Cooling off with a quick dip in the ocean is an essential part of a Jersey Shore vacation: tasting the Atlantic’s brine, swimming with its current, splashing against its waves.
Unfortunately, it can also be expensive. Most towns require and enforce the use of beach tags, which mainly serve as dinky plastic barriers to nature’s abundant wealth.
Fortunately, New Jersey does have five guarded ocean beaches that serve the public free of charge. And conveniently, they’re all located in the traditionally Philly-favored beach towns strung between Atlantic City and Cape May.
So here are a few spots where can you catch a free, and safe, ocean swim at the Shore.
In Atlantic City, it’s not just the drinks that are complimentary. The city’s four-mile coastline, carved into nearly 50 beaches, is free for both high rollers and crapshooters alike.
For swimmers, lifeguard stands will be fully staffed by Memorial Day. Guards patrol the beaches from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily until the season wraps at the end of September. Surfers and kayakers are allowed at only the beaches on New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Raleigh and Rhode Island Avenues when lifeguards are on duty, but after hours the waters are open to all. And fishing is allowed only when lifeguards aren’t on duty. Otherwise, the city’s entire coastline is fair game.
The big news is about the bathrooms. Seven new facilities opened on the Boardwalk recently, providing beachgoers and guards much needed relief. “And they’re cleaned on a regular basis,” said Beach Patrol Chief Steve Downey, “so it’s the best it’s been since probably ever.”
Parking isn’t awful during the week. There are plenty of garages attached to casinos, and a lot of service lots in the midtown area that used to be casinos. Weekends (especially big-event weekends) make it a little tougher.
The hidden gem of the Jersey Shore is a pinkie of a beach not even 2 miles long. Strathmere, a hamlet of Upper Township, a one-stoplight inlet floating to its own beat between Ocean City and Sea Isle City, offers its crisp and clean beaches without a fee. There are some little inconveniences, but the serene setting and calming atmosphere make up for lack of modern amenities.
The trade-off: There are no restrooms on-site, unless you count the portable toilets set up along Ocean Drive at Williams and Putnam Roads. And on-street parking is free, but it can get congested at the height of summer.
Lifeguards start patrolling on Memorial Day, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Thursday and 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Friday to Sunday. But staffing constraints limit coverage to roughly seven out of a dozen beaches. The beach patrol plan to release a schedule in June.
Surfers are given free rein south of Tecumseh and north of Sherman (Civil War buffs, anyone?), and people wanting to fish are allowed to wade into water south of Prescott and north of Seacliff.
This barrier island has three distinct cities, each with their own personalities and offerings: the City of Wildwood, North Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest, which together amount to five miles of extra-wide, smooth-sanded, free ocean beaches.
While each municipality has its own beach patrol, the hours are the same. All three beaches are patrolled daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. from Memorial Day through Labor Day. And parking is the same. All three sections struggle with those hungry meters.
Here’s where they differ:
The beach atmosphere reflects the dry town: family-friendly. The town itself is only two miles long, but it still offers a full bathroom on the beach and on Rambler Road. Surfing is available on Rambler Road, and fishing is available on all beaches before and after hours.
It’s still quieter than its brethren, but North Wildwood still knows how to have a good time. And it offers four full bathrooms nearby, and portable toilets at almost every street. Surfing is allowed between Eighth and 10th Avenues. Fishing allowed on Second Avenue on Hereford Inlet.
The city proper gets all of the attention. It’s the center of the island, it has the boardwalk and the amusement rides, and it has the convention center. And because of its rowdy reputation, the beaches in Wildwood always play host to a lively crowd. Most notably, it has access to the boardwalk facilities, which is a real game-changer.
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