A couple’s journey leads them inside the belly of Jersey’s favorite beast.
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Size does matter. At least that is my thought as I chauffeur the woman I married through the Garden State from our New York City home en route to our evening’s romantic destination. This was, in fact, a surprise anniversary celebration, the ritual I’ve taken far too seriously since we left our wedding reception by hot-air balloon 23 years ago. Every anniversary since, we’ve canoodled in either a lighthouse or tree house, caboose or submarine, opulent castle or rustic wigwam, spinning windmill or swaying nest—even in a giant concrete shoe.
By this point, my wife seemed ready to expect almost anything. But not this. The amber light of late afternoon paints waving grassy estuaries in southern Jersey as we cross one last graceful bridge onto a narrow barrier island. At long last, I lower the radio and apply the brakes as our Saturn slowly pulls into a sandy lot and under the deep shadows of something truly gargantuan. Lori’s jaw drops and confused disbelief slowly yields to giddy excitement. For only the second time since Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, a couple would have an opportunity to appreciate the truly sublime experience of sleeping inside an elephant’s stomach.
A six-story, 90-ton hallucinatory vision of zoomorphological architecture, Lucy the Elephant, located in Margate City, is one of America’s earliest roadside attractions. The giant beast seems to have stampeded out of the ripped pages of a children’s storybook. Unveiled in 1881, five years before the completion of the Statue of Liberty, the colossal wooden pachyderm was meant not to stir maritime travelers with hopes of freedom, but rather to inspire real estate transactions envisioned from a howdah platform on the elephant’s back.
Before checking in with the director at the adjacent gift shop, we stroll toward the beach, serenaded by the high-pitched shrieks of gulls. In the fading light, we head for shelter’s warmth and excitedly crack open a hidden door in Lucy’s hind leg. Clambering up winding steps, we penetrate a voluptuous cobweb of internal framing timber. More than 8,500 ribs, 200 kegs of nails and 4 tons of bolts provide the skeletal integrity of this mighty Asian elephant. Our voices reverberate in the majestic, 900-square-foot stomach. Lucy’s innards are painted “gastric pink”; the color is said to resemble the actual anatomical hues of the mammal’s gastrointestinal tract. Besides a pane in the butt, there are 21 other windows allowing light into the cathedral-like interior with its collection of historical artifacts and giant peanuts.
After taking in the exhibits, a cozy restaurant across the street offers a hearty menu of entrées. Out of respect for our ivory-tusked friend lurking outside, we steer clear of roasted and sautéed mammals and go for the chicken.
Back inside Lucy, her unblinking glass eyes are windows out to the crashing ocean waves; the illuminated peepers provide a blue nightlight as we prepare our inflated mattress on an exhibit-hall podium. The gentle creaking of century-old beams lulls me to sleep. Yet later, for some unfathomable reason, vivid dreams of Jonah and the whale make me restless. I worry that my tossing and turning is keeping my partner awake. Wish I’d brought a larger mattress. Size does matter.
Peter Guttman has twice won the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year Award. He is the author of five books and creator of the bestselling iPad travel app, Beautiful Planet HD.
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