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Getting There

There are two ways to reach the South Jersey Shore. If you’re already on the eastern side of the Bay Bridge, take the Cape May-Lewes Ferry across Delaware Bay. The ferry costs $25 one-way, plus $8 for adults and $4 for passengers 6 to 13. (Under age 6 is free.) Book online at http://www.capemaylewesferry. com or call 800-643-3779. The ride takes 80 minutes. The shorter route- and you’ll avoid the Bay Bridge- is Interstate 95 North across the Delaware Memorial Bridge to Route 40 east. The two-lane road, which can be crowded on weekends, travels across South Jersey farmland and through small towns. Follow signs, or check a map, to reach specific destinations. Travel time is about three hours.

Atlantic City

Call it the “Borgata Effect.” The 2003 opening of the posh Atlantic City hotel-casino has produced a wave of ripples that hasn’t been seen in town since Charo did the “cuchi-cuchi” at Caesars. Nearly every casino has something new to offer visitors this summer, as local promoters try their darndest to reposition their town as “sexy” rather than “sleazy.” (Note the new not-so-subtle official tag line: “Atlantic City: Always Turned On.”) You can bet that the Tropicana will be attracting the sexy set with The Quarter, an Epcot-for-adults-like re-creation of Havana, circa-1940. The retail/mega-restaurant mix takes a page from Las Vegas themed casinos, as visitors stroll old Spanish streets under painted blue skies complete with serenading Cuban musicians. Shops range from Bluemercury Apothecary to The Spy Store and dining destinations run from The Palm steakhouse to Cuba Libre, an outpost of the well-respected Philly restaurant that turns into a slamming salsa club after midnight. There’s also Red Square, a vodka bar where big spenders can don fur coats and sip premium hooch inside a glass-walled freezer.

Even the staid Resorts, Atlantic City’s first hotel-casino, is getting into the act. Its new 27-story Rendezvous Tower offers 42 suites and 357 luxe rooms- the most spacious in town. Nikki Beach, the famed South Beach nightclub for jetsetters and beautiful people, should fully wake Resorts out of its slumber- or at least rouse the neighbors. Ja Rule and Sugar Ray are among the acts scheduled to appear at its adjacent outdoor concert venue.

What else? The Showboat debuts a massive House of Blues restaurant and nightclub that spills out of the casino and onto the beach. By 2006, the glass-enclosed Pier at Caesars will stretch over the ocean and include three levels of high-end shops (Versace, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and D&G) and restaurants.

Even Baltimore boy David Cordish smells a comeback: He recently developed The Walk, three blocks of outlet stores in a formerly frowzy section of town, and is finishing up Atlantic City Live, a seaside version of Baltimore’s Power Plant Live.

And if that weren’t enough, the casino that started it all- the Borgata- promises a $200 million expansion to its spa, restaurants and retail outlets by mid-2006. Here we go again … – J.S.

WHO GOES THERE: Not just slot-playing grandmas on tour buses anymore. Visitors’ average age has dropped from 55 to 52 since 1998 and is continuing to head south.

WHERE TO PLAY: A.C. does boast several amenities that Vegas lacks- namely four miles of boardwalk (the world’s first- opened in 1870) and sandy beach. Get out on the water with Atlantic City Cruises. The tour boat company runs morning excursions, dolphin-watching trips and happy hour cruises daily (http://www.atlanticcitycruises.com, 609-347-7600).

WHERE TO STAY: The Borgata is still the hot property in A.C. Book well in advance on weekends (rates, $179 to $459. 609-317-1000, http://www.theborgata.com). The Tropicana has new rooms off The Quarter (rates, $118 to $375. 609-340-4000, http://www.tropicana.com). Rooms at Resorts’ Rendezvous Tower can be had for $150 to $350 a night (609- 344-6000, http://www.resortsac.com).

WHERE TO EAT: New York’s renowned Gallagher’s Steakhouse, creator of the “New York Strip” steak, opens this summer at Resorts. The white-apron-clad grill jockeys at the White House Sub Shop have been serving up cheesesteaks and hoagies to nearly every visiting celeb and Miss America contestant since the restaurant opened in 1946- and they have the autographed pictures to prove it (2301 Arctic Ave.). For dessert, head over to Brulee (609-344-4900) in Tropicana’s Quarter for one of its $18 three-course desserts. Try the Banana-nana. It is, as the menu describes, a “banana pleasuredome.”

