LONGPORT, N.J. - If you want to contemplate transformation - the point where one thing ends and another thing begins - there may be no better place than here, at the border of land and sea, as one year turns into another.

In winter, when the sun sets low and nearly over the beach itself - some say the waves even sound different - the faithful still are drawn.

Linda Picciano, 55, of Somers Point, has been driving around beach towns her whole life, but yesterday morning she took a road-not-taken maneuver and wound up at the very tip of Longport, out by the jetty on the island's edge. It was a place that, incredibly, she had never been.

"I decided to go straight instead of turning, and it brought me here," she said, still a little disbelieving as she sat behind the wheel of her blue Chrysler, staring out at the lapping bay waves with the bridge to Ocean City in the distance. "You see, you take a different road and see what it brings you. There's always something different."

It seemed a good thought on a late-December morning, especially in a year that brought new hardships and fears of the future. From Longport, all you had to do was look back toward Atlantic City, where at the Hilton there will be no New Year's Eve entertainment, where hotel departments are being closed one by one, where predictions of demise are common. It's been rough.

Picciano vowed to come back to this spot at sunset, which this time of year offers a big, red ball that hits you straight in the eye when you walk down the beach or ride your bike along Atlantic Avenue.

If summer is defined by the crowds and the heat, winter at the Shore is defined by the solace of the few, the company of dogs, and the tilt of the Earth that results in a waning but lovely winter light that sends shadows stretching three-quarters of a block behind you.

This barrier island's northeast-southwest orientation creates a sort of trick of nature: As you stand at the ocean, the sun is setting off to the right, down the island. In the summer, to see a view like this, you'd have to go to the bay.

It's enough to make you pull out the sunglasses.

"Usually the sun sets over the bay in the summertime," said Amy Buckner, 52, of New York, who has a beachfront home in Margate, where she walked with her dog Henry. "In winter, it sets straight over there. I can see it set from my house."

Buckner said she had noticed more people gathering in Shore homes on winter weekends. And no wonder.

"Look at this," she said. "It's a beautiful place year-round. It's Dec. 30, it's 47 degrees, a good sun. It's healthy. The ocean to me, it's like it cleanses me every time I come back here. Let's hope this year is a bright beginning, and things are less backbiting."

Buckner had found a half-dozen beautiful baby whelk shells, the kind you rarely get to see in summer, when the beach gets raked clean.

Dostoyevsky wrote of the "slanting rays of the setting sun" as if in a dream, one that suggested a vision of happiness and the existence of God. For that, you needed not look any farther than the Jersey beach sunset of this year's Christmas, which burst open like an over-easy egg as it hit the horizon.

For Shore regulars like Larry Ring, 55, his bike route to the tip of Longport just about every day at sunset provides a daily encounter with slanting rays, a reassuring vision of nature's steady hand.

"It's so close," Ring said as he took a break at the jetty with the setting sun behind him. "It's just turned to winter, so it's lower in the horizon."

Rema Navone, 42, a Margate resident all her life, said she never paid much attention to the sun as the seasons changed. But the ocean? That's a different story.

"The waves are different in winter," she insisted as she walked along the water's edge yesterday morning with Boots, her dog. "They don't smash as hard. They are a lot calmer. The sound of them is different. I know that for sure."

Navone insisted it wasn't the absence of screaming children that made the surf more tranquil, nor was it her own state of mind - although more calm would be something she'd be seeking in 2009.

"I'm not calm. My life's not calm," she said adamantly but with a smile. "I don't know if it's the temperature that makes it calmer. You spend all this time on the beach, you notice things. I come here to gather my thoughts and find a center."

New Year's Day at the Shore brings its own traditions, none more evocative than the polar bear plunge, which this year will take place in various locations, including Newport Avenue in Ventnor and near Robert's Place in Margate.

Navone said that her multiple sclerosis would keep her out of the ocean this year, but that she'd still come out for the party. "It's like cleansing myself in God's water."

Back in Longport, Joe Dolobach, 66, of Ventnor, was sitting in his car looking out at the ocean jetty, his fishing rod beside him. He had come from the fishing pier near Ocean City, where he had gotten "one little hit" and nothing more. He was hoping to find others fishing, but nobody was out.

In two weeks, anyway, he's headed for Florida. "It's too cold" to fish, he said before he pulled his car back into the street, past a house where a purple horseshoe had been hung on a nail, a fine omen for a new year if you were looking for one. "But it's nice to look at."

Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 609-823-0453 or arosenberg@phillynews.com.