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24 happy hours for all

Start with a big, leisurely breakfast. Pick a sunning spot with the right scene. Later, there's a zoo for kids, cocktails for adults, tempting eateries and shops - and round-the-clock gambling.

Naturalist Christina Kraemer stands atop a catamaran scanning the sea on a whale- and dolphin-watching cruise.
Naturalist Christina Kraemer stands atop a catamaran scanning the sea on a whale- and dolphin-watching cruise.Read moreSHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Inquirer Staff Photographer

We're not suggesting you pull an all-nighter, stay awake for 24 hours straight, just to indulge yourself in all the Jersey Shore has to offer.

But sun up to sun up, there certainly is plenty to keep everyone in the family occupied enough to rock around the old sundial.

For a change this year, why not forgo that top-of-the-morning mad dash to the water's edge? Killing yourself to get that perfect spot on the beach is just so . . . last summer.

This year, take a more Zen approach.

Stop and smell the beach roses.

And maybe scarf down a big beach breakfast.

Try the Chicken or the Egg in Beach Haven on Long Beach Island (207 N. Bay Ave., Beach Haven, 609-492-FOWL) known to locals as The Cheg. Have the Goshdarnwich, which takes a sensible one-egg and slice-of-bacon breakfast and combines it indulgently with cheese on two slices of thick, cinnamon-encrusted French toast. Maple syrup served on the side. Yum.

If you're in Ocean City at breakfast time, do as the Ocean City-ites have always done - at least, for the last 38 summers. Go to the Varsity Inn (605 E. Eighth St., 609-399-1500).

You're all grown up now. Have a milkshake for breakfast on your way to the beach. Go ahead. Those thick, creamy calories really are worth it, since they'll whip up that chocolate malt they same way they did in 1969.

Come on, you've wasted enough time dawdling. Let's get to that beach. Remember, beach fees vary from place to place.

But the most important thing in deciding where to pitch the sun umbrella isn't the beach at all. It's the backdrop.

Is the beach of your dreams lined with expensive homes, a boardwalk, a bunch of high-rise casinos? Or are you looking for beach plums, bayberry bushes, and birds?

Ocean City, for example, which bills itself as America's Greatest Family Resort, owes much of its stellar reputation to its eight miles of immaculately groomed beaches.

You can take your pick of backdrops in O.C.: expensive homes or a boardwalk. In Cape May, choose between the rock jetty with the lighthouse in the background, the boardwalk-like promenade or Victorian mansions.

The Wildwoods - North Wildwood, Wildwood and Wildwood Crest - have some of the widest beaches in the state and a mostly boardwalked backdrop. And pretty Avalon boasts beautiful three-story sand dunes amid the incredible homes on its wide beach.

But the crown jewel of Jersey's beaches may be Island Beach State Park. Located just south of Seaside Park, Island Beach offers a glimpse of what the state's barrier islands looked like before development. The place is, in a word, lovely.

Now it's time to scrub up and hose down. There is plenty of late afternoon action to be had all over the Shore.

The kids might like a break from the beach at the Cape May County Zoo (Route 9 & Crest Haven Road, Cape May Court House, 609-465-5271).

Located inland, about 10 miles north of Cape May, the zoo offers a wide range of animals, from hissing cockroaches to giraffes. Amid 80 acres of beautifully manicured grounds, about 200 species (more than 550 animals in all) thrive.

If you're looking for a cooler treat, try the Show Place Ice Cream Parlour in Beach Haven (204 Centre St., Beach Haven 609-492-0018). If you just want a cone, go someplace else. Because here with your ice cream you'll get a side of Broadway show - and then some.

As they serve the treats at the Show Place, the waitresses and waiters turn into singers and dancers for three hour-long shows a day, belting out tunes and performing skits. And they'll expect you to sing along or make funny faces and generally clown around with them.

The over-21 crowd can head to Atlantic City, the town that boasts it's "Always Turned On."

A good place to have a cocktail and watch the sunset in the city that won't sleep is from the Pier Shops at Caesars (1 Atlantic Ocean, Atlantic City 1-800-HARRAHS).

Here you'll find Shore outposts of Philadelphia favorites like Buddakan (609-674-0100) and the Continental (609-674-8300) alongside Phillips Seafood (609-348-2273) and the Trinity Irish Pub (609-345- 6900).

Besides casino after casino along the famous Boardwalk and in the Marina District, you'll find plenty of other places to shop and dine. But gambling really is the thing to do here, and while the restaurants and stores may close, you can play games of chance and skill here 24 hours a day.

And why not? You can always nap on the beach tomorrow.