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Big sunny weekend for the Jersey Shore

OCEAN CITY, N.J. - Until last Wednesday or Thursday, Jim McMahon had planned on spending the Memorial Day weekend at home with his family in Pennsylvania, maybe perfecting his barbecue skills and doing a little yard work.

OCEAN CITY, N.J. - Until last Wednesday or Thursday, Jim McMahon had planned on spending the Memorial Day weekend at home with his family in Pennsylvania, maybe perfecting his barbecue skills and doing a little yard work.

But when the weather forecast became the perfect recipe for a beach getaway - hot and sunny with a little humidity mixed in - McMahon, of Warrington, Bucks County, decided to forget the backyard, pack up the family minivan and head to the Jersey Shore.

"And we've just been having the time of our lives," said McMahon, 37, who said he checked his family of four into the pink-hued beachfront Port-O-Call Hotel on Friday for a two night stay, but decided instead to stay three nights. "The great weather has been nonstop."

And so it went, up and down the coast from Asbury Park to Cape May, with temperatures hovering in the 80's throughout the three-day holiday weekend, the beaches, boardwalks, hotels, motels, restaurants and amusements were jammed, providing an unexpected boost to businesses in a still jittery local economy that depends heavily on tourism - and the weather.

"It almost feels like it's the Fourth of July," said Michele Gillian, executive director of the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce noting the large crowds that she says started pouring into town on Thursday.

"We've had many Memorial Day weekends in the past that were rainy and chilly and people are shivering in sweatshirts on the boardwalk, but not this year. This has been a remarkable weekend for Ocean City, and I'm sure for everywhere else at the Shore," Gillian said.

Gillian said the biggest fear among tourism folks in Ocean City this weekend wasn't the weather, but a $400 million bridge replacement project under way along the Route 52 Causeway, one of the main arteries in and out of the resort. With two lanes inbound and two outbound, officials said they saw few problems during the arrival of visitors for the weekend. But some locals and visitors said they were concerned about possible traffic delays on the ride home on Monday after a gridlock situation was created by the volume of traffic headed out of the resort into Somers Point on Sunday night.

Recent improvements along other roadways in the region, including the addition of a third lane in each direction on the Garden State Parkway between Toms River and the Manahawkin/Long Beach Island exit seemed to ease some of the usual holiday weekend congestion along that artery. And the installation of high speed EZ-Pass lanes on the parkway and along the Atlantic City Expressway also seemed to help the traffic situation over the weekend, officials said.

Back in Ocean City, Gillian said her members reported that bookings for accommodations - including hotels, motels, and rental homes - were either at capacity or close to it, while restaurants and boardwalk eateries had been quite busy throughout most of the weekend.

"Last Wednesday, we were only at 50 percent [reservations] but by Thursday evening, we were just about at capacity," said Glenn Losch, manager of Ocean City's Port-O-Call Hotel. "The weather just drew people down to the Shore and for Saturday and Sunday we were booked solid. It's just been fantastic."

Losch said in the past few years, booking agents at his hotel have noticed a trend toward last minute plans among tourists.

"People really wait until the last minute because they really want to the biggest bang for their buck, they want to make sure they're going to have good weather, so they hold off as long as possible before making a reservation," Losch said.

Shopkeepers throughout the Shore said they saw a steady flow of customers over the weekend, but with fuel prices still hovering well above the $3.50 mark, some shoppers seem reluctant to part with their cash for nonessential items.

"You wouldn't think on Memorial Day weekend people would be buying things like big rugs for their homes, but oddly, we've sold quite a few 8-by-12 rugs this weekend," said Scott Hamm, who owns Shelter Home, a designer home-goods store with a location on Asbury Park's boardwalk and another in the up-and-coming downtown arts and restaurant district on Cookman Avenue. "People are spending money on quick little pick-me-up items for the home as well as the bigger, more useful things like the rugs. But overall, I think this has been a great start to the summer season."

No matter the economy, it seems people will always spend money on ice cream. Case in point: At the Vanilla Bean Creamery in Cape May, where owner Joann Assenheimer says a record was broken this weekend for the amount of ice cream she sold.

While Assenheimer won't discuss specifics, she says her off-the-beaten-path ice cream stand was busier than it's ever been in the eight years she's been operating it out of a small cottage near the foot of the Garden State Parkway. The biggest seller this year so far has been Coconut Chip.

"We really never advertise, so it's all by word of mouth," Assenheimer said. "If this weekend was any indication, it's going to be a great season."