to imaginative eateries and bistros, whose kitchens are governed by well-reputed chefs. These restaurants represent every type of cuisine, and most often incorporate local produce and meat. It results in numerous awards, certifications and even Food Network television shows.
5. Being Italian is king. Yo. With all due respect to Snooki and the Sopranos … the shore's Italian heritage is significant, but it is not the only ethnic group that claims history here. The region pays homage to its mosaic of ethnicities. Throughout the year there are festivals and parades honoring Irish, German, African-American, Jewish, and of course, Italian, heritage.
— Stephanie Citron