Residents are still cleaning up after Hurricane Irene, but tourists are making their way back to the home of the popular MTV series "Jersey Shore."
New York Times News Service
The Jersey Shore did not get the worst of Hurricane Irene, though the storm left its mark. Boarded-up shops and houses, battered dunes, broken trees and buckled hunks of boardwalk provided a jarring tableau of pleasure aborted.
Residents are still cleaning up, but tourists are making their way back. The roads are clear, and the power for the most part is on for visitors seeking a shimmering stretch of sand, surf and Indian summer: a recovered memory of simple old-fashioned family holidays at the seaside.
But there’s another image that has a less soothing, homespun connotation, and that, too, was not entirely washed away by the floods. I happened to visit the Jersey Shore before Irene did, drawn to a different kind of cataclysm. This wasn’t an act of God, but a stroke of network programming: the MTV series “Jersey Shore.”
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There was a time when those two words didn’t suggest anything particularly louche or unsavory. Now, thanks to the show, which promotes the area as a kind of Fort Lauderdale Satyricon, they come quarantined in quotation marks.
So I wasn’t exactly flattered when asked to take a trip there. I did feel a bit obligated, since I have written about “Jersey Shore” several times without really knowing much about the territory. I cast around for a travel companion and asked my friend Robin if she would be willing to come along. She said yes instantly, which surprised me until I realized that she thought I meant the Isle of Jersey, part of the Channel Islands. Robin lived in London for many years, and since my last travel assignment had been to the exclusive island of Mustique in the West Indies, hers was an understandable mistake.
Robin had never seen the show or been to the Jersey Shore, so she was easily persuaded.
The series is mostly shot in Seaside Heights (though this season the cast is in Florence, Italy), but we didn’t head there first; I wanted to acclimate slowly.
Spring Lake, we were told, is one of the nicer, more upscale towns on the New Jersey coast, a safe 16 miles north of Seaside Heights. And as we closed in on the ocean, we drove past big, gracious Victorian-style shingled houses with wraparound porches and widow’s walks, many of them flying Irish or Italian flags, and sometimes both. The nicer streets, with their shade trees, looked like the set of the Disney movie “Pollyanna.”
I booked the Breakers on the Ocean off the Internet, because the name evoked Newport and Palm Beach, and at $330 a night in mid-August cost nearly as much. The online brochure boasts that its “sparkling chandeliers, etched glass windows, granite floors and custom-woven carpeting are reminiscent of European resort properties.”
Actually, the cracked acoustic ceiling tiles and frayed carpeting were more reminiscent of Eastern European resort properties, and as Robin pointed out, the closest thing to a genuine antique was the Ms. Pac-Man video game near the exit to the swimming pool. But the Breakers is a big, Edwardian-style building (imagine an oversize boarding house) with wide porches and a generous ocean view, the kind of place where people hold weddings, and there were at least two wedding receptions while we were there.
( I didn’t see many people who looked like Snooki or Vinny. Most of the passers-by were older couples and families with small children, a tangle of walkers, boogie boards and jogging strollers. It was pleasant and down-to-earth, an un-Hampton, and I could imagine a leisurely summer rhythm of biking, swimming, reading books, taking naps and fixing cocktails at sunset.
Downtown Spring Lake turned out to be nothing special, a few prosaic streets lined with stores and real estate offices, and not at all like Nantucket, as Robin kept reminding me reproachfully. But the surrounding landscape is charming. Only a few blocks from the beach, the main road curves scenically around the lake that gives the town its name. It’s really more of a pond, stocked with trout, spanned by two romantic wooden bridges and framed by flower beds.
The storm caused the lake to flood, but water levels returned to normal within a few days. Another lake, Lake Como, is closer to the invisible line to the north where the town of Spring Lake turns into less glamorous Belmar, but flocks of regal swans occupy it year round and hold the line.
On the other side of Spring Lake lies Sea Girt, a smaller community that seems to be the Malibu of the Jersey Shore — we found a dirt road that services a string of big showy beach houses built above the dunes right on the ocean.
The fantasy of a simple, homespun beach vacation reared again, but when I looked at real estate listings I saw that nice houses in Sea Girt were renting at prices that I associate more with the Hamptons than the Jersey Shore: $20,000 for the month of June.
There isn’t a lot to do in Spring Lake, which is part of its allure. But it has a lurid past. Robin, a gentle Washingtonian who paints watercolors and excels at Scrabble, brightened at the mention of shark attacks and massacres. She found out that one of the deaths in the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 (four killed, one injured) took place in Spring Lake. A shark bit into a Swiss bellboy swimming 130 yards from the shore and tore off both his legs. (Maybe this explains why it was so hard to find a bellboy at the Breakers.)
At first I had hoped not to spend a single night in Seaside Heights, figuring that we could dart in, take a look around, then hurry back to the comfort and quiet of a hotel well outside the town limits.
And yet we went, driving south a half-hour, leaving behind the sun-washed shingles of Sea Girt for tracts of concrete and neon dotted with liquor stores, pawn shops and motels advertising prom specials. We hunted for ours, which on the Internet had advertised one of the last vacant rooms in town.
