ATLANTIC CITY - Everybody knows that when you travel, the best way to find a good restaurant, the perfect way to spend a not-so-sunny day or get a birds'-eye view is to ask a local - chances are they will offer ideas on where to find the hidden gems of the place they call home.
So, even if you come to the Jersey Shore every summer and you think you know it pretty well, trust the people who live here to let you in on a few insider secrets that will take you off the beaten path and into the subtle nuances of a seaside place they weather year-round.
Think of this as a cheat sheet on the Shore, a welcome mat or a little gift from the folks who know this coastline the best.
You've toiled all the winter long, in gray cities and the wind-whipped countryside dreaming only of returning to your summertime haven. Now go ahead, take your first splash in that surf and enjoy. Welcome back!
Get to the Point. For the perfect pre-beach morning, get off the highway, grab a cup of coffee and start with a bike ride or a beach walk along the southern tip of Absecon Island in Longport. There, the Atlantic Ocean meets the Great Egg Inlet in a thunderous swirl as waves crash dramatically onto the rock jetty. Follow up with breakfast at Augie's Omelette-Waffle House (709 E. Ninth St., 609-391-0222) in nearby Ocean City, said Sharon Gordon, spokeswoman for the South Jersey Transportation Authority.
A bit of Irish cheer. St. Stephen's Green Publick House in Spring Lake Heights (2031 Highway 71, 732-449-2626) is a darkly cool treasure that offers respite on a hot day and showcases local talent, like Jennifer and Phil Mylod, during lively Celtic sessions on Tuesday nights. "It's so nice to be able to go to a place where I can take my grandson for dinner . . . and hang out with adult friends with good food and great service," recommends Pola Galie, Waretown, Barnegat Bay Operations Manager for the Lighthouse Center for Natural Resource Education.
A secret Shore garden. It's really for the birds, but you can pack a lunch and hang out, too, in the backyard of the Cape May Bird Observatory (701 E. Lake Dr., Cape May Point, 609-884-2736) where there's a shady spot with a picnic table and benches, and the trees are "just bursting with birds" like warblers, woodpeckers, and other backyard varieties. "It's (also) a great spot for people who aren't birders, but still want to see some of the wildlife we have in this area," the observatory's Marleen Murgitroyde notes.
Kids like little creatures. A good way to spend a day with the family: First, visit one of the clam nurseries being run by the environmental group ReClam the Bay on Long Beach Island where they raise baby clams and oysters in little tanks along the bay and you are welcome to check back all summer long to see how they are growing. On Fridays, you can go to Viking Village (1801 Bayview Ave. Barnegat Light, 609-494-0113) and see how they catch fish. For the perfect ending to a perfect family day, you can go up the street and climb Old Barney, the town's beloved and famous lighthouse, suggests 9-year-old Long Beach Township resident Paige Shields.
Speaking of sea creatures. Curiosity about precisely what the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine (3625 Brigantine Blvd., 609-266-0538) does prompted its founders to create the Sea Life Education Center. There are marine artifacts and 25 life-size replicas of mammals and fish that have either been stranded or are found in New Jersey waters. There is also a gift shop with unique gifts that supports the nonprofit, says founder Bob Schoelkopf.
Walk the plank. They call it "walking the plank" at the famous Lobster House in Cape May (906 Schellengers Landing Rd., 609-884-8296) but really involves eating seafood in one of the most scrumptious and unusual presentations at the Shore. You can order just about any dish off the menu "on the plank" for an extra $3.75 and it comes on a charred piece of oak along with sauteed vegetables, stuffed tomatoes, and mashed potatoes. In a word: Yum.
Ear-nibbling good. Far and wide, folks have heard about the elephant ears at Crust & Crumb Bakery at Bay Village in Beach Haven (Ninth Street & Bay Avenue, 609-492-4966) because they are marvelously large, crunchy, cinnamon-sprinkled treats that you just can't get enough of. Some think they make the best beach snack food around, says Barbara W. Steele, director of Ocean County Public Affairs & Tourism.
Trolley roars. Relive the roaring 1920s in Atlantic City with a new tour being offered Thursdays by Great American Trolley Co. (1-866-872-6737) beginning in June. For $25, with a private guide, trolley riders will hear the tales of grand hotels, speakeasies, and rollicking nightlife during the Golden Age when Nucky Johnson and the rumrunners ruled. The tour also includes lunch at the famed Irish Pub and a keepsake, full-color guide book.
