For residents of New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, a vacation to the Jersey Shore has long been attractive because of the beaches, arcades, amusement parks, shopping and fun.
But groups across the country might consider a trip there because of other bonuses, including history, museums, diverse restaurants and nature adventures from birding to whale watching. Just as monarch butterflies visit on their way south each year, New Jersey tourism leaders believe groups will continue to make the Garden State a regular stop once they’ve experienced its multitude of attractions.
Here are four great coastal communities to consider on your group’s next trip to the Jersey Shore.
Cape May Magic
At the state’s southern tip, where the Atlantic meets Delaware Bay, Cape May enjoys its reputation as one of the best birding sites in North America. Sitting at the intersection of two migration routes, the community attracts warblers and songbirds in the spring, and hawks, falcons, eagles and other raptors in the fall.
Each May, the city’s World Series of Birding brings visitors from all over the world who come to witness the migration up close.
“It’s an amazing event,” said Diane Wieland, Cape May County’s director of tourism. “It’s really something for nature-lover tour groups with the birds, the butterfly migration, and the dolphins and whales. “
When the Monarchs head south each fall, visitors are amazed to see vegetation covered by the black-and-orange beauties.
In addition to its natural attractions, Cape May features one of the largest collections of Victorian buildings in America. When the homes are decorated for the holidays and the streets echo with carolers’ songs, a visit feels like stepping back in time.
“Cape May owns Christmas in the state of New Jersey,” Wieland said. “It may take time to book [a group trip there], but it will be worth it. It is quite magical.”
The city is home to the 157-foot Cape May Lighthouse, and unlike many beach communities, the oceanfront is close to farmland, where crops from herbs to grapes are produced for local restaurants and wineries. Guests can fish all day and bring their catch to local restaurants to be cleaned, cooked and consumed.
At the community’s Sunset Beach, everyone gathers each evening for a ceremony to honor one deceased veteran. Car and Harley engines are shut off and hats are removed as “God Bless America” and “The Star Spangled Banner” play on the loudspeaker.
Also at Sunset Beach, visitors can see the wreckage of the SS Atlantus, an experimental ship built with concrete during World War I. Another pastime is collecting quartz crystals called “Cape May diamonds,” which wash up there, and then having them polished and made into jewelry.
Located near Cape May, the Wildwoods is the collective term used to describe four communities on Wildwood Island, including the city of Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, West Wildwood and North Wildwood.
A major reason for its popularity is that the five-mile beach — touted as the widest and largest on the East Coast — is free. Its 38-block boardwalk contains more rides than Disneyland and is packed with shops and restaurants, creating a carnival atmosphere.
There has been a restaurant renaissance outside the boardwalk that has widened the choices of ethnic foods and gourmet menus, and beer lovers will find multiple craft options, including breweries such as the Bucket Brigade, Behr Brewing and The 7 Mile Brewery.
For those wanting a unique culinary experience, visitors can turn breakfast into an adventure by dining with fine china on white linen tablecloths while riding the 156-foot-tall Morey’s Piers Ferris wheel.
There are three waterparks and so many festivals and things to do that local tourism leaders call the Wildwoods the events capital of the East Coast.
One of the best-known festivals takes place this year October 14–15: the Wildwood ’50s, ’60s and ’70s Weekend. Played every June at Ringer Stadium, the Nation Marbles Tournament is also a popular and well-attended event for both competitors and spectators.
“There are free outdoor concerts, a ton of things for families to do and not just the beach or boardwalk,” said Tracey DuFault, executive director of the Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce. “There’s fishing, boating and water sports, along with fireworks on the boardwalk every Friday night.
Bands play regularly, and the August 27 concert by the Beach Boys headlines this year’s summer concert schedule.
Wildwoods guests enjoy deep sea fishing trips, dolphin and whale watching, and dinner cruises.
Every Saturday morning from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the Downtown Wildwood Farmers Market pulses with life from vendors selling baked goods, gifts and fresh Jersey produce.
Located just miles from the Statue of Liberty and New York City attractions, Elizabeth combines history, dining, shopping and nightlife in one affordable package.
In addition to its proximity to Newark’s seaport, Elizabeth provides easy access to the Garden State Parkway, Newark Liberty International Airport, train stations and ferry rides to New York City.
The history of New Jersey and America both have strong ties to Elizabeth, which is why Boxwood Hall is a must see. Alexander Hamilton visited. George Washington had lunch there before being ferried to New York to be sworn in as president. Revolutionary war hero Marquis de Lafayette also stayed there.
Liberty Hall Museum chronicles hundreds of years of American history and houses collections of furniture, toys and tools. It has antique fire engines and a rare American LaFrance steam engine.
Another historic building, the 2,800-seat Ritz Theatre, brings style to the performing arts with its chandelier, murals and marble floors.
The Mills at Jersey Gardens is the state’s largest outlet mall with over 200 stores, and one reason more than 19 million visitors go there each year — and to other retailers in the state — is because New Jersey has no sales tax on clothes or shoes.
Elizabeth has a path for walking, running and biking called the Elizabeth River Trail, which features local art and goes to midtown Elizabeth. From there, users can connect to the Goethals Bridge and Staten Island.
A greenway along the river was first proposed by Frederick Olmsted, America’s father of landscape architecture. Before he became the architect of New York City’s Central Park, Olmstead designed Elizabeth’s beautiful Warinanco Park, which has an ice skating rink in the winter, trails and a winding waterway.
“He did our park first,” said Jennifer Costa, executive director for the Elizabeth Destination Marketing Organization. “It’s a great outdoor place to go.”
Finally, Elizabeth is home to a wide variety of cultures, making its culinary choices extremely broad.
“We are a dining melting pot,” Costa said. “You can have dinner in Columbia or lunch in Portugal.”
Atlantic City Casinos
It’s the only city in New Jersey that provides casino gaming on the beach, and with nine casinos in Atlantic City, there is plenty of it. “AC” boasts having America’s first boardwalk, the state’s tallest lighthouse and 32 golf courses in or near the city.
“There are so many firsts in Atlantic City,” said Heather Colache, director of tourism for Meet AC. “We also have the oldest working pipe organ in the world, and it is being restored. They do free tours and give a short concert at Boardwalk Hall.”
Gamers who want to enjoy sea breezes can walk outside the casinos carrying their beverage of choice while strolling the boardwalk.
Among the many culinary delights, including some of the best seafood around, one local favorite is Gilchrist Restaurant, located on the bay, where the blueberry pancakes for breakfast are a specialty.
At North Beach Atlantic City, the Steel Pier has games, helicopter rides over the Atlantic and the Wheel, a 227-foot tall Ferris wheel — lit with changing colors at night — overlooking the ocean and boardwalk. Riders get a 10-minute ride in temperature-controlled gondolas.
Steel Pier has event space for groups with discounts and menus from barbeques to pizza parties to buffets.
The Absecon Lighthouse shines every night and is open to the public. Although no longer used as an active navigational aid, the lighthouse includes a re-creation of the keepers’ quarters, a museum and a gift shop.
In addition to the Fourth of July fireworks, one of the largest Atlantic City events will take place August 24: Thunder Over the Boardwalk. Guests come in by boat and also watch from the resorts and the boardwalk.
Performers pack the seats at casinos and other venues across town. Summer headliners include New Kids On the Block, the Black Crowes, Lynard Skynard, Alicia Keys and many more.
One popular attraction is Lucy the Elephant, a six-story elephant built of wood and tin sheeting just five miles south of AC. People tour and take in the spectacular view of the barrier islands at top.