Date of Trip: August 2006
Every summer since I was born I’ve spent at least a week in Ocean City, New Jersey. It’s located in South Jersey, a few towns below Atlantic City and a few towns above Cape May. All the shore towns down there have some similarities (the ocean, of course, as well as certain chain stores/restaurants), but they each have their own personality and feel.
Cape May is all about Victorian charm, while Wildwood is a bit like I imagine Las Vegas to be, in that it glories in its own tackiness. Atlantic City is the only real “city” down there, and it’s less about the beach and more about the big silly casinos. (I freely admit I’m biased here, since I hate gambling and can’t imagine why you’d skip the beach and the ocean and the sunshine in order to sit inside with artificial lights and beeping machines stealing your money!) Avalon, on the other hand, is small and quiet.
So what about Ocean City? I think it’s somewhere in the middle — there’s more going on here than in places like Avalon, but it’s still got a lot more charm than A.C. or Wildwood. The main thing about Ocean City is that it’s very much a town for families. The visitors’ bureau bills it as America’s Greatest Family Resort, which is of course a bit of hyperbole, but the fact remains that it’s a fabulous place to bring kids. Part of it is that it’s a “dry” town, so there aren’t any bars, and none of the restaurants serve alcohol. That means that the town attracts fewer college kids looking to just get trashed. (I think they go to Wildwood instead!) Beer and wine lovers, not to worry: Circle Liquors does a brisk business, located on the traffic circle just before the bridge into Ocean City.
Ocean City is also a very safe town — there’s the occasional petty theft, but for the most part we’ve never had any worries about leaving our house unlocked (no, I’m not telling you where it is!), leaving our towels/chairs on the beach while we swim, leaving our bikes unattended on the boardwalk while we pop into a store, etc.
The nearest airport to Ocean City is the one in Atlantic City, which I believe is pretty small. Otherwise your best bets are probably Philadelphia and Newark. I don’t think most folks fly though; most of O.C.’s visitors are from Philly, New York or various areas in between. They go trundling along the A.C. Expressway (from Philly) or the Garden State Parkway (from NYC) with minivans or SUV’s laden to the gills with beach toys, bathing suits, bikes, boats and all manner of other stuff.
Where to Stay
There are plenty of lodging options in Ocean City, from little Victorian B&B’s to the enormous pink Port-O-Call Hotel right on the boardwalk around 15th St. The most popular option, though, is to rent a house or condo for a week. Rentals usually go Saturday to Saturday, and are a particularly economical choice for families and big groups since you can split the cost and do your own cooking.
I can’t really recommend individual places to stay since we always go to my grandparents’, but I can give a little advice on choosing a location. If you want to be near the beach, try to avoid staying on streets like Bay, West, Simpson and Haven — these are on the western side of the island near the bay, and are quite a few blocks from the ocean. You’ll do better on streets like Atlantic, Ocean and Wesley. And if you want to be close to the boardwalk, be aware that it runs from 1st St. to 23rd St., with most of the shops and restaurants located between 6th and 14th.
That said, Ocean City isn’t that big of an island — so if you have a bike, you can get just about anywhere.
What to Do
The primary attraction is, of course, the beach. Ocean City has fairly wide beaches (especially as you go further south into the higher-numbered streets), and they’re usually pretty clean. However, this is New Jersey — so don’t expect crystal-clear waters or brilliant white sand! Beaches are lifeguarded until 5 on weekdays and 5:30 on weekends. After that, you swim at your own risk.
To get onto the beach during the summer months (between the Memorial and Labor Day weekends), you’ll need a beach tag, which I believe can be purchased in a few different locations on the boardwalk. You may also be able to get them from the main tourist office, which is on your right as you approach the 9th Street Bridge to get onto the island. (Sorry I’m a little fuzzy on beach tags — my grandmother is always the one to buy ours.) I believe you can buy day or week passes as well as seasonal ones. There are usually folks checking for beach tags at the entrances to the beaches between 10 and 5 (approximately). You don’t need a tag in the evenings or early in the morning.
The other main attraction in Ocean City is its boardwalk, which as I mentioned runs from 1st St. to 23rd St. Biking, running and walking on the boardwalk are very popular — if you go from one end to the other and back, it’s about five miles. Bikes are only allowed until noon, but frankly, if you want to go any faster than a crawl, I recommend getting out there before 9 a.m. to avoid the crowds. It can get especially crowded on weekends.
If you’re walking on the boardwalk in the morning, try to stay as far to the right as possible so that joggers and bikers can pass you. The boardwalk is widest between 5th and 14th — there you’ll find separate lanes for pedestrians, surreys (large bikes holding 4 – 10 people), bikes and joggers; try to stick to your appropriate lane if possible.
On the boardwalk are countless places to shop, eat and play. My favorite ice cream place is Kohr Brothers, while you’ll find the best pizza (and the longest lines) at Mack & Manco’s. Both eateries have multiple locations on the boardwalk. My family has always agreed that the area right around 12th St. is the best part of the boardwalk — there you’ll find a Mack and Manco’s, a Kohr Brothers, an Atlantic book store, two great mini-golf courses (Jungle Falls and Pirate Golf), a Fenwick’s (good for cinnamon buns or donuts) and even a public restroom.
Other boardwalk highlights include two amusement parks, Wonderland and Castaway Cove. Don’t expect huge rollercoasters here, but there are a few. Wonderland has the bigger Ferris wheel — you can get on and see all the way to Atlantic City.
Mini-golf courses are a dime a dozen — my faves are the aforementioned Pirate Golf and Jungle Falls, as well as the course right next to the big water park down around 7th St. (can’t remember the name, unfortunately). There are a bunch of smaller ones that are better for kids, like Goofy Golf, which was my favorite as a little tyke.
In terms of shopping, you’ll find many places selling T-shirts, sweatshirts, bathing suits, postcards and whatever the fad of the year is (in the past it’s been bags with big sequins, shorts with “Ocean City” or “Lifeguard” across the rear end, etc.). I do have a few favorite stores — I love Barefoot Trading Company (between 12th and 13th) for sarongs and cute little sundresses, Mia’s Christmas Shop (around 10th) for lovely glass ornaments, and of course the Atlantic Bookstore (several locations, with the biggest one between 12th and 13th).
Other than the beach and the boardwalk, there are plenty of other things to do in Ocean City. People do a lot of outdoorsy stuff — like biking, kayaking, sailing, parasailing and fishing. There’s a fishing pier right next to the Longport Bridge at the north end of the island, or you can try your luck at the end of the 5th St. jetty.
You can also go shopping downtown — most of the stores are along Asbury Ave. The lovely gardens at Leaming’s Run are on Route 9 not far away, and you can easily do day or half-day trips to Cape May or Atlantic City if you want a change of scene. But if you’re anything like me, it won’t be long before you’re heading back to Ocean City!