Best of Jersey: People, Places and Things

A list of the best places and things in New Jersey.

TV PERSONALITY You have to give NJN’s indefatigable Michael Aron credit for longevity and tenacity in educating viewers on what the hell is going on in the Statehouse.

SHOCK JOCKS They’re obnoxious, opinionated, and generally boorish, but the Jersey Guys, a.k.a. Craig Carton and Ray Rossi, on New Jersey 101.5-FM, also say things that many of us feel but lack the guts to admit. And you’ve got to love that they single-handedly lobbied FHM readers to vote for Cherry Hill hairstylist Lauren Harris in the magazine’s Miss FHM contest. (She beat 63 other hotties for the honor.) Who needs Miss America?

STATE BOOSTER
She made a name for herself as the sardonic wit on Fox’s That ’70s Show, but Watchung native Laura Prepon never fails to proudly mention her New Jersey roots.

COLUMNIST The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Monica Kinney knows not only how to provide insight with words; she also gives South Jersey a voice and an identity.

CHEF He may be fussy and a little too serious about food, but the Ryland Inn’s Craig Shelton is a maestro of French cuisine who is still light-years ahead of his peers.

JEWELER With her countess-worthy accent, impeccable manicure, Sex and the City–worthy blowout, and eye for sparkly things, jeweler Yanina—like Cher, she needs no last name—has turned her eponymous Cedar Grove boutique into a mecca for the well-accessorized lady who lunches.

NATIVE WHO’S DONE US PROUD
After Hurricane Katrina decimated Louisiana, actor John Travolta got behind the controls of his private jet to deliver 5 tons of food and 400 doses of tetanus vaccine—all of which he bought—to weary survivors and rescue workers.

SERMON Suburbanites travel from as far as 50 miles away to catch the electric, funny, and heartfelt Sunday homilies delivered by former Vietnam War protester Father Michael Doyle at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Camden. He’s a bright light in a place that desperately needs one.

PICTURE-POSTCARD SPOT
At Allison Park in Englewood Cliffs, you can drink in views of the New York City skyline and George Washington Bridge without leaving the state.

PLACE TO COMMUNE WITH NATURE
It’s not over the rainbow, but pick any spot along the outrageously beautiful Musconetcong River, which flows southwest from Lake Hopatcong to the mighty Delaware at Riegelsville, and dream yourself away to a place where your troubles won’t find you.

STATE SONG
Not exactly a Top 40 staple, “The Garden State Stomp,” a witty ditty whose lyrics are composed entirely of the names of New Jersey towns, is an unlikely testament to the genius of late folk singer Dave Van Ronk.

RECENT BOOK ABOUT NEW JERSEY
Loaded with lavish real estate eye candy, John K. Turpin and W. Barry Thomson’s just-released New Jersey Country Houses: The Somerset Hills, Volume 2, a follow-up to their 2004 coffee-table tome, pays yet more rightful homage to the glorious and grand estates that dot Bedminster, Far Hills, and beyond, and provides an elegant keyhole into the lives of New Jersey’s rich and not-so-famous.

FARM STAND
This was a tough call, so we’re calling it a tie. The Collingswood Farmers’ Market, held seasonally on Saturday mornings, has that authentic rural feel and hustle-bustle. B. F. Mazzeo’s in Northfield lovingly selects and sells amazing Jersey Fresh produce and gift baskets.

ADVOCATE Our state boasts some impressive philanthropic endeavors, but one of our favorites is the relatively unsung Alice Paul Institute in Mount Laurel, which works tirelessly to promote self-worth and leadership qualities in girls.

ZOO
It’s small, but Van Saun County Park in Paramus boasts a kid-friendly choo-choo, a carousel, pony rides, and bucolic picnic grounds. Admission is a terrific $2 for kids under fourteen and $4 for alleged grownups; Bergen County residents pay $1.50 and $2.50 respectively.

HIKING SPOT A walk to the top of South Mountain Reservation in Essex County will clear your head—and remind you of just how beautiful New Jersey’s urban/suburban vistas can be.

ANNUAL EVENT
We can’t decide which horsey event makes us feel more Thurston and Lovey: the annual Far Hills Race Meeting or opening day at Monmouth Park Racetrack. In either case, they’re off!

MUSEUM Sometimes forgotten in the persistent hullabaloo over NJPAC three blocks away, the Newark Museum quietly enlightens, inspires, and entertains us with its 80 exhibit-packed galleries.

B&B Cape May is chockablock with lace-curtained Victorian inns, but the Southern Mansion’s Savannah charm makes you feel like you can almost smell the morning dew on the honeysuckle. Grand, gracious, and worth the cost.