Hidden Theater. The Ocean First Theater (1000 McKinley Ave., Manahawkin, 609-489-8600) is an 800-seat state-of-the-art playhouse operated by the nonprofit Stafford Township Arts Center and the Stafford Township Education Foundation. It's hosted acts ranging from comedian Joy Behar to the band America to student art shows. "I don't think many people even know this is here, but this theater is a jewel in the middle of - Manahawkin. It's a great venue close to Long Beach Island where there is usually a full calendar of events for families to enjoy throughout the year," said Ellen Bernstein, a member of the theater's board of directors.
Beach reads. The greatest thing about Ocean City's Sun Rose Words & Music (756 Asbury Ave., 609-399-9190) - besides its lyrical name - is its owners, who are always available to make a suggestion for the best new beach read. At this independent bookseller that's been around since 1973, they stock all the new best sellers, children's books for those not-so-sunny days, and local interest books that travelers love.
A little off the beaten path, er, Shore. There's a different view from the shoreline at the new Breezes on the Bass River (5724 Route 9, Viking Yacht Center, New Gretna, 609-295-4106), but it's still lovely indeed when the sun sets over the pinelands river. The Allen family, of the nearby rustic Allen's Clam Bar fame, opened this new enterprise last summer to such success they had to double the size of the operation and book 50 local bands this season. Whether you come by land or by sea - boat slips are available for diners - expect local, fresh seafood and ice cold cocktails.
Proof there is more to A.C. than casinos. Tucked away from all the glitz of Atlantic City casinos is the charming Historic Gardner's Basin where the rumrunners used to come to play. Home to the Atlantic City Aquarium/Ocean Life Center (800 N. New Hampshire Ave., 609-348-2880) and a commercial marina that offers sightseeing cruises and deep-sea fishing charters, the village has evolved over the years to include its own artisans colony, a brew pub, and shops.
Everything from flip-flops to vintage beaver coats. Whether you have a black belt in shopping or just dabble, the West End Garage in Cape May (484 W. Perry St., 609-770-8261) is the place for you, says Cathy Pelaez, owner of the opulently refurbished Peter Shields Inn in Cape May. WEG is housed in a circa-1920s Model-T showroom transformed into a cool co-op offering antiques, artisan-made wares, jewelry, designer clothing, home goods, and everything in between. "I've never walked out of there without some fabulous treasure," says Pelaez, who found a vintage sheared beaver coat on a recent foray.
Ah, the lovely sailboats. Nearly every weekend this summer, various member yacht clubs of the venerable Barnegat Bay Yacht Racing Association (www.bbyra.org) will host championship sailing events on the Toms River. These events make for a picturesque view from the shoreline of towns like Island Heights, Ocean Gate, and Pine Beach. Founded in 1914, the association includes 14 sailing yacht clubs from the Barnegat Bay area and fosters amateur competition among adult and junior sailors. The early-morning events are favorites for artists and photographers, as well as sailing aficionados.
Feeling a little crabby? Of all of the places one can sink a trap along New Jersey's coastline, some old-time crabbers insist the best place are the marshy waters of Atlantic County, said Dave "Shep" Dawson, of Egg Harbor Township, a retired fishing boat captain. But forget the boat, Dawson says, just grab the chicken bait and head to the tall grassy meadows near the little creek bridges like those along Mays Landing-Somers Point Road in EHT or Route 30 heading into Atlantic City. "Best thing to do is just sink that bait in a trap and wait," Dawson said. "If you're patient, that sweet goodness will be yours before you know it."
Are you hungry for home? Philadelphia's original Tony Luke's recently opened a new Shore outpost in Wildwood Crest (6200 New Jersey Ave., 609-770-7033) offering all of Philly's favorites including cheesesteaks, hoagies, and roast pork, plus a focus on fish with sandwiches and hoagies.
Still hungry for home, but on a diet? The Lakewood BlueClaws (www.minorleaguebaseball.com) are a minor league Class A team associated with the Philadelphia Phillies playing at FirstEnergy Field in Lakewood Township. Beloved players on the current Phillies roster started here, including Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels and Carlos Ruiz. You can get your baseball fix at the Shore.