There's plenty of free fun to be had by the sea for Shore loyalists. Here are 10 suggestions:
1. Hard to beat seeing 430 animals of 250 different species for free at the Cape May County Zoo, on Moore Road in Cape May Court House. There are no gorillas or elephants, but practically everything else, from lions and tigers to ground hogs and exotic birds. Head for the Savannah exhibit along the boardwalk through a cool wooded area. If you have kids, consider signing them up for zoo camp ($90 a week for kindergarten through 8th graders). Info, 609-465-5271.
2. You won't need tickets to enjoy these Ocean City amusements: Start with the Freckle Contest on July 3; stick around for Sand Sculpting on July 9; don't miss the Miss Crustacean Hermit Crab Pageant and races on Aug. 6, or Weird Week in mid-August. It's Shore silliness at its best, and all for free. Go to www.ocnj.us for details.
3. BYOB — as in Bring Your Own Bike. Towns with boardwalks and promenades allow biking along the shoreline most mornings, which is the best time to ride anyway. Atlantic City, Ventnor, Ocean City, Sea Isle, Avalon, the Wildwoods and Cape May all offer wonderful beachfront bike riding. Nothing like watching the morning sun sparkle on the waves.
4. Casino-sponsored beach bars in Atlantic City have been upping their free entertainment quotients in the last couple of years. They have long had house bands and dancing, but now you might find comics, magic acts, acrobats and even boxing matches in beachside rings.
If you really want a cheapie, listen to the music from a perch on the Boardwalk, but it all goes down better with at least a Diet Coke at barside.
5. Each summer evening, there is a cute Sunset Ceremony at Cape May Point, a little bit of nonpartisan patriotism. Most often, you can hear a recording of Kate Smith singing "God Bless America," to which most of those in attendance sing along. Sometimes, a veteran's ashes are slipped into the ocean by relatives. Occasionally, there's even a military fly-over.
Three or four times a summer, the Coast Guard Training and Support Center Cape May, along the southern border of the Cape May Canal, has its Sunset Parade, where new recruits do snappy military drills to commemorate their graduation. More at www.uscg.mil/hq/capeMay.
6. Let's go surfing — now! There are more and more surfers riding South Jersey waves every year. Several high schools have competitive clubs and more local shops offer lessons. Surfers come out early mornings and late afternoons, and are more ubiquitous in late summer when a hurricane passes near, pumping up the wave action. Best for watching and surfing is probably the stretch of sand near 100th Street that's known as Nun's Beach, in Stone Harbor.
7. Still free — at least in a few towns — are the beaches themselves. Even as fees climb in the towns that charge them, there are still three South Jersey Shore towns where sand doesn't cost a thing: Atlantic City and the Wildwoods are the most crowded, but free-beach aficionados also head to tiny Strathmere, the waterfront of Upper Township at the northern tip of the island that mostly contains Sea Isle City.
8. Every summer Friday at about 10:30 p.m., Wildwood treats its visitors to fireworks on the beach. Catch them right around Pine Avenue. More about Wildwood at www.dowildwood.com.
9. On a rainy day, check out the free historical museum in the town of your choice. Avalon is promoting figures of presidents made by their school children. Stone Harbor's museum shows then-and-now photographs of various streetscapes. Atlantic City's museum is the most extensive, on the old Garden Pier. It houses the massive photography archives of Al Gold, the city's official photographer in its heyday from 1939-1964.
10. Take an educational turn at the Marine Mammal Stranding Center. It's open now, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends. Starting June 14, this unique institution will be open daily. These are the folks who rescue all those dolphins and whales you see beached on the evening news. Learn how these unlucky sea creatures are nurtured until they can be released. There's no admission, but donations are gratefully accepted. More at marinemammalstrandingcenter.org.