BEST REASON FOR HISTORIC PRESERVATION The outdoor pool at the Jewish Community Center in Ewing is of your standard suburban variety: jumping kids, bored lifeguards twirling their whistles, moms hoping to be able to sit for ten blissful uninterrupted minutes before someone demands a sippy cup. But within the center lies a time machine: an ersatz Grecian ruin with massive block walls, squat columns, and a pyramid-shaped roof. The Trenton Bathhouse was designed by the late Louis Kahn and built in 1955. Kahn went on to design such legendary edifices as the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. Now, with the JCC pressing ahead with plans to sell the Ewing property, Kahn’s cinder-block masterpiece may be at risk of the wrecking ball. Check out trentonbathhouse.org, which suggests alternative uses for the bathhouse.

BEST INVENTION YOU HAD NO IDEA WAS INVENTED HERE It was the squishy, colorful, and occasionally, um, tasty stuff of our collective childhood, but Play-Doh—which turned 50 last year—is also a point of pride for all who call New Jersey home. It turns out the idea for the malleable kids’ modeling clay was conceived by Dover nursery school teacher Kay Zufall. In the mid-1950s, Zufall’s brother-in-law owned a struggling Cincinnati company that manufactured a dough-like cleaner for removing coal dust from wallpaper. After reading a magazine’s suggestion for fashioning holiday ornaments out of the substance, Zufall saw its potential in the hands of her small pupils, who immediately were enchanted by its stretchy property and versatility. Zufall shared her brainstorm with her brother-in-law, Joe McVicker, and the end result was Play-Doh, a name Zufall coined, which remains one of the best-selling children’s products today. Alas, Zufall, who now lives in Mountain Lakes with her husband, Bob, didn’t make a dime off the idea, but if she’s bitter, she hides it well. “It didn’t occur to us that this would be anything,” she recently told the Star-Ledger.

BEST OF THE BARD If you think Shakespeare is just a fishing-tackle maker, get thee to the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival. This company dedicated to keeping the prolific playwright’s spirit alive is housed on the Drew University campus in Madison. The 2006 schedule includes stagings of Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Pride and Prejudice. Tickets, please.

BEST RECLAMATION OF PUBLIC OFFICE
Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo has done a remarkable job of getting the county more money for programs, parks, the upgrade of Turtle Back Zoo, and generally cleaning up the reputation of an office that saw his predecessor led away in handcuffs. He also oversaw the restoration of the Essex County Courthouse, which belongs on the must-see list of any devotee of history, architecture, or art.

UNSUNG PHILANTHROPIST Every November since 2000, Bob Benjamin, a band manager from Highland Park, has staged the three-day Light of Day concerts, which raise money for the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation and the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association. “I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1995,” Benjamin says, “and I just thought, I am not going to sit around and feel sorry for myself, so I’d better get started on beating this.” At the shows, which play at the Stone Pony and the Starland Ballroom, the Boss shows up as an unbilled performer, joining dozens of artists who all jam for free. More than $750,000 has been raised to date.

BEST CLOSING ACT
The Lillian Booth Actors’ Home in Englewood gives 109 elderly show-biz pros a home and healthcare, regardless of their bank accounts. The experiences of onetime residents Joseph Sultzer and Charles Marks, known on the vaudeville circuit as Smith and Dale, inspired Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys.

BEST HEADBANGER Jeff Phillip Wielandt was nineteen, pumping gas, and playing in a Shore cover band called Zyris when Ozzy Osbourne called. By age twenty, he became Zakk Wylde, and he’s spent the past two decades as Osbourne’s heavy-metal muse and guitar god. His tunes helped fuel his boss’s revitalization and earn Wylde and Osbourne a Grammy. Don’t let the gonzo appearance fool you; Wylde and his wife, Barbaranne, have been together since they were kids growing up in Jackson, and they have three children. Wylde’s 2005 solo album, Mafia, debuted at No. 15 on Billboard’s Top 100 and No. 1 on the magazine’s independent chart.

BEST HOMECOMING Rapper/singer/Oscar-nominated actress Queen Latifah hosted the star-studded world premiere of her latest flick, Last Holiday, in her hometown of Newark, with a swanky party in January at the Newark Museum. Now that’s celebrating your roots in style, and she nurtures those roots by investing in the city’s redevelopment efforts. All hail the Queen!

BEST ROAD TRIP Gwen Cobb works in Newark and lives in Cherry Hill—a 140-mile round-trip. Cobb got a shock when a fellow Turnpike motorist informed her that a cat was peeking out of the engine compartment of her car. She stopped in New Brunswick and watched in disbelief as the newly dubbed Miracle the Cat sauntered out from beneath the car—one small burn, a missing claw, but none the worse for wear. Miracle did suggest checking out a weird screeching sound coming from the engine.

