The skinny coastal state of NEW JERSEY has been at the heart of US history since the Revolution, when a battle was fought at Princeton, and George Washington spent two bleak winters at Morristown. As the Civil War came, the state’s commitment to an industrial future ensured that, despite its border location along the Mason–Dixon Line, it fought with the Union.
That commitment to industry has doomed New Jersey in modern times; most travellers only see “the Garden State”, so called for the rich market garden territory at the state’s heart, from the stupendously ugly New Jersey Turnpike toll road, which is always heavy with truck traffic. Even the songs of Bruce Springsteen, Asbury Park’s golden boy, paint his home state as a gritty urban wasteland of empty lots, grey highways, lost dreams and blue-collar heartache. The majority of the refineries and factories actually hug only a mere fifteen-mile-wide swath along the turnpike, but bleak cities like Newark, home to the major airport, and Trenton, the forgettable capital, reinforce the dour image. But there is more to New Jersey than factories and pollution. Alongside its revolutionary history, the northwest corner near the Delaware Water Gap is traced with picturesque lakes, streams and woodlands, while in the south, the town of Princeton adds architectural elegance to the interior with the grand buildings of its Ivy League university.
Best of all, the Atlantic shore, which suffered some of the worst damage during Hurricane Sandy offers a 130-mile stretch of almost uninterrupted resorts – some rowdy, some run-down, some undeveloped and peaceful. The beaches, if occasionally crowded, are safe and clean: sandy, broad and lined by characteristic wooden boardwalks, some of them charge admission during the summer, in an attempt to maintain their condition. The rowdy, sleazy glitz of Atlantic City is perhaps the shore’s best-known attraction, though there are also quieter resorts like Spring Lake and Victorian Cape May.Read More
What they wanted was Monte Carlo. They didn’t want Las Vegas. What they got was Las Vegas. We always knew that they would get Las Vegas.
- Stuart Mendelson, Philadelphia Journal
Atlantic City, on Absecon Island just off the midpoint of the Jersey shoreline, has been a tourist magnet since 1854, when Philadelphia speculators created it as a rail terminal resort. In 1909, at the peak of the seaside town’s popularity, Baedeker wrote “there is something colossal about its vulgarity” – a glitzy, slightly monstrous quality that it sustains today. The real-life model for the modern version of the board game Monopoly, it has an impressive popular history, boasting the nation’s first boardwalk (1870), the world’s first Ferris wheel (1892), the first colour postcards (1893) and the first Miss America Beauty Pageant (1921 – it only moved to Las Vegas in 2006). During Prohibition and the Depression, Atlantic City was a centre for rum-running, packed with speakeasies and illegal gambling dens. Thereafter, in the face of increasing competition from Florida, it slipped into a steep decline, until desperate city officials decided in 1976 to open up the decrepit resort to legal gambling, now its mainstay. The city also has a huge Latino population.
CAPE MAY was founded in 1620 by the Dutch Captain Mey, on the small hook at the very southern tip of the Jersey coast, jutting out into the Atlantic and washed by the Delaware Bay on the west. Though the town began its day as a whaling and farming community, in 1745 the first advertisement for Cape May’s restorative air and fine accommodation appeared in the Philadelphia press, heralding a period of great prosperity through tourism, aided by the town’s superb beaches.
The Victorian era was Cape May’s finest, when Southern plantation owners flocked to the fashionable boarding houses of this genteel “resort of Presidents”. Nearly all its gingerbread architecture dates from a mass rebuilding after a severe fire in 1878. Today, the whole town is a National Historic Landmark, with more than six hundred Victorian buildings, tree-lined streets, beautifully kept gardens and a lucrative B&B industry.
Cape May’s brightly coloured houses were built by nouveau riche Victorians with a healthy disrespect for subtlety. Cluttered with cupolas, gazebos, balconies and “widow’s walks”, the houses follow no architectural rules except excess. They were known as “patternbook homes”, with designs and features chosen from catalogues and thrown together in accordance with the owner’s taste.
In October 2012 a huge section of the northeastern seaboard from the Carolinas to southern New England was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, which had already left a trail of destruction in parts of the Caribbean. With wind speeds of 74mph and 13ft storm surges, it caused 125 deaths and $62 billion worth of damage in the USA, much of it to the coastal areas of New Jersey and New York. At the height of the storm, more than 7.5 million people lost their electricity, and in some cases it took weeks to restore. The devastation is still evident in many of these areas, which will take years to recover completely.