Jersey – The Cancun of the Northeast?

Our daughter wanted to go on a family vacation to Cancun for her college graduation. After graduating Summa Cum Laude, we figured she deserved it. So, being the good parents that we are, we obliged. After clearing the dates with everyone we made the arrangements. Hotel? Check. Flights? Check. Research places to go, things to do? Check. Check.

Everyone was getting excited for some much needed time away – especially after being locked down for the past 15 months. Cancun, here we come.

Of course, like any college grad, she went to work looking for a full-time job. As an Early Education major, she knew her window to get hired for the upcoming school year was limited. After scouring websites and job postings, she narrowed her search to a handful of schools and applied. Before she knew it, she accepted a position at one of the more prestigious charter schools in the NATION, let alone the state. Wahoo!

Then, life happened. She quickly found out that while the school year was scheduled to begin in August, her first day of orientation/training would take place in July, smack dab in the middle of our scheduled trip to Cancun.

Oh well. Welcome to adulting.

Now we needed to reschedule the plans for vacation, but it was worth the trade for her first “real” job.

From the time we initially booked our flights until now, the flights to Cancun had doubled for any potential date we had available to us. So… Instead of tropical beaches and umbrella drinks, we decided to visit family and take in the Jersey beaches to show the kids the sand on which we grew up.

While we were all excited to visit with family and friends, I must admit, it was tough to make the call to American Airlines to change the flight from Cancun to Newark. And don’t even get me started on the price of car rentals. Overall, our trip to Jersey would end up costing more than our trip to Cancun.

Regardless, we were excited for the trip!

After landing, we headed straight south towards the beaches. Our first stop was the Mud City Crab House for dinner in Manahawkin. There’s just something about eating seafood steps from the ocean. This place was jammed and after about a 45 minute wait, we were seated and ready to dig in!

By the time we finished dinner, it was late and we headed for our hotel in Atlantic City. We decided to stay at the Sheraton Convention Center. Not a bad place. The hotel opened in 1997, just after the adjacent Convention Center. While it’s not on the beach, it was a short 15 minute walk to the boardwalk.

The hotel has become the unofficial headquarters of the Miss America Pageant, with memorabilia displayed throughout the lobby and along the exterior.

On the walk to the beach, the street is lined with plaques, ala Hollywood Boulevard, honoring the previous Miss America winners. We caught this one of Vonda Van Dyke from Phoenix. She was crowned in 1965. Vonda was the first contestant to use ventriloquism as her talent.

Our morning walk along the famous Boardwalk brought back plenty of memories. It didn’t take much to stir them because it seemed that not much has changed in the 40 years since we last visited. Sure, there some new casinos, but the shops are still selling T-Shirts, Taffy, and keychains. Did you know that the James Taffy is shorted and more bite-sized than the longer and skinnier Fralingers?

And the Steel Pier is still offering frightening (and overpriced) rides and games. The 1,000-foot-long pier was built in 1898 and became one of the most popular attractions in the country for decades up until the 1970s. At one point the Pier was expanded to be almost 2,300 feet in length. The pier was shuttered after a decline in tourism in the 1970s, then was destroyed by fire in 1982. It’s current length was established in the early 1990s when it was rebuilt and opened as the “Trump Steel Pier”. Over the years, it hosted concerts, exhibits and of course, the amusement park.

Make no mistake, back in the day, the Pier was THE place to be. Frank Sinatra, Bill Haley & The Comets, Diana Ross and many others performed there. And it wasn’t just musicians either. Miss America was actually crowned on the Pier for a couple of years in the 1930s.

At one point, the Pier was home to a Diving Horse that would jump off the pier and into a pool of water below. Believe it or not, that act lasted until the early 1970s – when animal rights activists got it shut down. Someone tried to revive the act in 2012, but met opposition. Ya think?

The Steel Pier was involved in the early days of climate change and changing sea levels conversations as well. A device was added to the pier to measure the sea level. From 1929-1978 it was thought that the sea was rising for most of the years – except for a period from 1945-1953. It turned out that the large crowds, in part due to the Diving Horse act, were responsible for the pier settling into the sand below. Why was there no rise from 1945-1953? There was a hiatus on the Diving Horse act and crowds were much smaller!

Today, the pier is owned by a family and continues on as an amusement park. The Ferris Wheel that was added in 2017 dominates the skyline.

You can also pick up a helicopter ride on the pier from Steel Pier Helicopters. The $60 tour whizzes you along the shoreline so you can catch the views of the beach and boardwalk from 600ft in the air. When the chopper fires up, it creates another scene for those on the pier.

Walking out on the pier provides a unique perspective of the beach and boardwalk. Here you can see some of the newer additions to the north Atlantic City skyline, the Hard Rock Casino Tower on the left built in 2008 and the Ocean Casino Resort on the right built in 2012 as they flank the much older Showboat Casino which dates back to 1987.

