Stone Harbor and Avalon, N.J.

Special to SunSpot

Sandwiched between the child's paradise of The Wildwoods and the adult playground of Atlantic City, Avalon and Stone Harbor, N.J., offer pristine beaches, varied entertainment, outdoor recreation, fine dining and upbeat nightlife.

Avalon and Stone Harbor share a barrier island called Seven Mile Beach, which is devoid of bustling boardwalks, carnival rides and hordes of lustful teens and coeds. These absences make the island a welcome alternative to the kitschy, sensory-assaulting atmosphere of many over-commercialized mid-Atlantic beach resorts.

Seven Mile Beach is three-to-four city blocks wide, with Avalon occupying the island north of 80th Street and Stone Harbor occupying the island south of 80th Street. In Avalon, Dune Drive is the main drag, with many commercial services centered on "The Circle" at 18th Street. Dune Drive runs north to south and becomes Second Street in Stone Harbor.

The island has some of the most coveted and expensive real estate on the New Jersey Shore. Many of the houses are large, heavily windowed, pastel constructions; their yards displays of clipped lawns and lush foliage. Washingtonian magazine once named Avalon the "chicest beach" in the mid-Atlantic, the place to see women in diamonds and designer swimwear. There are plenty of modern-day Rockefellers here, but Avalon and Stone Harbor also have much to offer the common man.

Nature's best
The beach is the star attraction, and great effort is taken to preserve it. Bathing and swimming are permitted only at certain beaches where lifeguards are on duty. Rafting and surfing are permitted only at designated beaches, and dogs are not allowed on the beach at all between March 1 and Sept. 30. Avalon beaches are handicap accessible thanks to the availability of specially designed "surf chairs."

Beach-goers over 12 must carry beach tags, which are sold in daily, weekly or seasonal increments. Most rental homes provide a certain number of beach tags for their guests. But if yours doesn't, don't try to scam your way out of buying the tag. Inspectors prowl the beach regularly looking for violators.

Any bitterness at having to pay for nature's gifts is swept away after a few minutes on the soft, wide stretches of sand. Even at the height of summer, there's enough room to stretch out and even roll over without bumping into someone else.

Avalon's mighty sand dunes are among the tallest in New Jersey and their fragile habitat is home to plant life that has long since disappeared from more developed shore towns. This translates into lots of fences and wooden walkways to fend off possible tramplers.

The dunes aren't the only natural sanctuary on the island. in Stone Harbor has more than 6,000 acres of natural wetlands, educational exhibits, a marsh trail, an aquarium and an observation deck. Its Tidepool Museum Store, regarded as one of the best naturalist bookstores on the East Coast, carries an extensive collection of jewelry and gifts, field guides, natural history books, birding guides, and birding and fishing accessories for children.

, registered as a National Landmark by the National Park Service, could be considered the heron capital of America. Thousands of herons nest here, and many lesser-seen varieties -- such as the green heron, the yellow crowned night egret and the glossy ibis -- are often visible from the observatory.

Staying here
If you're visiting Seven Mile Beach, you'll want to retreat to your own personal sanctuary after a long day on the beach. Stone Harbor and Avalon are communities first, and beach resorts second, so most visitors rent homes or condos, with weekly rates in summer ranging from $1,000 for a modest condominium to more than $6,000 for a large, beach-front home with a pool.

Nonrenters will find approximately one dozen motels and inns. in Avalon is popular for its heated outdoor pool, large sun deck and three cocktail lounges. is a sophisticated hotel and conference center with 154 rooms, two restaurants and year-round entertainment. On a smaller scale, the 11-room in Stone Harbor was built in the early 1900s by one of the town's founders. It offers a home-baked buffet breakfast and welcomes "well-behaved" children over five. Stone Harbor Motels operates four budget options: , , and .

While most rental homes are equipped for large-scale cooking and barbecuing, those who would rather be served will find plenty of restaurants, from casual to fancy. is legendary, serving Mexican/Southwestern fare and inviting patrons to bring their own beer and wine. in Stone Harbor specializes in sandwiches and salads of the healthy and vegetarian variety. , which serves three meals daily and has live entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights in summer, has been owned by the same family since 1935.

touts itself as Avalon's first "fine-dining BYOB." Since you don't have to worry about your bar tab you won't mind splurging for the gourmet appetizers, seafood, steak and veal entrees. At the , you give your order directly to the chef, so you can have your steak and seafood just the way you like it.

Playing here
When you're not eating, exploring nature or sitting on the beach, there are other things to do on Seven Mile Beach. Those wanting to learn about the island's history can visit the , which is located in a 1920s cottage and features informational displays and historical books and photos. An enclosed porch is a comfortable place to relax and read.

In Stone Harbor, cobblestoned 96th Street is one of the most charming commercial districts on the Jersey Shore. Here you'll find lots of upscale clothing boutiques, with some specialty stores, a bookstore, restaurants and a movie theater. Some of the more interesting businesses include , which sells handcrafted jewelry, art and accessories, and often has "summer trunk sales" to feature designers' work; , which sells luxury bath and bed linens; and , which carries a large selection of handmade ceramics, enamelware, glassware, furniture and home accessories.

Mini-golf fans are in for a treat at , a tournament-quality rooftop course that sponsors public tournaments and sells frozen Coca-Colas. At the , you can book a deep-see fishing trip with local captains or hop on a half- or full-day fishing trip or dolphin nature cruise on the 60-foot Miss Avalon II. If you prefer calmer waters, rents kayaks and leads organized tours -- including sunset and full moon cruises -- on the bays and channels between the island from the mainland. For a rainy-day matinee, in Stone Harbor provides more escapism.

At night, the young and single have a few choices in this relatively subdued resort. and the in Avalon have live bands every weekend all summer, and the often has a DJ or piano player in the Signature Lounge and entertainment in the beach garden patio.

Avalon and Stone Harbor may appear to be little-known Jersey Shore destinations serving as exclusive resorts of the well-to-do. But upon closer look, Seven Mile Beach is an unassuming, quiet community that appeals to families looking for a laid-back beach holiday; those who appreciate wide, clean expanses of white sand, wildlife and solitude; and vacationers who want elbow room, but don't want to sacrifice proximity to good restaurants and entertainment to get it.

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