There's this thing that happens as you head south along New Jersey's Garden State Parkway. Suddenly the road drops low and flat, kissed on either side by grassy marsh, while the wide-open sky blurs into a watery horizon. As you draw closer to the Atlantic Ocean and begin to take in the dunes and the deep-set beaches, you can't help but wonder: Is this really the Jersey Shore?
It's an understandable question, given the disasters both natural (Hurricane Sandy) and unnatural (Snooki and the crew who turned the Jersey Shore into a national punchline). But draw close and take a serious look at these 130 miles of beautiful coastline, and these 10 towns that are the cream of the crop.
The Comeback Kid
Bruce Springsteen named his 1973 album "Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.," but following a series of development woes and economic downturns, this beach town spent several decades with little to write home about. Recent revitalization efforts, however—including, in 2016, the opening of the first new Asbury Park hotel in nearly 50 years—have attracted Brooklyn creatives and the like, who flock to the Silverball Museum Arcade and take selfies in front of the murals adorning the Sunset Pavilion building.
Pictured: Asbury Park pedal boats
Local Hangout: The Grand Arcade, housed in Asbury Park's Convention Hall and adjacent to the landmark Paramount Theater, is the place to grab an iced coffee and shop.
Cool Event: See anything at The Stone Pony's outdoor summer stage; acts range from reggae to honky-tonk.
Beach Bite: Lounge on overstuffed sofas and take in sweeping Atlantic Ocean views at the Watermark, a sleek, beachy hybrid of music/social club and cocktail/tapas bar.
Stay the Night: The minimalist-designed Asbury hotel quickly became a hot spot after it opened in the summer of last year. It's the hip stay on the Jersey Shore this season, as well. Rates start at $145.
Pictured: The beach in Asbury Park
The Cool Kid
The town’s welcome sign boasts that it’s “cooler by a mile,” a reference to Avalon jutting out one mile farther into the Atlantic Ocean than any other point on the Jersey Shore. But this community, one of the state’s wealthiest, also earns its cool cred from the dynamic scene around Dune Drive, which draws hipsters to preppily named spots like The Whitebrier (best for outdoor cocktails) and The Princeton, where you can dance until the wee hours.
Pictured: The Avalon fishing pier
Local hangout: With multiple waterfalls, suspension bridges, and even a large-scale pirate ship, Pirate Island Golf proves a popular draw.
Cool event: From late June through the end of August check out Thursdays on Dune, the weekly family-friendly outdoor concerts on Veterans Plaza.
Best souvenir: A collection of pillows, throws, prints, and totes at BluFish Designs rep the Avalon name in appealing nautical style.
Beach bite: Start your morning at Pudgie Pelican Cafe, which claims its “Oh, No” breakfast is a great hangover cure.
Stay the Night: The Nantucket-inspired redesign of the Icona Golden Inn in 2016 brings new style to this classic oceanfront beach resort. Don’t miss the summer bocce ball tournaments. Rates start at $314.
Pictured: An Avalon patrol boat
The Grande Dame
Separated from the mainland by a narrow canal, Cape May feels somehow a world apart. Horse-drawn carriages and trolleys add an air of refinement, as does the open-air, pedestrian-only Washington Street Mall, where you'll find antiques stores and art galleries. But it's the Victorian-era buildings in town that prove the most transporting; walking past the gingerbread confections is like flipping through a storybook that harkens back to the mid-1800s, when Cape May became America's first seashore resort town.
Pictured: Cape May's serene side
Beach Bite: You'll find breakfast bowls with local flounder and pancakes laced with crab at farm-to-table spot The Red Store.
Local Hangout: Commune with the spirits of gangsters past in The Brown Room, Cape May's first legal, post- Prohibition cocktail bar.
Best Souvenir: Locally roasted Harry & Beans is the best coffee in Cape May, so bring home at least one bag to keep that beach-morning vibe going.
Stay the Night: The Beach Shack is a newly redone beachfront hotel with a laid-back surfer vibe, family-friendly pool, and classic beach bar the Rusty Nail. Rates start at $119.
Pictured: Cape May's oldest hotel, 141 years young
The Beach-Lover's Paradise
Known locally as LBI, the 18-mile island is divided by State Route 72, with laid-back communities like Barnegat Light and Harvey Cedars to the north, and a bit more bustle in spots like Ship Bottom and Beach Haven to the south. But no matter which direction you choose, you'll still feel a quintessentially seaside vibe, thanks to the multitude of coastal trails and crab shacks, not to mention the original location of the surfing mecca known as Ron Jon Surf Shop.
Pictured: Ferris wheel at Long Beach Island's Fantasy Island amusement park
Local Hangout: Call it "Noonie's," which is how LBI locals refer to Neptune Market, their beloved grocery store and luncheonette.
Cool Event: Test your shoveling skills (or just spectate) at the Barnegat Light Sand Sculpting Contest, a summer-long series of family-friendly competitions where everyone's a winner.
Beach Bite: The Arlington is as popular for its craft cocktails as it is for its lobster roll, so why not order both?
Stay the Night: Boutique hotel Daddy O charms with contemporary coastal swagger. Rates start at $310.
Pictured: Gentle surf day on Long Beach Island
The Insider's Spot
If this quiet hamlet feels more residential than resort, it's with good reason: There's not a single hotel to be found within the town limits. Of course, given that Margate's beaches are narrower than most others on the shore, you can hardly blame longtime regulars—including Bradley Cooper, a frequent diner at Margate's Steve & Cookie's by the Bay—for wanting to keep their pristine white sand to themselves.
Pictured: The beach in Margate
Local Hangout: It's cash-only at Robert's Place, a dive bar renowned for its wings and stone crabs.