INSIDERS’ TIP: A bookstore is just a bookstore, but Princeton Antiques Books Service (2917 Atlantic Ave., 609-344-1943) is a bibliophile’s treasure-trove. Browse the floor-to-ceiling stacks of antique and out-of-print tomes and see what they were reading on the beach in 1924.

Ventnor/ Margate

Consider Ventnor and Margate the more mellow, residential cousins of Atlantic City, i.e., they’re still on the Monopoly board, but landing here doesn’t come with the same hullabaloo as hitting Park Place or Boardwalk.

Ventnor lies just south of Atlantic City’s glitz, and its two-mile boardwalk (no shops or amusements, just wood) connects directly with A.C.‘s, making for a good head-clearing morning jog or bike ride. The beaches here and in Margate are generally nicer than those by its more boisterous neighbor, but it will cost you $3.50 per day to enjoy the scenery. Ventnor and to a lesser degree, Margate have earned reputations for sophisticated dining in recent years, as accomplished Philadelphia chefs trade city smog for sea air. (See ‘Where to Eat’ at right.)

Margate doesn’t have as many shops or restaurants as Ventnor- and not a single hotel room- but what it does have is Lucy the Elephant, the South Jersey Shore’s most famous icon. Built in 1881 as a Victorian-age tourist attraction by James V. Lafferty, the P.T. Barnum of real estate developers, the six-story-tall, 90-ton tin and wood pachyderm also served as a boutique hotel and tavern before being saved from the wrecking ball in the 1960s. (Lafferty also built elephants in Cape May and Coney Island; Lucy is the only one left standing.) She’s now a National Historic Landmark and open for tours that climax with views of the Atlantic atop the elephant’s openair “howdah.” – J.S.

WHO GOES THERE: Longtime homeowners, well-to-do college students in group houses, casino executives.

WHERE TO PLAY: It’s the shore, hit the beach. You won’t find much else to do here other than sunbathing with a good book. At night, however, the bars along Margate’s Washington Avenue fill with twentysomething revelers with poofy hair and Jersey accents: “How youse doin’?” Maloney’s Tavern (21 S. Washington Ave.) is a longtime favorite, as is the more grown-up Ventura’s Greenhouse Restaurant (106 S. Benson Ave.).

WHERE TO STAY: Renting a beach house is the best way to go in either Ventnor or Margate. Contact Argus Real Estate in Ventnor, 609-822-3700 or Rosenberger Realty in Margate, 609-822-1132. In Ventnor, Carisbrooke Inn Bed & Breakfast is three blocks from the beach and a one-mile ride from A.C. (Rates from $150, 609- 822-6392, http://www.carisbrookeinn.com.)

WHERE TO EAT: Steve & Cookie’s by the Bay is a classy supper club with 11-foot windows overlooking the inland waterway and live jazz nightly in its piano bar. Try the Manhattan clam chowder; it’s been called the best on the Jersey Shore (9700 Amherst Ave., Margate, 609-823-1163, http://www.steveandcookies.com). Celeb chef Lisa Savage’s Savaradio gets high marks for its “creative world cuisine.” Think global dishes like wontons stuffed with brie (5223 Ventnor Ave., 609-823-2110). Also on the world cuisine front, check out Ventnor’s Yama Japanese Restaurant for 23 different kinds of sushi (5305 Atlantic Ave., 609-822-8007) or Chucherias Hondurenas for authentic food from South America, including the tastiest conch chowder north of the Bahamas (5213 Ventnor Ave., 609-487-0200). Tomatoes has trendy California cuisine- grilled squid, seared bluefin tuna- in a chic, colorful setting (9300 Amherst Ave., Margate, 609-822-7535).

INSIDERS’ TIP: Dino’s Sub & Pizza in Margate is the classic Philly cheesesteak shop, and will even deliver a freshly baked pie to your beach blanket (8016 Ventnor Ave., 609-822-6602).