BEST OVERHAUL Adventure Aquarium at Camden’s waterfront is swimming in change. A 4-D theater, a West African habitat where hippos display their underwater grace, and an enormous shark tank with a glass tunnel that lets you watch the cartilaginous creatures swim overhead are among the overhauls to what was already a pretty great tourism staple. With nearly 200,000 square feet of space, it’s one place where you won’t hear the phrase I’m bored.

BEST FUTURE OVERHAUL
While Liberty Science Center undergoes a top-to-bottom overhaul, Jersey City’s historic Central Railroad of New Jersey terminal is serving as Liberty Science Center Riverside. And as parents and kids wait for the 2007 unveiling of the revamped facility, its school and community outreach programs will be doubled.

BEST SHOOTER Can’t get Aunt Sophie or Cousin Lou to smile for the camera at the same time? Imagine trying to tell today’s celebrities that they need to turn up the star power. Ventnor native John Russo, who studied photography at Richard Stockton College, has been shooting celebrities, temperamental and otherwise, for fifteen years. You’ll see his work all over the pop-culture scene, including our January cover of that guy from that band.

BEST MOONLIGHTER Ruth Ann Mandell is a public defender, fearless in the pursuit of convincing juries that her clients are wrongly accused. But the 47-year-old Cherry Hill resident faces a tougher audience as she spends evenings and weekends trying to earn some props as “Ruthy the Rapper,” We’ll know she’s made it if she gets into a beef with a rival rapper and winds up defending herself in court: Ruthy getting’ all legal/In her suits she’s looking regal/Wanna test her truthful zeal /Or get smart and take a plea deal?

BEST OBSESSION Ever been curious enough about a feat to actually try it (most couch time doesn’t count)? Gordon T. Ward was always intrigued by the Lewis & Clark expedition, so the Bedminster resident talked a friend, Todd Paige, into packing a bag and recreating the journey. His book, Life on the Shoulder, recounts a trek by bike, canoe, and other fairly modern methods that required no less dedication.

BEST LEGACY Newark City historian Charles Cummings died in December after a brief illness. He carried on a 40-year love affair with the city and was an invaluable asset to Newark native Philip Roth as the author researched material for his Newark-centric novels. Cummings was a gleeful proponent of the city, imparting information important or arcane for anyone else working on a Newark-related project. Cummings worked at the city’s public library and had a number of exhibits prepped to be shown there, ensuring that his legacy will live on.

BEST MULTI-TASKER Industry executives are calling The Wumblers the new Barney, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending upon how crazy the ubiquitous purple dinosaur drives you. The woman behind The Wumblers is Laura Wellington, a widow and mother of four and former teacher who lives in Tenafly. The show’s lead character is Bertrum, an amorphous, bulbous-nosed character, who with his best pal, a Spanish-speaking snail named Raimundo, learns valuable lessons about living in a global world and embracing diversity. The show, geared to 2-to-6-year-olds, will air on Fox 4kids, and is syndicated in more than 15 countries. But aside from overseeing her rose-colored, multi-culti cartoon, Wellington, who lost her husband to cancer three ago, has also been running her husband’s two financial-services companies in Fort Lee and raising their children. “I am so grateful to have the opportunity to affect children and families all over the world with my message of valuing diversity,” she says. “It’s just surreal that a girl from Jersey can walk into the industry and take it by storm.”

BEST PLACE TO FEEL LIKE YOU’RE NOT IN THIS COUNTRY Ballyowen Golf Club in Hamburg. With traditional Irish fare on the menu, fescue abound, a starter in full Irish regalia, sheep at the clubs entrance, waitresses in kilts, and a bagpiper at sundown, you might actually think you’ve died and gone to Ireland.

BEST BASKETBALL COACH Rutgers’ women’s basketball coach, C. Vivian Stringer. Duh.

BEST CAMPGROUND IN NEW JERSEY With 15,996 acres to explore, Stokes State Forest is a playground for the outdoorsman. Visitors can walk the Lackner Trail, climb to the top of Sunrise Mountain, or check out the Tillman Ravine. And when you get tired and hungry, there are cabins to rent and places to picnic.

BEST HIGHWAY SENSATION Driving 55 MPH under the new EZPass on the Garden State Parkway at the Raritan tolls.

MOST ENTERTAINING NJ BLOG baristanet.com

BEST BET IN A.C. Fifth-generation family-owned Fralinger’s Salt Water Taffy, which originated in A.C., claims to have “sea air and sunshine sealed in every box.”

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