New Jersey gets a bad rap for being, essentially, the place where New York City’s refuse washes up. Maybe that’s unavoidable for a geographically diminutive, demographically dense state sidled up against America’s biggest city (which is known for its own share of sleaze). But take a step outside New York’s sprawling industrial and suburban hinterlands on the Jersey side of the border, and the state will surprise you.
The official nickname, “Garden State” is not Jersey sarcasm. Much of the state really feels like a green, gloriously overgrown garden. The first surprise for New Jersey visitors will likely be driving through thriving natural scenery, both wild and farmed. This natural beauty reaches its apex in the northwest part of the state, where the Delaware Water Gap – so called for the Delaware River’s meandering pass through gorgeous mountains – offers miles of hiking and canoeing through well-preserved forests and rivers. Quaint, charming towns await on the Pennsylvania side of the border. All this, less than a two-hour drive from NYC.
The southeastern part of the state conceals another natural treasure – the Pine Barrens, a unique ecological region that is largely undeveloped and protected as the Pinelands National Reserve. Huge swathes of pine forest are found here growing on unusual, fine, sandy soil. A number of unique species coexist in the Pine Barrens, collaborating to create an important link in the water systems of the wider region. Hiking trails and other opportunities for recreation abound in this strange and fascinating preserve of millions of acres.
Most visitors, however, are likely to make their first stops at a decidedly more stereotypical Jersey destination: the shore. Here, Atlantic City flaunts its casinos and boardwalk and a number of other, smaller cities capitalize on the beach and its bums. But this is truly fun territory, and the high-end accommodations reserved for high rollers and city slickers out on weekends by the sea certainly help. Ocean City, just down the coast, amps up the retro appeal of the Jersey Shore with an emphasis on family fun. Cape May is the loveliest and most wholesome of the bunch, another hole poked in New Jersey’s negative image. Surrounded by sea and built up with attractive Victorian homes, this little town genuinely dazzles.
Those exploring Jersey as a sideshow to New York, or using it as a base, will actually find plenty of interest not far from the Big Apple. Hoboken, Jersey City, and Newark are smaller cities that have been energetically revitalizing for some time now. Hoboken and Jersey City benefit from a steady exodus of New Yorkers, with all the restaurants and entertainment to tide them over. Both offer great views of New York’s skyline, particularly from Jersey City’s pleasant Liberty State Park. Newark has overcome its difficult past to offer a lively and original dining scene and interesting museums. Meanwhile, Sandy Hook, a wisp of a peninsula sticking out of the far northern Jersey Shore, offers pleasant and interesting views from a beach within sight of the Manhattan skyline. These are oft-overlooked spots worth exploring.
Atlantic City is the East Coast’s own sin city, a wild concoction of grandiose nostalgia, from the city’s own name to the fake retro storefronts lining parts of the boardwalk. One thing Atlantic City unquestionably has over Las Vegas is that boardwalk, looking out over the churning ocean and pleasant beaches. And while there are a number of first-rate casinos here (Borgata, Caesars, and Harrah’s tend to be favorites) visitors might find themselves more interested in the changing historical identities of this oddball place, identities as American as apple pie – or Monopoly, which took its street names from actual Atlantic City streets. The old Absecon Lighthouse has been restored for visitors, a historic experience with incredible views of both the city and the endless ocean. Little perks and interesting tidbits like this are everywhere in Atlantic City, and serve as reminders that this is one of America’s oldest high-end beach resort destinations, long before casinos ever took up residence.
As an enthusiastic hub of capitalist commerce, there’s great shopping in several malls and a wide variety of shops to blow your earnings from roulette or blackjack, or to soften the blow of all those losses. Great food, diverse entertainment, and plush accommodations round out this unique and exciting East Coast Vegas.
1 Garden State Plaza
Paramus, NJ 07652
777 Harrah’s Blvd, Zone B
Atlantic City, NJ 08401