Ocean City

If Atlantic City is South Jersey’s promiscuous mistress then Ocean City is the shore’s doting wife. Established by a group of Methodist ministers with an eye for choice real estate in 1879, the eight-mile barrier island has been a mecca for surf-seeking families ever since. (This is a place that’s so family-friendly it sponsors a “wet T-shirt throwing” contest.)

The fact that you can’t purchase alcohol anywhere within town limits has only helped promote its “Leave It To Beaver” image. Of course, you can consume as much alcohol in Ocean City as you want, and the busy mega-liquor stores just outside of town see to it that visitors never go thirsty.

A big part of Ocean City’s family appeal is its 14-block-long boardwalk, lined with the usual pizza shops (Mack and Manco’s is the local equivalent to Grotto’s), amusement rides (the big ones are Wonderland at 5th Street and Playland at 10th Street) and tchotchke shops hawking T-shirts and hermit crabs. But Ocean City’s boardwalk also sports a full-fledged movie theater and the classic, circa-1927 Music Pier, a great place to catch a summer concert. (See http://www.njoceancity.com for a schedule of events.)

O.C.N.J. also retains a charming Eisenhower-era main street- Asbury Avenue between 5th and 14th Street- where you can still buy nails at circa-1909 Wallace Hardware and flip-flops from Hoy’s, an authentic five-and-dime. (Flip-flops cost $4.99.) More upscale offerings have been moving into town as the real estate values climb. Flying Carp has cool women’s duds (743 Asbury Ave., 609- 391-1546) and Denovum has funky modern home furnishings (908 Asbury Ave., 609-814-9084).

Unfortunately, O.C.‘s best beaches don’t lie in front of the boardwalk. For larger swaths of sand- and fewer people- head to the higher street numbers, 23th through 59th. Listen for the ringing bells and calls of “Iceeee creeaaamm” from the teenage vendors who work the sands like beach-bound Arabbers. -J.S.

WHO GOES THERE: The carpool set, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and all-around family guy Jimmy Stewart back in the day.

WHERE TO PLAY: Pedal-powered surreys (some even have the fringe on top) are a big part of Ocean City boardwalk fun. Rent them from several concessions along Ocean Avenue. Ocean City Ghost Tours (609-814-0199) offers an entertaining look at the town’s paranormal side. Rent waverunners and kayaks from Bay Cats at 3rd Street and Bay Avenue (609-391-7960). Duffers should check out oceancityvacation.com for a list of nearby golf courses.

WHERE TO STAY: Redevelopment has eaten up most of Ocean City’s classic beach houses. The two-story duplexes that replaced them command big bucks, and the prices go up the closer you get to the beach. Rentals range from $1,000 to $7,000 per week. Try Ocean City Realty, 609-399-8200. Bayberry is a flowery Victorian B&B two blocks from the beach (811 Wesley Ave., 609-391- 1183, http://www.bayberryinnoc.com. Rates, $120 to $225). And Port-O-Call, with its shocking pink exterior, sits right on the boardwalk at 15th Street (800-334-4546, http://www.portocallhotel.com. Rates, $280 to $350).

WHERE TO EAT: The old joke in Ocean City is that the best meals in town can be found in Somers Point- across the 9th Street Bridge. (Try Sails Restaurant and Bar, right on the bay.) In Ocean City, Cousins has great Italian food in a renovated beach bungalow (104 Asbury Ave., 609-399-9462). And the Chatterbox CafŽ has been serving scrapple and pancakes for breakfast since 1937 (500 9th St., 609-399-0113).

INSIDERS’ TIP: Cider doughnuts are all the rage in Ocean City. For a dozen brown beauties, wake up early and hit Brown’s on the boardwalk at St. Charles Street (609-391-0677).

Sea Isle City

Sea Isle City is a great place to catch a few fish- or drink like one. While no one would confuse the five-mile stretch for South Beach (or even Dewey Beach), it certainly has more night life than Stone Harbor, Avalon or Ocean City (a.k.a. Teetotaler’s Township).