Unlike all the other motels we passed, its name made no whimsical reference to sea, sand or summer. The Village Inn was neither beach- nor Boardwalk-side; it was intersection-side. And charged $278.88 for one night. Then again, it too was a historic site: The Village Inn was the headquarters for the cast and crew of the 1998 MTV “Summer Beach House” and hosted that year’s Spice Girls look-alike contest.
There was no elevator to carry us from reception, where the night manager had his sheet and pillow already arranged on the sofa. The lead pipe banisters were forebodingly sticky, as was our room, from afternoon heat and perhaps worse. We had passed two tattooed, pierced men with buckets who appeared to be the maid service, but our room looked as though it had been last touched by looting Russian soldiers. The draperies dangled listlessly from a broken curtain rod, plastic lampshades had ominous burn holes, and the air reeked of stale cigarettes. We could only hope that the stickiness of the bedspreads was a result of melting polyester and not hardening DNA.
On the other hand, we suddenly felt eager to get out and explore Seaside Heights. First, we went in search of the House. Cast members shared a rickety wooden house on Ocean Terrace, which turned out to be right next to the Boardwalk. It looked seedy and abandoned, but outside, groups of tourists, mostly little girls, stood on the steps having their pictures taken, quite like sightseers in Washington posing in front of the White House.
Behind that, there is the Boardwalk, a cacophonous blur of vertiginous amusement park rides, arcade games, body piercing shops and fast food (everything from fried pickles to fried Oreos). It was packed, but the milling crowds were more diverse than we expected, all ages and races, and every kind of tattoo.
We didn’t find many stores advertising themselves as purveyors to the stars of “Jersey Shore,” and that seemed surprising. We asked a police officer on the Boardwalk why not. “Because everybody hates them,” he replied tersely.
As darkness fell, we looked at the motels clustered around the Boardwalk and saw growing numbers of young people, girls in bikini tops, boys in muscle shirts, gathering on motel balconies with coolers of beer. They looked like raptors gathering on the telephone wires in “The Birds.” Pop music began pouring out of various rooms, and young, boisterous gaggles of women began flowing into the streets. We fled to Seaside Park, a neighboring community that is almost Elysian in comparison. After driving past a series of cinderblock motels and stucco shacks that looked like a seaside penal colony, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the road ended at the Atlantic Bar & Grill. We were seated on a pleasant veranda overlooking the beach, and after a delicious dinner — wine, fluke and a vegetable risotto — felt restored.
We reluctantly returned to our motel, which was no cleaner and a lot noisier. We lay above the sheets, wrapping ourselves like elderly ladies in protective layers of beach clothes, and each took a sleeping pill — Ambien and Old Lace.
As we slept, monsoon-like rains began to fall, much of it collecting around the Village Inn, a more literal low point than we had realized. The hurricane produced similar flooding in the streets outside, a hotel employee said, but the waters receded within a day, and no damage was done to the hotel. The morning we were there, passing cars made rolling waves on the street and the sidewalks flowed like rivers. Robin rolled up her trousers and waded three blocks through knee-deep water to retrieve the car.
We headed for Long Beach Island, a string-shaped barrier island 18 miles long, and at its narrowest point about 400 yards wide; you can walk from the bay to the ocean in a minute or so. We stayed at Daddy O, a 22-room boutique hotel and restaurant about a half-block off the ocean in Brant Beach that is hip and modern (it has a sister hotel in Miami). It doesn’t quite match the surrounding scruffy beach condos and salt-bleached cottages, but it seemed like heaven to us.
LBI, as locals call it, is not as Victorian and proper as Spring Lake, but it was a lot more respectable than Seaside Heights, though without any claim to elegance. We went to Beach Haven to tour the Long Beach Island Museum, which was crammed with Edwardian bric-a-brac, boating artifacts and, to Robin’s relief, old newspaper clippings of disastrous hotel fires and shark attacks. It also features a print of a pastel beach scene by N.C. Wyeth, who summered on the island in the 1920s, as well as a whale jaw bone as big as a canoe.
And that foray gave us an excuse to try the fried clam strips at the Engleside Inn, a modest-looking hotel on the beach. The outdoor restaurant is set low to the ground, so we looked out onto a bank of sand, but the fried clam strips were superb.
( Finally, we drove north to Ocean Grove where, we were told, Methodists run the town and keep it dry: That seemed like a fitting coda to Seaside Heights, which is only 19 miles away. The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association has governed the town since 1869, and Methodist brochures advertise it as “God’s Square Mile at the Jersey Shore.”
The center of town is appealingly quaint: narrow tree-covered streets lined with ornate Victorian gingerbread town houses. It looks a little like a small-scale version of the Methodist campgrounds in Oak Bluffs, on Martha’s Vineyard, with one difference. In front of the meeting house, a huge wooden building known as the Auditorium, there are dainty rows of white canvas tents — tiny collapsible summer cottages, decorated with flags and flower pots, that the church rents out every summer to families who have been coming for generations (and yes, they survived Irene). We chatted with a third-generation tent dweller, then sampled the ice cream at an old-fashioned parlor called Day’s.
We screwed up our nerve and asked a town elder about the prohibition on alcohol. “You can have a drink,” she said in a whisper. “But you have to be discreet.”
Such words are never spoken on “Jersey Shore.”