The Laid-Back Luxuries of LBI

New Jerseyans in need of an island vacation need go no farther than this sliver of land in Ocean County. Come along with us and sample all there is to see and do at this great Garden State destination.

A gorgeous summer day in LBI.
A gorgeous summer day in LBI.
Photo by James J. Connolly

Seagulls swoop above the waves. Bodies slung with beach gear hotfoot it across sand-dusted streets. Kids take aim on putt-putt greens. Ice cream dribbles down a toddler’s belly. Fishing boats bob off sun-bleached docks. Airplanes tow banners through aquamarine skies. Strangers sip cocktails elbow to elbow beneath strings of fairy lights.
Welcome to summer on Long Beach Island.

Although just 18 miles long and never wider than a half mile, this barrier island—known to all as LBI—maintains a powerful grip on regulars and effortlessly seduces newcomers. It’s easy to settle into the rhythm of island life. All it takes is a hankering to escape and a supply of sunscreen. For most, there’s only one way onto LBI (the Route 72 causeway from Manahawkin) and one way to leave (refreshed, renewed and probably regretful that the vacation is over).

LBI is segmented in seemingly arbitrary fashion into six municipalities. Crossing the Route 72 causeway, the first one you hit is Ship Bottom, LBI’s welcome mat. If you’ve arrived hungry, you’re in luck. Head north on Long Beach Boulevard, LBI’s main drag, and keep an eye out for the vintage blue 1978 VW bus with longboards strapped to the top. You’ve arrived at Woodies Drive-In (509 Long Beach Boulevard). It’s a fun stop for burgers, dirty fries (sprinkled with Old Bay seasoning), crab cakes and banana whips (nondairy and delicious). Perhaps it’s still early enough for breakfast. That would suggest Jayson’s Pancake House (500 Long Beach Boulevard), renowned for huge portions and good coffee.

If you’re eager to dig your toes in the sand, you can do it here. Street parking is free near the beach (that’s it right in front of you as you drive off the causeway)—but be aware that each of LBI’s municipalities requires its own daily, weekly or seasonal beach tag for visitors 12 and older. If you’ve towed along a boat, you can launch it at one of several Ship Bottom boat ramps. If you’re into crabbing or fishing, you can drop your lines at any of four Ship Bottom piers. Kids who can’t wait to knock a golf ball into a hippo’s mouth can whack away at Hartland Golf & Arcade. Short on swimwear? You’ll probably find what you need at the original Ron Jon Surf Shop, a local landmark since 1961.

Luxe Beach Island
If Ship Bottom feels too touristy, head north on Long Beach Boulevard, pass the arty enclave of Surf City (we’ll return later), and slip into the chilled-out residential borough of Harvey Cedars, one of the more exclusive enclaves on the Jersey Shore. A recent Zillow search yielded a half-dozen post-Superstorm Sandy homes—heavy on glass, wood and panoramic views—with price tags reaching almost $5 million. Beachgoing among the upper crust is possible here. You just need to find a place to park. For the little ones, an ideal stop is Harvey Cedars Bay Beach (at East 75th Street; beach badge required). It’s just a block-wide strip of west-facing beach on Barnegat Bay. There are no facilities, but there’s a small parking lot and a gazebo for shade.

From Harvey Cedars, we proceed north to Loveladies, an unincorporated neighborhood in the northernmost section of the larger Long Beach Township. The main attraction here is the Long Beach Island Foundation of the Arts and Sciences, a long-running nonprofit where grown-ups can take classes in everything from basketry to plein air painting, and kids between the ages of 3 and 16 can settle in for summer camp. The foundation also offers films and intimate concerts, and operates a gallery whose walls are often hung with works demonstrating why painters are drawn to LBI for its light. Exhibitions are free. For the eco-conscious, the foundation offers daily salt-marsh and maritime-forest tours (reservations required at least 24 hours in advance) around the 21-acre property, LBI’s largest privately owned parcel of open space and the habitat for ospreys, seahorses, turtles, horseshoe crabs and other island critters.