Even before sunset, aptly named Shenanigans (609-263-3900) is buzzing with college kids, young professionals and a fair number of representatives from the Hair Club for Men. Ditto at the Carousel Bar (609-263-4951), the town’s only location for open-air libation. Here revelers sit at brightly colored tables, sipping frozen daiquiris (nine flavors!) and listening to acoustic tunes by a local singer-songwriter. House parties- fun and frequent- round out the social scene. And in this town, the festivities even float! Party boats like the 65-foot Starfish (609-263-3800) offer “nite bite” fishing trips, where you can hook flounder, sharks and other Jersey jaws.

By day, Sea Isle acts like most any family-style resort towns. Moms chase bucket-wielding toddlers around the wide, white beaches. Teenage girls in Target bikinis text message about the cute, new lifeguards. And dads line up in knee-deep water hoping to catch the world’s biggest bluefish.

In the evenings, families head to the small boardwalk (actually a paved walk, perfect for rollerblading) with all the requisite souvenir shops, arcade games, amusement rides and transfatty treats. It’s no Ocean City, but the kids still love it. -J.B.

WHO GOES THERE: Large, multi-generational families- many of Irish and Italian decent. Party-lovers of all ages. Fishing fanatics. Actress Maria Bello.

WHERE TO PLAY: Several beaches welcome catamarans, kayaks, inflatable rafts or surfboards- all of which you can rent in town. Or hitch a ride with Sea Isle City Parasail (609-263-5550), gliding up to 500 feet above the sea. For another adventure, head to the 29th Street beach for a free Beachcomber Walk (10 a.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays) to learn about sand dunes, tides, shore birds and endangered diamondback terrapins. During the week, check out the family freebies like Tuesday for Tots, featuring sing-alongs, face-painting and other kid-centric activities.

WHERE TO EAT: Dating back to 1909, the Braca CafŽ (609-263- 4271, http://www.bracacafe.com) has a history as rich as its bolognese sauce. The owner’s ancestors ran some of Sea Isle’s first businesses, from a barbershop to a silent movie theater. Today the cafŽ serves traditional Italian fare- family style, natch- with a twist. Try the grilled yellowfin tuna puttanesca.

On the bay between Sea Isle and Ocean City sits the Deauville Inn (609-263-2080, http://www.deauvilleinn.com), a locals’ favorite for straightforward seafood in an ultra-casual dockside setting. (Think plastic chairs and waterproof tablecloths.) Show you’re in the know and buy a “Where the hell is Strathmere?” T-shirt from the bar inside.

WHERE TO STAY: There’s just a handful of accommodations in Sea Isle, so most visitors rent condos or houses. The Colonnade Inn (609-263-0460, http://www.colonnaedeinn.com) is the town’s only bed and breakfast. Restored in 1990, the 18th-century boardinghouse has a Victorian feel with light, airy guestrooms and rich, antiques-filled common areas. Rates, from $160. The Sea Isle Inn (609-263-4371, http://www.seaisleinn.com), a large motel one block from the beach, offers just what you’d expect: no-frills rooms and efficiencies at an affordable price. Private pool and cocktail service, too. Rates, from $124.

INSIDERS’ TIP: The traffic and parking in Sea Isle can be painful. Do yourself a favor and ask about parking spaces, passes and lots when investigating hotels and rentals. Hitting the midtown bars? Catch one of the new Landis Avenue buses.

Stone Harbor/Avalon

Seven Mile Beach is like The Hamptons on Valium. This beautiful barrier island, comprised of Stone Harbor and Avalon, is where Main Liners and other posh Philadelphia-area families come to get away from it all. (Those back-to-back mani-pedi’s can be so exhausting.) This itty bit of the Jersey shore boasts more than $3.5 billion worth of luxury real estate. (No wonder Washingtonian magazine once dubbed it “the chicest beach in the Mid-Atlantic.”) But the seven-mile stretch is anything but snooty. In fact, many middle-class families return year after year to enjoy the beautiful beaches (think gentle waves, unspoiled white sand dunes) and low-key culture.

