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Better beaches beckon than in NJ

Shore in summer is a not-so-hot vacation spot

By Daniel A. Cirucci

Goin' downashore this summer? Don't look for me there. Not at the Jersey Shore, anyway.

Even though I live only an hour away, it has been years since I've ventured to South Jersey's beaches for vacation. And when I do go to Atlantic City, Ocean City, Wildwood or Cape May, it's almost never for more than a day.

I've always felt that all of the so-called "resorts" at the Jersey Shore were terribly overrated. Yes, I know they are convenient. But after that, there's not very much that you can say on their behalf.

Maybe I've been prejudiced by a burning youth. When I was a youngster, our family would vacation in Wildwood. We stayed on the third floor of an old rooming house seven blocks from the beach. The rooms were clean and tidy, and the tariff included maid service and two meals a day, served family-style. Each morning, precisely at 7 a.m., the proprietor blared Kate Smith singing "God Bless America" on a loudspeaker. That meant that breakfast was ready. If you did not present yourself downstairs in the dining hall by 9 a.m., you were out of luck. In the evening, dinner was served according to a similar schedule, and guests were expected to be on time.

The daily trek to the beach was excruciating: block after block of blistering concrete and asphalt. Even then the Wildwood beach was long and dense, with fine sand that sank between your toes and up to your ankles. In contrast to the blistering heat, the water seemed icy cold and often rough, and there were frequent warnings of riptides and undertows.

I hated being knocked down by the waves and then having sand blown all over me as I walked through the crowded beach and back to our space. When it was all over, I'd trek back with the rest of the clan – sunburned, sandy and irritable. In the evening my skin felt like it was on fire.

Today, the summer Jersey Shore is just as hot, the water is just as cold and, if anything, the Shore towns are more crowded and congested than ever. In Ocean City, you'll find block after block of dreary duplexes all looking exactly the same. They are so close together that if your neighbor sneezes, you're likely to catch a cold. In Atlantic City's casinos, you'll find that you are still assaulted by secondhand smoke, ladies with big hair and bad makeup, and guys with pinky rings. And in Wildwood, teens still run wild, beer bellies still abound, and the messages that adorn cheap t-shirts are more offensive than ever.

When it comes time for my summer vacation I hop in my car and drive to a tropical island where Palmetto trees, magnolias, exotic birds and crape myrtle are plentiful, and you may even see an alligator or two. On this island, you don't need beach tags to enjoy the smooth, inviting beach, and the sea is calm with an ocean temperature that's more like bathwater.

You can walk, jog, rollerblade or bicycle for miles under lush tropical foliage along well-maintained paths. Dolphins dance in the waters, where fishing, boating, crabbing and shrimping beckon. And when you are not golfing on world-famous courses you can play tennis on championship-style clay courts. Shopping and dining choices are endless, and the friendly natives speak in a slow drawl that invites you to linger. At night as you walk along the beach you can enjoy a sky that is literally bedazzled with stars.

My destination is not convenient, and it's not for everyone. So, if you don't feel like driving 12 or 13 hours on Interstate 95, don't go there. Forget about it if you need casinos or flashy nightlife or in-your-face beach mates. Stay home if you're looking for a boardwalk, wild rides or sleazy pick-up joints.

I've discovered a place downashore that I can really fall in love with. One that makes me never look back. It's called Hilton Head.