Tackling Barnegat Light
At LBI’s northern end we reach Barnegat Light, the most brinily atmospheric LBI enclave. Here you’ll find bobbing commercial fishing boats, plus marinas, charter boats and seafood shacks. But the clearest indication you’ve arrived in a maritime hub is the towering, 172-foot-tall, red-and-white Barnegat Lighthouse. Lovingly known as Old Barney, the lighthouse was originally lit in 1859 and today is star of a small state park. The park offers a pleasant, self-guided loop through a one-fifth-mile tract of dense forest.

“A lot of the action is here,” says Pam Larson, boasting of her town’s attractions. One of those is Viking Village, a huddle of charming restaurants and shops housed in tiny, repurposed fishing shacks. Among them is Larson’s own Seawife, a whimsical home-décor shop.

At Barnegat Light, the hearty can climb Old Barney’s 217 steps for a sweeping view of the island and Barnegat Bay. Those who prefer to stay grounded can explore the Barnegat Lighthouse Interpretive Center, which documents the tower’s history. Bird-watching is another attraction. Birders flock here in spring and fall to witness the annual bird migrations.

Larson, the wife of longtime Barnegat Light Mayor Kirk Larson, recommends a commercial dock tour (available Fridays beginning at 10 am, July 6 through August 31). “We have captains who pull up their boats and talk about the seafood industry,” she says. You’ll also get to see their morning haul of scallops. Movie buffs can poke around the harbor to find the Lindsay L, a Viking Village scallop boat owned by the Larson family that was featured in the George Clooney flick The Perfect Storm (its cinematic name was the Hannah Boden).

One visitor last summer, Richard Jessen of Perth Amboy, was drawn to the Barnegat Light Museum in the town’s one-room schoolhouse, which dates to 1903. The museum’s collection includes the first flashing lens used in Old Barney, plus vintage photos of the area. There’s also a tiny history museum in Viking Village where Jessen watched a film about the town’s Scandinavian roots.

“I enjoy learning about what this place looked like years ago,” said Jessen. He also enjoyed finding a shady place to sit while his wife, Carlotta, browsed for knickknacks at the Seawife and Vintage Gray, a hip Viking Village store offering jewelry, lanterns, linens and more.

The couple ended their visit to Barnegat Light at Kelly’s Old Barney restaurant (208 Broadway), a nautical spot known for its clam chowder. Other dining choices at this end of the island include Mustache Bill’s (West 8th Street and Broadway), a classic Jersey diner built in 1959 almost as iconic hereabouts as Old Barney itself, and Daymark Bar & Restaurant (404 Broadway), a sleek new eatery that debuted in June 2017, open for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch.

Surf City (Here We Come!)
Back in the car and retracing our drive south, we head for Surf City, LBI’s arts enclave. Local galleries clustered along Long Beach Boulevard include Solace Studio & Gallery, which specializes in paintings and mixed media; SwellColors Glass Studio & Gallery, selling stained glass and paintings and also offering classes in mosaics, fused light catchers and night-lights made with genuine LBI sand; and Ginny Friedman Studio, featuring miniature arrangements and botanical jewelry. But the shiniest jewel in Surf City may be the M.T. Burton Gallery & 19th Street Clay Studio, which represents local and national painters and sculptors, as well as studio owner Matt Burton himself.

Burton, an adjunct instructor of the arts at Ocean County College in Toms River, spends most of the year cultivating the LBI arts community. “We’re all very supportive of each other, and we all have our own sort of niche,” says Burton of his fellow local gallerists. Every June for the past 12 years, more than a dozen band together for a one-day open-studio tour; this year’s event is June 30.

Though he exhibits some paintings and jewelry, Burton’s gallery, open since 2000, focuses on ceramics, including his own abstract, often beachy sculptures and pottery painted in sun-faded colors. Burton also teaches clay-working classes. On a sunny Thursday last summer, three women sat at the studio’s pottery wheels smoothing slippery orbs of clay that would become handmade bowls.
“I stopped by here about 10 years ago when he had a sign out that said ‘Pottery lessons,’ and I never stopped coming,” said Sue Troy, a Surf City year-rounder since 2006. She’s gotten so good that her pieces are occasionally available for sale in the gallery.

