Make plans to visit this family-friendly beach town in New Jersey when the pandemic is over
By Carole Sugarman
There were no swimsuit or evening gown competitions at this beauty pageant, but the winner was quite a leggy individual. Ten legs, in fact. That’s because the pageant queen—who took a wobbly victory walk down a miniature runway—was a hermit crab, capturing the 2019 title of Miss Crustacean of Ocean City, New Jersey.
And if anyone in the audience misconstrued the event as a test of good looks, Michael Hartman, Ocean City’s special events coordinator and lively master of ceremonies for the pageant, was quick to correct them. “This is a scholarship program,” he deadpanned at the outset of the competition, held at the city’s civic center.
It was just another fun and endearingly wacky happening in the beach town, where families and kids built themed dioramas to pose their decorated hermit crabs (think a Crab-Tain Hook pirate ship or a Crabby in Wonderland tea party). “Crabs Got Talent,” the winner of the combination crab-and-craft contest, was a cardboard stage lookalike of the popular show America’s Got Talent made by a family from Collegeville, Pennsylvania.
No wonder Ocean City, founded on a barrier island by four Methodist ministers in 1879, bills itself as “America’s Greatest Family Resort.” Aside from a bustling boardwalk and a host of unique kid-friendly activities, the seaside locale is dry, meaning that alcoholic beverages can’t be sold within the city limits. So unlike Ocean City, Maryland, there are no Dirty Banana cocktails like those served at Seacrets Jamaica USA; the raciest that things get in OCNJ is a Dirty Hippie (chai tea latte with espresso) at Jon & Patty’s Coffee Bar & Bistro.
In fact, a visit to the “other Ocean City” is like taking a trip to the past. There’s an old-fashioned sweetness to the place, with its quaint bakeries, broad streets lined with new or restored Victorians, numerous playgrounds, and multipurpose community center. Taylor Pork Roll—a processed pork product invented by 19th century New Jersey businessman and politician John Taylor—appears on seemingly every breakfast menu.
The boardwalk is chockablock with rides, arcades, surrey (four-wheeled carriage) rentals and a slew of bikini-busting eats. The wide beach is amply staffed with lifeguards. The ice cream vendors who set up carts at entryways to the beach ring bells to alert sun worshippers that it’s time for a Popsicle.
What makes the place even more distinctive as a beach resort is the vibrant downtown area a few blocks from the boardwalk, with 100 locally owned shops and restaurants, ranging from old school to trendy. There’s Wallace Hardware, founded in 1909, and Hoy’s 5&10, but there are also nail salons, tony home furnishing shops, and clothing boutiques with chic beach attire.
And besides the Miss Crustacean contest, people flock to the annual Doo Dah Parade, featuring marching bands, floats and hundreds of costumed basset hounds (88-year-old actress Barbara Eden, the star of yesteryear’s I Dream of Jeannie, was the 2019 grand marshal). In decorated strollers and wagons, babies and children compete in the 110-year-old Baby Parade; at the other end of the age spectrum, the Mr. Mature America Pageant celebrates the accomplishments of men 55 years and older. Then there’s the Night in Venice, an elaborate boat parade and waterfront-home decorating contest capped off with fireworks.
Aside from all the people-made fun, respites in nature are close by. Directly west of Ocean City lies Great Egg Harbor Bay, home to boating, water sports, fishing and crabbing. On the south end of Ocean City, Corson’s Inlet offers a state park with hiking trails, interpretive tours, and habitats teeming with wildlife and birds…just the antidote to a night of belting out “Brown Eyed Girl” at a boardwalk singalong and being coerced onto the roller coaster.
When this story was written earlier this year, we had no way of knowing that these businesses could be closed because of a pandemic. While we hope all of them will be able to reopen, check online or call before visiting.
Where to Eat
On the boardwalk, concentrate on nostalgic operations such as Shriver’s, which has been making candy and fudge since 1898. Walk through an enormous candy land of chocolates and every imaginable flavor of fudge (pumpkin, Irish mint, pistachio, Black Forest cherry) to the very back of the shop, where you can watch staffers make saltwater taffy on a pulling machine. Next head to Johnson’s Popcorn, which has been serving warm, not-too-sweet caramel-coated popcorn since 1940. There’s a great debate over the best boardwalk pizza. Manco & Manco (originally Mack & Manco) is an OCNJ institution similar to OCMD’s Grotto Pizza. We think Grotto has a slight edge. We still put our OCNJ ice cream money on Kohr Bros., which has been turning out top-notch frozen custard since 1919 and is familiar to visitors of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and OCMD. For a more updated icy treat, don’t miss a banana whip (frozen pureed bananas combined with other frozen pureed fruit, plus toppings and add-ins) at the Bashful Banana Bakery & Café.
Selling from-scratch goodies, home-style bakeries rule here, and doughnuts are king. Crisp on the outside, soft and cakey inside, Browns freshly made doughnuts are a total wow; eat ’em while they’re hot—just not on the boardwalk, as aggressive seagulls are prone to dive- bomb and steal them right out of your hands. A few blocks away on the boardwalk, Oves Restaurant’s apple cider doughnuts are also made daily on-site; they’re denser than Browns’ and maybe a tad less spectacular. But the line usually isn’t as long, and you can rent bikes and surreys there to burn off the calories.
