I’m a Jersey Girl, and as such I have a deep affection for “the Shore” (in fact, I’m in August’s Family Fun Magazine sharing my favorite NJ beach spots). But until I was an adult, I had no idea of the wonders of the 7 miles of barrier island that comprises Avalon and Stone Harbor about 30 minutes north of Cape May. It’s a world away from the spinning rides and neon lights of boardwalk-enhanced towns; instead, there are loads of small shops that run the gamut from surf to swank, spacious and clean beaches, bike lanes that line the 25mph max roads, and tons of (mostly) unplugged family fun.
While my family has rented houses over the past two decades, a stretch of hotels and motels straddle the town lines mid-island near 80th street. The chicest and best situated of these is the remodeled Windrift which opens right onto the beach and has a multilevel series of restaurants and bars.
You’ll find most of Avalon’s shops and dining spots on Dune Drive from 20th to 30th streets. There’s live music on Thursday nights on Dune. We love Avalon’s non-crowded beaches at the northern end of the island, but for public facilities and day trips base yourself at 30th Street beach.
Entertainment: The best mini golf on the island, Pirate Island Golf, is at 27th Street with two stories of pirate-themed golf fun, complete with a swinging: bridge and an 18th hole on a pirate ship.
At 30th Street on the ocean is a mini boardwalk with an arcade that has Skee-ball and other games where you win tickets that you exchange for prizes. It’s a quick hit of game action and so much easier than the real boardwalk in Ocean City or Wildwood, both of which are about half an hour north and south, respectively (for my money, Ocean City is the hands down favorite).
Dining: For super fresh seafood in a really casual setting (picnic benches under a tent, BYOB, paper dishes), we love Sylvester’s. Don’t miss their crab cakes. Actually, anything with crab is a winner. They’re on the bay side of the island:
Oceanside Seafood is another super casual seafood spot — they have pastas, too, if your kids like that. Its on 24th and Dune:
Although both Sylvester’s and Oceanside Seafood have attached seafood shops, Avalon Seafood is our choice for ordering the best of the sea to bring home (there’s no seating here). My first night go to is the clam bake with a whole lobster—that’s a real vacation.
Ice Cream: My son Aidan’s favorite ice cream is at the Buccaneer, they’re at 26th street and Dune Drive (most things are on Dune) where the HUGE Shipwreck Sundae (12 scoops of ice cream served in a pirate hat with ALL the toppings in the store!!) is an attraction as are the magic shows, juggling acts, and singalongs that take place each night.
For frozen custard fans, a few blocks away at 23rd Street is Avalon Freeze
Most retail in Stone Harbor is based around 96th street mall, lined with independent shops (including toys and books in addition to boutiques) and food spots; there’s a small arcade there, too.
On Sundays, a fabulous farmer’s market takes place by the water tower on 95th street. It’s a perfect spot to load up with fresh fruit snacks for the beach, and breakfast options such as crepes and caramelized bacon-on-a-stick (it’s vacation!) are on offer.
Dining: There are plenty of pancake houses at the beach, but Uncle Bill’s in Stone Harbor has been flipping stacks since 1962 and is bustling with breakfasters even on weekdays; we’re partial to the blueberry and chocolate chip pancakes, but everything we’ve tried is tasty.
My favorite sit-down restaurant in SH is Quahogs (97th Street) — for slightly elevated seafood staples served on an outdoor covered backyard patio (if it sounds familiar, it might be because it was featured in episode of Diner, Drive-Ins, and Dives — don’t hold that against it.)
It wouldn’t be a beach week without pizza, and we’ve discovered what we think is the best (through intense research of course) at the beach: Mackrone’s. Thin crisp crust, oregano-laden sauce, the cheese goes on first in a Philly twist. We’ve always made special trips to the Wildwood boardwalk for Mack’s pizza and Ocean City for Manco and Manco — turns out this is the mother ship for both of those — and without the lines!
Ice Cream: The BEST homemade ice cream in the southern shore towns is Springers with 50 fabulous flavors including Butterscotch Brickle, Mor-E-O and “The Blue One”. Creamy, rich, and worth waiting in the line that snakes down the street and around the corner. It’s a delicious tradition and great people watching to boot (Aidan agreed that it’s delicious!) (94th street).
Entertainment: A new treasure we discovered this summer is Stone Harbor’s Recreation Center. Unlike other beach town’s that require residency or summer-long commitments to sign up for classes, SH allows visitors to take individual kids clinics (lacrosse, soccer, basketball, even art) and adults to join in outdoor exercise classes, all for around $10. There are tennis courts and a massive field here as well.
If you’re looking for a kid-friendly activity off the beach, the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor is really great — I just wrote about it for the August issue of Family Fun. They have all sorts of kids programs during the week, including Saturday morning catch and release fishing; the website has the schedule. It’s how we end our week at the beach — one last look at the water and sun before we hit the road home.