Before leaving Surf City, entertain your sweet tooth at Country Kettle Fudge (1915 Long Beach Boulevard), an LBI institution since 1955. Here, you can pick up some taffy or fudge handmade in the shop’s copper kettles.

WHO’S YOUR DADDY O?
Heading south, things are looking familiar. There’s Woodies again. And Ron Jon Surf Shop. You’re almost feeling like a regular. Continue through Ship Bottom to new territory. The south end of town, offers many spots to enjoy a meal or wet your whistle. The Arlington (1302 Long Beach Boulevard) is notable as LBI’s foremost gastropub, with an ample list of craft beers, a raw bar and a nicely priced weekend brunch menu.

Drive on and you’ll enter Brant Beach (a section of Long Beach Township), where the main attraction is Daddy O (4401 Long Beach Boulevard), LBI’s 22-room boutique hotel and restaurant. In season, the rooftop bar is the place to see and be seen (for those interested in such). Or you might just want to enjoy the fabulous view toward the ocean a block away.

A few blocks farther on our drive, we reach another LBI classic—one for kids of all ages. That would be Skipper Dipper (9305 Long Beach Boulevard), LBI’s best-known purveyor of soft-serve and hard ice cream (try the Death By Chocolate) and shakes.

If a dip in calm water appeals, Bayview Park (6805 Long Beach Boulevard), at the end of Meade Avenue in Long Beach Township, is another of LBI’s bayside beaches (Long Beach Township badge required). This one is replete with a sandy playground, covered seating areas and restrooms.

A HAVEN BY THE SEA
Our ultimate destination on this leg is Beach Haven, LBI’s chief resort town, with the island’s largest collection of B&Bs, waterfront motels, taverns, restaurants and amusement areas.

The first indication that you’ve arrived in Beach Haven may be the smell of ketchup or the sound of shrieking in the distance. That’s coming from Fantasy Island Amusement Park (320 7th Street), with its arcade games, kiddie rides and carousel. The 65-foot ferris wheel provides a stunning view of the island; it’s especially dramatic at sunset.

For more kid-friendly fun, head to the neighboring Thundering Surf Waterpark (300 Taylor Avenue). Here, you’ll encounter Cowabunga slides, a mini-golf course and even more shrieking. If it all gets to be too much, there’s an old-fashioned, quieter playground just south of the amusement park.

If you head back to Long Beach Boulevard (it’s called Bay Avenue by this point), you’ll reach the more residential part of Beach Haven. Unlike much of LBI, Beach Haven has embraced its Victorian past. The finest cluster can be seen on Centre Street, at the heart of Beach Haven, where between Bay Avenue and the beach, you’ll find two charming inns: the beautifully manicured Gables Historic Inn & Restaurant and Hydrangea House, a rare B&B with an in-ground pool. Centre Street is also home to the Surflight Theatre (201 Engleside Avenue), which returned in 2017 after closing for two years post-Sandy. Surflight has been producing quality summer stock on LBI for more than 65 years. Last summer’s lineup, which included Footloose and Newsies, is proof that the 450-seat venue is as ambitious as ever.

At the ocean end of Centre Street is the Seashell Resort & Beach Club, whose bustling pool and tiki bar are people-watching hot spots. You can walk right from the bar to the beach (on a pathway over the steep dunes). Two more beachfront hotels, the Engleside Inn (30 Engleside Avenue) and the Coral Seas Oceanfront Motel (21 Coral Street), just south of the Seashell, are likewise usually booked and bustling.

About two miles removed from the bustle, the Spray Beach Hotel has a slightly more laid-back attitude; its palm-tree-bedecked tiki bar is a short stroll from the beach. Order a drink, but not just any drink. Ron Dudonis, the hotel’s operations manager, makes 5 or 6 gallons daily of what he calls his “renowned bloody Marys.” The cocktail is a Spray Beach favorite. Dudonis has been making them here for 40 years, never once sharing his secret recipe.

