New Jersey has some of the most popular beaches in the nation - despite the fact that few people from out-of-state travel long distances to get there. Jersey residents love and regularly visit their beaches. The northern New Jersey beaches are mainland beaches except for the exceptionally long hook of sand that bends into lower New York Harbor, known as Sandy Hook. This is as far south as the glaciers, which produced nearby Long Island, New York, reached during the last Ice Age.
Many people assume that the sand from New Jersey came from Long Island, which had earlier drifted down from Maine. This is totally incorrect as no sand grains can cross the deep valley of the drowned Hudson River (outer New York Harbor); indeed, divers report a massive buildup of sand and debris in this submarine canyon. Likewise, no sand from the southern end of New Jersey (Cape May) can travel across the wide mouth of Delaware Bay to reach Lewes, Delaware because of the deep water (but you can make the pleasurable journey on the ocean-going ferry boats). Coastal geologists call the outer shoreline of New Jersey, which extends for over 120 miles, a coastal compartment, meaning that no sand can come to or from another beach to these shores.
Longshore currents that carry hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of sand per year along the shore divide in Monmouth County near Asbury Park, New Jersey, flowing both to the north and the south. These headland-type beaches are the source of sand for Sandy Hook to the north and the long system of barrier beaches to the south, such as Island Beach State Park and Long Beach Island. With all the sand going out and none coming in, you can understand why this area, termed a nodal point, is considered the erosion "hot spot" of New Jersey. Neighboring Bradley Beach has had such an erosion problem, trying all sorts of erosion-control devices to little avail, that some residents say that it should just be simply renamed Bradley, N.J. All along these 20 miles of shoreline just about every imaginable shoreline engineering structure has been attempted. In the face of ongoing erosion this stabilization has tended to deface and destroy the natural beach (which people are attempting to save in the first place). This process has been termed "New Jerseyization" by some, such as North Carolinians who do not want to see their grand public beaches along the Outer Banks defamed in the same way in order to save private property.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has lifetimes of guaranteed work in northern New Jersey to bring back and maintain these beaches, and this is exactly what they have been doing in recent years with a projected 50-year cost of over $1 billion. As a former U.S. Senator once said, "A billion dollars here and a billion dollars there, sooner or later it adds up to real money." The present administration is trying to get the federal government out of the sand nourishment and beach-building business, but hometown congressmen keep voting more money for these projects every year. It is not that the beaches don't need the sand, which they desperately do. The question really comes down to: Who profits and who pays? Why should people in Kansas pay for beaches in New Jersey, which they will never visit? Beach nourishment, which is a never-ending process, is considered a coastal subsidy for those who live along the shore.
The northern Jersey coast is known for its boardwalks, beer halls and gaming arcades, frequented by noisy crowds who devour fried food, pizza and funnel cakes washed down with ample portions of beer. There is a lot of shore action here, apart from riding the waves during the daytime; nightlife is a world of exotic dancers, go-go bars, hot legs and wet T-shirt contests. Teenagers and other locals love the boardwalk action, but most travelers will wisely skip this area. There are some nice residential communities tucked along this coastline, notably Mantoloking, but these beaches are not touristy and have little public access. Island Beach State Park is the nature coast of New Jersey and the place to get away from all the honky-tonk town beaches to the north.
The real gem along the New Jersey coast in terms of good quality beaches with the amenities of shore living is Long Beach Island (known locally as LBI). It is hard to believe that there is peace and quiet in the middle of New Jersey. All 18 miles of this barrier island have been developed, largely populated with single-family houses, but no high-rises are allowed. The sand is some of the prettiest that I have seen along the mid-Atlantic coast - quite white and fine by East Coast standards. The water is also surprisingly clean and clear. It turns out that this remarkable water quality is largely due to geography. Long Beach Island is located far away from riverine (Hudson River/New York Harbor and Delaware River/Bay) sources of silt and clay which cloud ocean waters.
Not all is perfect on Long Beach Island (even for those who prefer development over nature) as this island has a history of storm damage. Historic photographs at the LBI Museum vividly show the aftermath of the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962; over a period of five, punishing high tides, storm waves swept over the island, flattening the dunes and destroying many houses. Particularly hard hit was the town of Harvey Cedars near the north end, which was cut to ribbons; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers feverishly pumped sand in the months following this horrendous winter storm to close the inlets and pushed sand shoreward to rebuild the protective sand dunes. Unfortunately, this unbelievable damage could happen again. Nothing has changed in the last three plus decades except that sea level has risen higher and the beaches are now narrower than before this 1962 storm.