One of the casinos we ventured in was the Hard Rock – located just across the Boardwalk from the Pier. This place used to be the Trump Taj Mahal. The first tower that houses the casino originally opened in 1990 under Trump and eventually closed in Oct 2016. The property was purchased by the Hard Rock group and reopened in 2018.

While it didn’t look like much from the outside, the inside still looked brand new and felt fresh and clean. The marble floor had guitar picks and the chandelier was in the shape of a guitar.

They too had a mini-museum honoring all of the Jersey musicians. From Sinatra to Springsteen, Little Steven to Southside Johnny and everyone in between.

The next stop on our journey took us to Cape May – the small town at the very tip of southern New Jersey, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Delaware Bay. As a total coincidence, our friends Lisa and Donnie were also vacationing in Cape May this week! They’ve been enjoying the town every year for the past 30+ years – and we quickly found out why.

We caught up with them and they gave us the tour around town. Cape May proclaims to be the oldest vacation resort town in the United States.

It’s also home to the second-largest concentration of Victorian style homes outside of San Francisco.

Home or Steamboat?

While the town was originally settled in the 1600s and named after a Dutch settler Cornelius Mey, it wasn’t until the mid-1700s that Philadelphians began appreciate the seaside resort town. Today, the town is home to 5,000 people during the winter and swells to over 50,000 in the summer. It’s become a destination, once again, for many weddings and honeymoons. In fact, while in San Diego recently, I met a guy who was on his way to Cape May for a friend’s wedding.

Of course, any seaside town located in such a strategic location for maritime traffic needs to have a lighthouse. The one in Cape May doesn’t disappoint. It’s owned today by the State of New Jersey and leased to an organization responsible for its upkeep. The tower was built in 1859 and stands tall at over 157 feet.

The Lighthouse is located not far from another lookout tower – one that was built during WWII after the USS Jacob Jones was sunk off the coast of Cape May by a Nazi submarine on February 28, 1942. Only 11 of the 110+ men aboard survived the incident that marked the first US ship sunk since Pearl Harbor. Coincidentally, this was the second USS Jacob Jones that was sunk by a German U-Boat – the first occurring in December 1916 during WWI in which 44 of her 110 US sailors survived.

During WWII, Cape May quickly became a military installation due to its strategic location at the mouth of the Delaware Bay – which leads to the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and massive oil refineries. It was then that they built the Cape May Canal – an alternative access point for ships to enter the ocean without having to traverse the mouth of the Bay where German U-Boats were known to patrol – and sunk several ships within a mile of the Jersey coast.

Ships (Merchant & Military) hit by U-Boats in 1942

The waters off Cape May were also in a story my father shared with me about his time in the Navy during WWII. During the war, he was a Plane Captain – essentially in charge of the health and maintenance of a specific plane. He served in VJ-4 out of Norfolk, VA and his squadron was assigned to patrol the East Coast with Torpedo Bombers, like the TBM below.

TBM at Mesa’s Commemorative Air Museum

The pilot of his plane was Lt. Robert Braun. Braun, an American with German heritage, was called to Cape May to translate during the capture of U-858, a German U-Boat that was captured off the coast of Nova Scotia and was escorted to Cape May to ultimately surrender the vessel.

Lt Braun (c) translates

While we didn’t have time to check out the Naval Air Station (NAS) Wildwood Aviation Museum, you can bet it will be on the list for the next trip. The Museum includes several planes including a TBM like my father worked on.

It would seem rare to catch a sunset over water while in New Jersey, but just west of Cape May sits aptly named Sunset Beach. It’s here where the lookout tower looms over the bay. But it’s also here where countless tourists catch the last rays of sunshine that brightened their day on the beach. The horizon hides Delaware which is about 17 miles across the Bay.

Before heading out of Jersey, we took a quick spin by Brigantine, another beach town just north of Atlantic City. It was here that my wife’s family and friends vacationed for years while in her youth. The town’s major attraction during that time (1976-1985) was the Brigantine Castle – a haunted house that was built on a pier.

The Castle was forced to close due to a tragedy at another New Jersey haunted house. Great Adventure’s haunted house experienced a fire in which six teenagers were killed in 1984. The accident put pressure on the owners of the Castle to make improvements and they ultimately closed their doors.

The beach here was noticeably quieter than the more densely populated Atlantic City Beach.

After reminiscing in Brigantine, we were on our way out of town toward our next destination – Philly.

Sure, it’s no Cancun, but the Jersey shore brings back so many great memories. And while I’m guessing my kids would have enjoyed the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico and umbrella drinks on the beach, this experience will live a lifetime within them as well. Generations to come will continue making their memories along the Jersey Shore thanks to all those who served in WWII.

Stop wondering. Start wandering!

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