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” he says. Naturally.

Bill O’Donnell and Walter Lee, friends who live in Wayne and spend a week on LBI with their families each summer, rendezvoused under the tiki bar’s blue-striped awning last summer for happy hour. “This is the place to come if you just want to relax,” said O’Donnell.

The two friends drank beers and discussed a return for Sunday brunch—when a Dudonis bloody Mary would seem compulsory.

Beach Haven has plenty of dining options. Among the casual offerings, none is more popular than the Chicken or the Egg (207 North Bay Avenue), a 24-hour eatery known to the faithful as the Chegg. There’s usually a wait (sometimes on wing night it’s a four-hour wait, says co-owner Craig Cohen), but summer regulars like Elizabeth DeSante, who has been coming to LBI with friends every summer from Rhode Island since 2010, don’t mind.

“We come here for breakfast on Fridays when we’re hung over after Thunder Thursdays at the Seashell,” she said. “We also come for lunch. The portions are huge, the quality is good.” As for the wait, she added, “you can just go shopping or wandering around. They’ll text you when your table is ready.”

DeSante’s shopping recommendations include Faria’s Surf & Sport, where you can browse surfboards, bikes and beach gear; Artifacts & Company, a hip housewares spot featuring repurposed beach consignments; and the Mod Hatter, a groovy shop that feels like one of Beach Haven’s best-kept secrets and merits a few details. If your favorite boater is feeling a tad tight, bring it in and the Hatter can stretch it for you. If you’re in the market for a $650 hat beribboned and festooned with fake flowers, you’re also in the right place.

“People come from as far as Upstate New York to buy hats for Saratoga,” says Sarah Moyer, who worked in the shop last summer. A perennial favorite is the men’s Tilley hat, made for boating and replaced for free by the manufacturer should it fly away in a strong LBI gust.

Buckalew’s Restaurant & Tavern (101 North Bay Avenue) is another LBI tradition, with a history that dates to 1874, when boats ferrying supplies could tie up to the porch railings of the hotel (the Bayview House) that stood at this location. Today, diners stroll in for modestly priced seafood, steaks, burgers, pizzas—even sushi. If it’s cheese steak you favor, the unpretentious Barry’s Do Me a Flavor (309 Centre Street) can provide that and more, including fish tacos, wraps and 24 flavors of ice cream.

The most exciting new dining experience in Beach Haven is Parker’s Garage & Oyster Saloon (116 Northwest Avenue), which opened to raves last summer. Located on the bay side of Beach Haven, Parker’s Garage is an ideal spot for a sunset meal. The menu is on the pricey side for Beach Haven, with an emphasis on fresh seafood and local oysters. The owner-operators (who also own the nearby Black Whale Bar & Fishhouse) invested in the Barnegat Oyster Collective and this year will introduce a signature oyster—Parker’s Pearls—harvested from Rose Cove, in beds directly across Barnegat Bay.

END OF THE LINE
There’s not much you can’t find in Beach Haven, but if you’re tempted, you can continue the drive south to Holgate. It’s mostly residential here—and quiet. Holgate was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, but the folks at this end of the island are a hearty lot. They like the sense of being at the end of the line.

Like much of the Jersey Shore, tall dunes built after Sandy have made it a chore to get out on the beach. Once you cross the dunes, however, it’s easy to find a secluded spot on the wide beaches (Long Beach Township beach badges are required.).

If you care to linger, stop in for a bite at Bowker’s South Beach Grill (5406 South Long Beach Boulevard). The fare is simple: 24-hour breakfast, salads and sandwiches (plus a kids’ menu). Owners Eileen and Brian Bowker—both former school teachers—are celebrating their 10th season running their little Holgate deli, but it’s been no day at the beach. Sandy was a nightmare. “We lost everything,” says Eileen, “It was probably the most difficult time in our lives.”

Neighbors and customers rallied to help them recover. This summer they hope to turn their first post-Sandy profit.

Additional reporting by Sabrina Bush.

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