Ironically sandwiched between Wildwood and Atlantic City, Seven Mile Beach prides itself on sensory underload. The biggest stressor you might face? Getting caught sans beach tag by an overzealous teenage enforcer. (Hint: They’re all overzealous.) Even the parking is a breeze. On any given Saturday, you’ll find stroller-wielding couples (and their barefoot babes) boutique-hopping along Stone Harbor’s main drag, 96th Street. Older moms and dads enjoy “date night” at a casual restaurant, followed by a walk on the beach. Seniors head to the community center for the $5 big band dance. And well-behaved teenagers (the kind who apologize when they skateboard over your left foot) meet up for flirting in front of Tee Time Golf, where you can still get frozen Cokes.

But everyone eventually makes it to Springer’s Ice Cream- a nightly tradition in Stone Harbor- where the line frequently wraps around the block. Ask for a double scoop of homemade Bisque in a pretzel cone. You’ll be hooked. -J.B.

WHO GOES THERE: Trust fund babies, J. Crew-clad families (and their golden retrievers), thirty-something friends looking for a “Big Chill”-style retreat.

WHERE TO PLAY: One of the Jersey Shore’s hidden gems, the Wetlands Institute (609-368-1211, http://www.wetlandsinstitute.org) overlooks 6,000 acres of pristine salt marshes, where you can visit nesting osprey, watch terrapins plod through tall grasses and test your jokes on a gaggle of laughing gulls. The institute hosts a March Music concert series with folk, bluegrass, rock and Celtic artists. For waverunners and wakeboarding, check out Island Water Sports (609-967-5466, http://www.jerseyseashore.com/ islandwatersports) with locations in both Stone Harbor and Avalon. If architecture is your thing, stop by the Stone Harbor Museum (609-368-7500) to pick up a map of historic South End. On your selfguided walking or bike tour, you’ll discover such relics as Villa Maria Convent- the largest structure in Stone Harbor (and the site of the Nun’s Beach surf contest each September).

WHERE TO STAY: To rent your own pad, weekly rates range from $1,000 for a modest condo to more than $6,000 for large, beachfront houses. The Golden Inn (609-368-5155, http://www.goldeninn.com) is a wonderful, family-style resort with comfortable beachfront rooms, two fine restaurants, piano lounge, heated pool and a cabana bar/grill (with live music at happy hour). Doubles from $180. Just next door, the super-sized and newly renovated Windrift Resort Hotel (609-368- 5175, http://www.windrifthotel.com) has similar amenities (pool, beachfront location), along with a more casual restaurant and a lively lounge with dancing nightly- including some kid-centric entertainment (a pop cover band called the Party Dolls performs Sundays at 7 p.m.). In-season rates from $265. And both hotels offer efficiencies with kitchenettes.

WHERE TO EAT: Sea Grill (609-967-5511) offers an interactive dining experience. Just go to the kitchen window and order directly from the chef, who prepares filet mignon, roast duck, pork chops and seafood (natch) to your specifications. Avalon’s Tortilla Flats (609- 967-5659) serves the usual suspects (fajitas, tacos, burritos) and some surprises, like tamales in cornhusks and seafood enchiladas with black bean sauce. For a nightcap or a quick brew (java, that is), Coffee Talk is always buzzing. Locals swear by this Stone Harbor shop for its tasty cafŽ menu, live music and Tarot Card Tuesdays.

INSIDERS’ TIP: Shopping is a sport in Stone Harbor, where you’ll find highbrow furnishings (Trendz Home), beach bum gear (Pete Smith’s Surf Shop), Life is Good apparel (Island Pursuits) and Tiffanystyle silver baubles (Neptune’s Jewels). Be like the regulars and purchase an oversized, cuddly sweatshirt embroidered with the words Avalon or Stone Harbor from Breezin’ Up.

Wildwood

For years the Wildwoods- really three separate towns, North Wildwood, Wildwood and Wildwood Crest- were the vacation getaways for Philly’s working classes. In the 1950s boom years, welders and mechanics with their families in tow arrived in big-finned Chevys and weekended at the newly built motels with exotic names like El Coronado, Ala Moana and Fleur de Lis. Life was good. But sometime during the ‘70s, America’s car culture hit the brakes as did its fondness for neon-tinged mid-20th-century architecture.

