As a bona fide Jersey boy, born and raised, I share in the sense of pride that many locals have for the great Garden State. I’ve been on a local travel kick lately, so what better way to share my experiences than to put together a series on my own home state?
This will be an experiment. I’ll cobble together a list of some great adventures that anyone – local or tourist – can replicate over the course of a weekend, usually starting on a Friday night and ending on Sunday afternoon, a la The New York Times’ “36 Hours” series. Or, as in the case of this first entry, it could revolve around a specific holiday weekend, with a few ideas about how to celebrate. By the end of the series, there should be something to do for every weekend of the year.
As best I can, the food, accommodations, and activities I write about will be from my own personal experiences. With that said, many of these recommendations will reflect my own personal tastes: history, hot dogs, old man bars, and some good old-fashioned fun.
With fifty-two entries, there will be plenty of opportunity for readers to follow a single itinerary, or to mix-and-match from different posts once they’re up. I’ll tag these articles under “52 weekends” for easy reference.
Let me know what you think in the comments, and don’t hesitate to share your recommendations. Jersey is a small state, but that doesn’t mean I already have the whole place covered.
New Year’s Weekend
So, you’ve found yourself seemingly stuck in New Jersey at the end of the calendar (or at the start of the next one, depending on your outlook). Have no fear! There’s plenty to do to ring in the new year.
First, let’s get what our good neighbors have to offer out of the way. You’re sandwiched between two big time cities that get national and international attention every year: New York and Philadelphia. New Jersey is perfectly situated to get into and out of either one along public transportation. Trains and buses often run all night at times like these.
On the one hand, Manhattan’s party in Times Square is the definition of NYE on the east coast. Whether you’re crammed shoulder to shoulder with a million people in the city or just partying someplace else, there’s no escaping the fact that you’re going to be counting down the seconds and watching the big ball drop at midnight. You might as well just accept it now.
The annual Mummers Parade begins early on January first and goes on for hours, usually ending in a drunken mess over on “Two Street.” Set up early and get a spot along the route down Broad Street, then prepare to marvel at the flamboyant costumes, giant floats, and absurd revelry that the Mummers have spent months hiding away and preparing in their secret clubs.
These are two events that you should try to do at least once in your life. But if you’re not into huge crowds, and yet you still want to do something special to celebrate, then a lower-key evening in New Jersey may be just right for you.
A Jersey New Year
The last few years, I’ve made my way down to the Jersey shore on December 31st. You may be thinking that the shore is a terrible place to be in the dead of winter, and you may be right, unless you happen to know where to go… You see, some shore towns operate out of season. You’re definitely going to have a local experience when you’re not sharing the boardwalk with thousands of summer tourists.
One of my favorite shoreline towns to go to in the winter is Asbury Park. After decades of decline, the “City by the Sea” has finally rebounded and is now one of NJ’s top destinations all year long. Some of the highest rated restaurants in the state line Cookman Avenue and the boardwalk. Enjoy a handcrafted cocktail or two starting near the train station, dine in fashion as you make your way down the street, and then bar hop from one craft beer to the next until you hit the water.
If you’re looking to let your hair down a little further, you can still find enough of the rock and roll grit that made this town famous in the first place. Swallow a pint of the cheap stuff at the Wonder Bar where you can probably catch some live music, then head on over to The Stone Pony club. It’s always a good time. They have a New Year’s party that goes late, so if you’re not keen on driving afterward, there are hotels at either end of the boardwalk.
Atlantic City is another good idea for New Year’s Eve. As the country’s first city conceived entirely as a resort, A.C. has existed as a destination for good times and celebrations since its very inception.
The boardwalk is lined with both towering casinos and teetering small businesses, making for a strange juxtaposition of great wealth and great local flavor. You get the feeling that anything is possible as you stroll these planks, and with any number of nightclubs and restaurants to choose from, you can have your pick of whatever kind of party you like. You will not have a boring New Year’s in Atlantic City.
Want the local treatment? Most people who visit will never leave the resort area, but the city itself has over a hundred and fifty years of culture packed into its streets. Start the night with dinner, because you can definitely eat well in Atlantic City. From the world-famous White House Subs to the old-school Dock’s Oyster House to the by-word-of-mouth-only Chef Vola’s speakeasy, there are some great spots tucked into the very fabric of Atlantic City. Check out Tony’s Baltimore Grill for a mean meatball bar pie, or Angelo’s Fairmount Tavern for a gorgonzola smothered hunk of steak.
This year Sarah and I spent New Year’s with a few friends at Martell’s Tiki Bar on the Point Pleasant boardwalk. If you’re looking for a strange and wonderful start to the new year, then I can’t think of a better place to be when the clock strikes twelve. It was our first time here, but probably not the last. We’re considering making Martell’s our annual tradition. It was that good.
We really didn’t know what to expect. We thought we were going to fist pump the night away with some stand-ins from the cast of the MTV reality show Jersey Shore, but the crowd was a little more, shall we say, refined. We’re no spring chickens, but those of us in our early thirties were by far the youngest in the bar. Honestly, though, and this is important to note, we were not the ones partying the hardest.
The doors opened at eight. There was no line. After pocketing my red raffle ticket, I headed over to the buffet line and stood behind a gentleman who blatantly flirted with my wife over the stuffed oysters. He had the thickest New Jersey accent that a person can possibly have. I can only hope to sound like him one day.
I filled up my plate with the oysters and with crab legs and lobster claws and mussels and scallops, plus some starchy sides like pasta and bread to soak up the alcohol I planned to drink. For some reason, shell crackers were not provided, so I improvised with a fork and brute strength to the pull sweet shellfish meat from its spiny encapsulation.
After eating, there was nothing left to do but drink and dance the night away. The alcohol was expensive, and the music was live. The bar-bands Martell’s hired played a mix of older covers, some radio hits, and they peppered in a few originals, too.
The dance floor never stopped moving as the crowd of people from our parents’ generation grew more inebriated, and finally, at midnight, when the sugary champagne started flowing, the grind-fest reached its climax amidst celebratory shouts and the screams of party noise makers. Balloons dropped from the rafters. Everyone made out like freshmen.
In the end…
New Jersey is a regional entity. We are distinctly eastern, decidedly mid-Atlantic, and stubbornly self-identifying. Sure, we have in-state squabbles over the north/south divide, but there’s at least one thing we can all agree upon. As the homegrown Pulitzer prize winning writer Junot Diaz insightfully notes, “The boardwalk was where all of New Jersey came together, where New Jersey, for better or worse, met itself.” At times of celebration, New Jersey finds itself drawn to the shore. You can have a good time in New York or Philly, but you can have the best time with a few locals and a cover band right here at home.