Off the boardwalk, Dot’s Pastry Shop sells cream-filled doughnuts and has a loyal following. Another must-try are Mallon’s Homemade Sticky Buns with their buttery interiors and sticky not-too-sweet topping; get the bestselling version with walnuts and raisins. And Wards Pastry is worth a visit, if only to see the decades-old bakery’s collection of cookie jars, and to check out the savory-sweet scrapple pie.
Since Ocean City restaurants can’t sell alcoholic beverages, there’s no real fine-dining scene. But a note to exhausted parents craving an end-of-beach-day beer: There are bars and restaurants right outside the city limits—in Somers Point and Strathmere, for example—that serve alcohol, and it’s hard to miss the 10,000-square-foot Boulevard Super Liquors store in nearby Marmora.
Within the city, charming family-friendly outposts serve breakfast, sandwiches and salads, such as Ready’s Coffee Shop & Restaurant, with its green vinyl booths and knotty pine walls, or Kessel’s Korner, with its fabulous salad platters, hoagies and seasonal fresh peach sundaes. For something other than boardwalk pizza for dinner, Bennie’s Bread makes a memorable tomato pie, and Piccini’s bacon cheeseburger pizza was featured in a 2015 episode of Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on the Food Network. On Asbury Avenue, Jon & Patty’s Bar & Bistro serves creative dishes with fresh, well-designed preparations; Cousin’s has a twilight menu (4:30 to 5:30 p.m.) that includes Italian entrees with salad, vegetable, bread and dessert for under $20, and Boyar’s Market offers an extensive selection of homemade prepared foods for takeout, such as fried chicken and pulled pork.
Where to Shop
Beach weather or not, plan a morning or afternoon stroll along Asbury Avenue, the heart of Ocean City’s downtown. For all the things you forgot to pack, head to Hoy’s 5&10, brimming with beach toys, underwear, hangers, bug spray, plungers and more. For all the things the kids want, Kay Jay’s Doll Shoppe stocks crafts, puzzles, toys and games, as well as American Girl, Bitty Baby and WellieWishers dolls, plus bargain-priced homemade doll clothing. For beach reads, there’s Sun Rose Words & Music, an independently owned shop selling new books, office and art supplies, greeting cards, games and music CDs, or The Bookateria Two, a secondhand store crammed with used paperbacks. Bowfish Kids, a children’s clothing store, has a magical space called Bowfish Studios, where kids can be transformed into mermaids, unicorns, fairies, sharks and dragons—via makeup, hairstyles, temporary tattoos and costumes. The shop also runs a Mermaid Camp (for one or four days), and yes, kids learn to swim with a tail. Tweens up to twentysomethings will enjoy Island Gypsy’s casual, hip attire, and moms will find something among the beautiful shirts and sweaters at Donna-Gay Dillon Boutique.
Where to Stay
The three nicest accommodations on the boardwalk are Port-O-Call, a pretty pink building with a lavender and aqua-appointed lobby, beachside pool and grill, restaurant, spa services and two accommodations that can sleep up to eight people; The Flanders Hotel, an Old World-inspired spot built in 1923 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places that offers lobby shops, a restaurant serving three meals a day plus high tea, and multiroom units; and the Beach Club Hotel, where the Café Beach Club restaurant, next to the beachside pool, serves one of the best breakfasts and lunches on the boardwalk. The hotel also runs an adjacent building with one-bedroom suites and kitchenettes.
For longer stays, Ocean City has plenty of house rentals, with a wide range of prices and accommodations. To secure a rental, contact Berger Realty (bergerrealty.com), Monihan Realty (monihan.com) or Berkshire Hathaway (njshore.foxroach.com/area/ocean-city).
What to Do
Family activities are scheduled seemingly every day or evening. Face painters and balloon sculptors entertain the kids on Asbury Avenue on Funtastic Tuesdays or Thursday’s Market Days, while Thursday night is Family Night on the boardwalk, with live music, singalongs, magicians and Hula-Hoop contests. Not to mention that there are children’s plays every Tuesday morning and activities such as french fry or taffy sculpting on Wacky Wednesdays at the Ocean City Music Pier, which also holds all kinds of events and concerts (Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes are scheduled for July 6). The calendar on the Ocean City website (oceancityvacation.com) will keep you posted about daily activities.
On the boardwalk, Gillian’s Wonderland Pier, owned by Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian, has lots of ride options for younger kids, while Playland’s Castaway Cove entices thrill seekers with rides like Extreme Cyclone or Alien Abduction. In 2020, tags are required for access to the beach from June 6 through Sept. 7. Hotels often provide them, or check ocnj.us/beachtags for locations where they can be purchased.
For bayside activities, businesses lining the aptly-named Bay Avenue rent Jet Skis, WaveRunners, parasails, kayaks, catamarans, paddleboards, you name it. Pirate Voyages leads daily bay excursions aboard the Sea Dragon; kids search for treasure and wear pirate garb. And don’t miss Totally Tubular Watersports’ Aqua Park, an obstacle course/playground located right in the water (life jackets provided).
Carole Sugarman, a contributing editor for Bethesda Magazine, lives in Chevy Chase and visits Ocean City, New Jersey, every summer.