Fast forward 35 years and the Wildwoods, riding a wave of nostalgia and soaring real estate prices, are suddenly cool again. The “Happy Days”-era architecture has even been repackaged under its very own moniker, Doo Wop.

Put on an oldies station and cruise Wildwood’s Ocean Avenue, a block off the beach, in your vintage Ford T-bird and you’ll swear it’s 1956 again. Nearly every block boasts a classic motel, complete with plastic palm trees, kidney-shaped pool and pastel-colored doors and trim. Even the Wawa mini-market and Subway sandwich shop sport Jetsonian neon signs.

But the beach is what made these towns so popular in the first place, and the Wildwoods’ 2.75 miles of sand are among the most spacious on the Jersey shore. At more than a half-mile wide, you’re not going to want to forget the suntan lotion in the car. Best of all, beach access is free. Of the three towns, Wildwood is the most centrally located to restaurants, night life and the boardwalk. Wildwood Crest has a more mellow scene, and North Wildwood boasts a few old bed and breakfasts in addition to its vintage motels.

But, alas, all is not well in Doo Wop land. Motel owners have found that tearing down their buildings to make way for pricey condominiums turns a better profit than renovation. (Case in point: This summer, the classic Rio Motel will be razed to make way for a controversial 25-story residential/retail development, topping Wildwood’s formerly tallest structure by about, oh, 20 stories.)

In fact, nearly 30 of the retro motels have already been torn down in the last three years, as preservationists fight a difficult battle against development. So if mid-20th-century kitsch is your thing, better get here before the old motels go the way of the pompadour. -J.S.

WHO GOES THERE: Nostalgia buffs, working-class families, characters from Bruce Springsteen songs.

WHERE TO PLAY: The best way to get a taste of the Wildwoods’ classic architecture is on a 45-minute trolley tour given by the Doo Wop Preservation League. Trolley tours hit most of the classic sites in town, including the Doo Wop Museum. Buy tickets by calling 609-884-5404 or in person at the Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce at 3306 Pacific Ave. Wildwood boasts the tallest Ferris wheel in the Northeast and one of the liveliest boardwalks as well. Several amusement piers jut out over the beach, which is so wide, one concession even offers monster trucks rides on the sand. If you’ve got kids in tow, hit the boards on the early side; the scene at night isn’t as family-friendly as Ocean City’s.

WHERE TO STAY: The Starlux (4806 Atlantic Ave.) is a Disney-esque interpretation of Doo Wop motels, set on a very busy intersection a block from the beach. For ultimate kitsch, rent one of its two vintage airstream trailers. (Rates, $199 to $325. 609-522-7412, http://www.thestarlux.com.) The Caribbean (5600 Ocean Ave., 609-522-8292), in Wildwood Crest, is somewhat quieter and retains the epitome of Doo Wop style with its sweeping U-shaped ramp. Rates, $85-$155. The Candlelight Inn (2310 Central Ave.), in Wildwood Crest is a four-story B&B with a wraparound porch. (Rates from $155, 609-522-6200, http://www.candlelight-inn.com.)

WHERE TO EAT: The Blue Olive Restaurant and Martini Bar (3601 Atlantic Ave., 609-522-7747) has 65 different kinds of martinis, a trendy fusion menu and a great Dop Wop sign out front. For seafood, head to the big fish houses on the bay side of the island, Urie’s Waterfront Restaurant (609-522-4189), Boathouse (609-729-5301) or Lobster House (609-844-8296). Families will dig the pizzas at Val’s Tomato Pies(609- 522-1333).

INSIDERS’ TIP: What would a ‘50s resort be without a good diner? The Wildwoods have five: the Apollo, Crestwood, Pink Cadillac, Star and Vegas.

Cape May

Cotton candy pink … lazy lilac … tantalizing teal. These aren’t the latest eye shadows from Maybelline. They’re just a few of the hues adorning Cape May’s Painted Ladies, the Victorian homes that dot the Jersey Shore’s most colorful destination.

First settled by migrant whalers in the mid-1600s, the 3.5-square-mile island became a popular summer retreat for affluent East Coasters in the early 1800s. (Ulysses S. Grant, P.T. Barnum and Henry Ford visited often.) Some Philadelphia doctors even prescribed trips to Cape May, so city folks could breathe salty-fresh air and beat the heat.