Best Souvenir: Local attraction Lucy the Elephant is a six-story work of novelty architecture you have to see (and tour) to believe. Pick up a plush version of this Jersey Shore icon at the museum shop.
Stay The Night: Less than 10 minutes north of Margate (and tucked adjacent to the renowned Atlantic City boardwalk), you'll find the historic Carisbrooke Inn. Rates start at $125.
Photo: Lucy the Elephant
The Boardwalk Empire
From your first glimpse of the Giant Wheel—a 90-foot-high Ferris wheel with views of the Atlantic City skyline from the top—you know you're in for plenty of old-fashioned fun right out of a vintage postcard. Get the good times rolling with a stroll down Ocean City's world-famous boardwalk, where the highlights include two water parks; food stalls selling funnel cakes, curly fries, and saltwater taffy; and the Music Pier, home to the Ocean City Pops orchestra.
Pictured: The Ocean City boardwalk
Hit the Beach: The stretch of eight miles of pale sand that grace Ocean City was named the #1 Beach in the USA. The fun starts right there.
Local Hangout: Gillian's Wonderland Pier has been a boardwalk fixture for more than 50 years.
Best Souvenir: Pick up a box of homemade fudge or saltwater taffy from Shriver's.
Stay The Night: The broad porches of the family-owned Osborne's Inn—one of the Jersey Shore's last remaining guesthouses—have been a haven for happy guests for 44 years. Rates start at $70.
Pictured: Gillian's Wonderland Pier
The Heavenly Square Mile
A group of Methodist ministers founded Ocean Grove in 1869 (hence the town’s nickname, “God’s Square Mile”), and there’s a lingering nostalgia along Main Avenue, which is lined with tea shops, bakeries, and even a general store. Central to Ocean Grove’s unique charm, though, are the colorfully striped awnings of Tent City, a collection of more than 100 campground structures surrounding Ocean Grove’s best-known building: The Great Auditorium, with acoustics that have been compared to Carnegie Hall. It’s a civic camp, this town, and one of the most unusual and interesting places on the shore.
Pictured: Historic tent cottages in Ocean Grove
Local hangout: Decorated like the pharmacy it once was, Nagle’s Apothecary Cafe draws lines down the block for its fountain ice cream.
Cool event: The annual Choir Festival every July spotlights both The Great Auditorium and its 11,010-pipe organ.
Best souvenir: C.C. Clayton’s Emporium, the museum shop of the Historical Society of Ocean Grove, has a charming collection of books, vintage-style toys, and clothing that capture the magic of this unique spot.
Beach bite: Dunes Boardwalk Cafe houses food vendors offering everything from smoothies and salads to waffles and ice cream.
Stay the Night: The Inn at Ocean Grove enchants with wicker furnishings and patchwork quilts. Rates start at $169.
Pictured: The Ocean Grove fishing pier
The One With a City View
In summer, ferries from lower Manhattan whisk day-trippers over to Atlantic Highlands, where a short shuttle bus ride brings you to the Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area, a protected barrier spit with more than four miles of fishing beaches, coves, and campgrounds, as well as the park's namesake lighthouse. The one thing Sandy Hook doesn't have (yet) is a restaurant, so make sure to pack a picnic, or plan on foraging among the handful of food trucks lined up in the parking lots.
Pictured: Sandy Hook Lighthouse
Local Hangout: Gunnison Beach, a half-mile walk from the parking lot, has a relaxed and welcoming vibe.
Best Souvenir: Bring home a sea-horse necklace from the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium; proceeds go to marine life research.
Cool Event: Sandy Hook's Summer Concert Series attracts thousands of music lovers to the beach every Wednesday night.
Stay the Night: The Blue Bay Inn has spacious rooms in the heart of the Highlands' downtown. Rates start at $190.
Pictured: Gateway National Recreation Area
A onetime getaway for the New York and Philadelphia elite, Spring Lake retains the grandeur of its Victorian glory days, with homes hidden behind sculptured hedges and a sophisticated little downtown boasting bottle shops, boutiques, and a surf shop tucked into the mix. Even the boardwalk retains a genteel air, with a graceful pavilion and gently swaying sea grass, and views of the magnificent landmark St. Catherine's Church, which sits on the town's namesake lake.
Pictured: Victorian elegance in Spring Lake
Cool Event: Art in the Park (June 10 this year) showcases the work of local makers.
Beach Bite: Get a scoop of Jersey Monkey (banana ice cream with peanut butter swirl and chocolate chips) at Hoffman's Ice Cream and Yogurt, tucked into a century-old building.
Stay The Night: Just three blocks from the ocean and set along Spring Lake, the Hewitt Wellington is a Victorian-era boutique hotel with a broad, inviting porch. Rates start at $289.
Pictured: The beach in Spring Lake
The Family Escape
Your brood will never grow bored in this Jersey Shore town, which packs plenty of activity into its three miles. Foster your budding naturalists with a birding expedition along the trails at the Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary. Craving an even greater adventure? Head to Island Water Sports for a fishing excursion, or to give the "water trampoline" a try. And on rainy days, there's Skee-Ball and arcade games at RiGi's Amusement Center.
Pictured: The beach in Stone Harbor
Best Souvenir: Take the kids to Island Studio Paint Your Own Pottery, where they can create colorful coastal keepsakes.
Cool Event: It's crafts and games galore at The Wetlands Institute's Crabulous Crab Day on July 14.
Beach Bite: Jay's on Third is an award-winning local favorite that's BYOB.
Local Hangout: After the beach, catch a movie at the newly renovated Harbor Square Theatre, which has its own burger bar (and adult beverages).
Stay the Night: Perfectly situated down-town, The Reeds at Shelter Haven offers playtime fun from pedal boats to paddleboards. Rates start at $269.
Pictured: Sand Marsh Cove in Stone Harbor