Atlantic City holds the title of Top Novelty Beach in the Northeast because here you can truly "gamble on the shore." Legalized gambling has put the glitz back into Atlantic City, whose boardwalk had fallen into disrepair. After the state approved casino gambling in 1976, high-rise hotels sprouted along the boardwalk like weeds in a fallow field. This mecca of sorts draws people by the bus loads from New York City to Washington, D.C. throughout the year; the beach is just window-dressing compared to the real action at the gaming tables, slot machines, and other card and dice games intended to part fools from their money. Atlantic City has been fabulously successful in this respect as plush hotels such as Harrah's, Trump's Place, and Caesar's often give "high rollers" almost free rooms in order to play at their casinos.
A few years ago I was hired as a consultant in Atlantic City on a land dispute matter; the cost of buildable real estate here on the coast probably equals or exceeds anything per foot in the nation. My client's lawyer reserved a room for me at Merv Griffin's Resort Casino Hotel; I paid about $50 per night for a $200 plus suite since he told the hotel staff that I was a high roller. Upon checking out, the cashier at first looked puzzled by my low rate for such an exquisite room, but then she noticed the "high roller" notation at the bottom of the bill and asked me how I did. I told her that I made thousands of dollars - it was a sure thing (thanks to my guaranteed consulting check). This piqued the curiosity of everyone in the room.
The beach at Atlantic City is very wide due to continuing beach nourishment through pumping of sand onshore every five years or whenever it is needed to protect the hotels and infrastructure. This is the last place that the lawmakers and tax collectors in Trenton, the capital of New Jersey, will let fall into the sea. The beach is mostly needed as storm protection as the water is not all that inviting; it is usually a bit turbid from the range of material (small pebbles to clay, but mostly sand) that is routinely dredged up from the ocean bottom a few miles offshore. The lifeguards at Atlantic City are known as some of the best in the business, and it is both interesting and entertaining to watch them go through their water safety drills, especially when they launch the little wooden boats (dories) through the breaking waves.
Southern New Jersey beaches are generally the widest and slope gently into the water, making them fairly safe beaches for children and adults alike, barring big wave days when rip currents can develop through low places in the outer bar. The sand becomes finer southward along the New Jersey coast from the source area in Monmouth County, and the fine sand accounts for the gently sloping beach and overall safe waters for swimming. All the major beaches, including Ocean Beach and Avalon, are well patrolled by certified lifeguards. While Ocean City has had its share of erosion problems and beach nourishment projects, Avalon's beach is wide and virtually non-erosive and high quality by comparison.
The widest beach in New Jersey and perhaps on the East Coast is North Wildwood; nature has been greatly enhanced by the build-up of sand on the north jetty of the Cape May Canal so that the beach is hundreds of yards wide. In fact, some people complain about the long walk on the hot summer sand to the refreshing ocean water. Such a wide beach means that there is plenty of space for hundreds of volleyball nets and other beach activities. The town promoters have taken advantage of this incredibly wide, sandy beach by recently introducing beach golf to the world. With seemingly endless beach volleyball courts and other sport activities, North Wildwood Beach is designated as the Best Sports Beach in the Northeast.
Cape May at the south end of New Jersey's shore is America's oldest seaside resort and a great place to visit now that the Corps of Engineers has pumped the beach back. Beachcombing around the point of Cape May can produce more than just the average shell; Cape May "diamonds" are occasionally found on the beach. These pebbles of pure quartz can be polished, cut and set to make attractive jewelry. I have really enjoyed my weekend stays at the wonderful Victorian bed & breakfast hotels, my personal favorite being the Chalfonte with its huge, wrap-around porch. The entire town of historic Cape May, which has had its sand robbed by the same Cape May Canal jetties that have made Wildwood's beaches so huge, is a national landmark and well worthy of this designation. Spring is the best time for a visit by nature lovers when there is the annual northern migration of shorebirds, which stop over at Cape May State Park on Delaware Bay. Hundreds of thousands of birds make this yearly pilgrimage, stopping to feed on a tremendously abundant food supply - the eggs of the horseshoe crabs laid on the Delaware Bay beaches. This is a wildlife spectacle to behold.
New Jersey Division of Travel & Tourism
20 W. State Street, CN 826
Trenton, NJ 08625-0826