The Great Fire of 1878 destroyed some 30 blocks (about half the town). But Cape May rose from the ashes- with locals building hundreds of homes so sweet, they’d give Hansel and Gretel a toothache. Over the next few decades, America fell in love with these gingerbread abodes featuring whimsical gables, decorative cutouts and sweeping verandas lined with rocking chairs. And in 1976 the entire town became a National Historic Landmark. Tourism has gone swimmingly ever since. More than half a million visitors come each summer to hit the requisite beaches, boardwalk and souvenir shops. At the old-school Cape May Arcade, for example, you can still play Skee-Ball for 25 cents a pop. But in many ways, Cape May feels more like a small town- a slice of Americana with an oceanic fringe benefit. The town’s 4,700 year-round residents are dedicated to keeping the town’s history (and economy) alive. Together they’ve created a sort of living museum- and the only South Jersey destination to give Atlantic City a run for its money four seasons a year. -J.B.

WHO GOES THERE: Couples (gay and straight), preppie suburban families, the Red Hat Society, This Old House subscribers.

WHERE TO PLAY: The Cape May beach is serene and clean- though a tad scrawny compared to its neighbors. No worries. The town boasts many other outdoor destinations to round out your stay. Rent a bike (for one or two) at Cape Island Bicycle Center (609-884-8011, http://www.capislandbikerentals.com) and ride the three easy miles to Cape May Point State Park (609-884-2159), where you’ll climb 199 steps to the top of the state’s oldest operating lighthouse (circa 1859). Head back toward town on Sunset Boulevard, but stop near the Atlantus freighter, a hulking wreck that ran aground in 1926. This beach is your best bet for digging up Cape May Diamonds (actually clear quartz crystals). Sea lovers can play Finding Nemo- or, in this case, Finding Tippy the bottlenose dolphin- on a cruise with Cape May Whale Watch (609-898-1122, http://www.capemaywhalewatch.com).

WHERE TO STAY: Once considered President Benjamin Harrison’s “Summer White House,” Congress Hall (888-944-1816, http://www.congresshall. com) dates back to 1816, but recently underwent a $22 million face-lift. The graceful, 108-room landmark now boasts a Victorian-lite look with airy guest rooms, easy-breezy furnishings and crisp linens. Rates, $115 to $405. The Star Inn (800-297-3779, http://www.thestarinn.net) has nine inn rooms, 10 motel efficiencies, two carriage house suites and a great little coffee shop. No two rooms are decorated alike, but all share the same Martha-esque palate and simplicity. Rates, $95 to $475. Just a hop, skip and jump away lives The Wooden Rabbit (609-884-7293, http://www.woodenrabbit. com), an 1838 Federal inn appointed with four-poster beds, jelly cupboards, Nantucket baskets and other nouveau country accents. Robert E. Lee slept here. Rates, $180 to $240.

WHERE TO EAT: Dive into Axelsson’s Blue Claw (609-884-5878, http://www.blueclawrestaurant.com) for the house specialty: Fisherman’s Kettle (a seafood medley sautŽed, sauced and served in a copper pot). 410 Bank Street (609-884-2127, http://www.410bankstreet.com) boasts an inspired fusion of French, Cajun and Caribbean flavors on the veranda of this 1850s cottage. The most lauded restaurant on the island, The Ebbitt Room at The Virginia (609-884-5700, http://www.virginiahotel.com) serves up creative-contemporary plates (think mushroom-crusted tuna seasoned with curry and cilantro) in a refined setting. Or sample some Southern hospitality at The Magnolia Room at The Chalfonte (609- 884-8409, http://www.chalfonte.com), which suggests kids dine during “Family Time” between 6 and 7 p.m.

INSIDERS’ TIP: For entertaining eats, try Elaine’s Dinner Theater (one of the nation’s Top Five, according to The Food Network), which also hosts spooky-cool shows year-round in the Haunted Mansion Dining Room (609-884-4358, http://www.elainesdinnertheater.com).

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