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A West Coast Beach Snob in Ocean City, NJ

Before I moved to the east coast, I took “going to the beach” for granted. Really, when the beach is 20 minutes away and the weather is hospitable to shorts and a tank top 9 months of the year, it’s just a given. It becomes an indispensable part of your life, especially during the summer — I will forever associate the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day with the intoxicatingly clinical smell of sunscreen, briny salt water stains on your t-shirt, and the grainy feel of sand from the car seat in your nether regions.

Well, our nation’s capital is good at a lot of things, but being near a beach is not one of them. This summer, by the time August rolled around, I realized I’d had just one sunscreen/saltwater/sand fix, and that was only for two hours at Robert Moses State Beach before needing to catch a train from NY to DC. So, when Native Companion invited me to go with him and his family to Ocean City, NJ, I jumped at the chance.

A little background, for those who (like me, at first) harbor thoughts of “Ugh, Jersey”: Native Companion’s family, and thousands of others like them, have gone to Ocean City every summer for decades. Native Companion’s excitement over going back to his childhood vacation spot seriously trumped any of mine over getting my beach weekend fix. His 7-year-old self bubbled out each time he talked about it. Every story he told about nights on the boardwalk, junk food binges, and mini-golf marathons pumped up my anticipation – but also made me realize how different a beach experience this might be.

So with that, here’s a (mostly) illustrated guide to the main differences (and similarities) between a weekend in Ocean City, NJ, and any California beach town.

Getting there

Rather than devote too much space to it, heres’ a haiku summarizing the drive to the Jersey Shore from DC:

“Tolls, so many tolls/
Why is there so much traffic?
Can’t pump your own gas.”

But with Native Companion’s expert navigation, we made it there in just under 4 hours.

Accommodations

We stayed with Native Companion’s family and family friends on the first floor of a rented beach house with an admittedly bangin’ balcony. Like California beach house rentals, it was lovely and well-appointed in cheesy beach/nautical theme, but what really mattered was its proximity to bike rentals and, you know, beach. Beautiful, beautiful beach.

Ocean City

Weather

New Jersey is simply prone to more of it (see Hurricane Sandy for details). And that means that some days will be nasty and humid and stormy, but that’ll break into glorious 75-degree sunshine. A lot of the activities on the boardwalk are covered or indoors, in the event of bad weather, which is another major difference from southern California – very few indoor activities are offered next to the beach. So, while southern California gets points for consistency, Ocean City gets points for variety  – if everything is perfect all the time, how can you really appreciate when things are good?

And you know what, since I don’t really have an image to offer, here’s a haiku to illustrate:

“Don’t like the weather?/
Wait 20 minutes, or just/
Go to the arcade.”

Food

Hooboy. Here’s our main difference between a day at Newport Beach, CA, and Ocean City, NJ. Because Ocean City is a dry town (meaning no alcohol sales; porch beers are fine), and because it bills itself as a “America’s Greatest Family Resort”, it’s basically the kid-oriented inversion of Atlantic City down the road. That’s right, it’s Vegas for people who have no concept of time, money, or calories, and can’t drink or gamble yet.

Ocean City, NJ is a place where pizza is the main meal of choice (and Manco & Manco reigns supreme).

Ocean City

Ocean City, NJ is where county fair food lives and thrives beyond the midway.

Ocean City, NJ is a place where you try things like deep-fried Oreos, and can’t decide where to purchase boardwalk fries, because it’s really hard to choose when every one of them bills themselves as “best on the boardwalk.”

The healthiest thing you’ll be able to find on the Ocean City, NJ boardwalk is a juice place in a food court that will give you carrot, celery, and apple juice, which you will need to wash down your crab quesadilla from the halfway decent Mexican place in said food court and feel sort of OK about yourself (sorry, NJ, you may have the superior east coast crabs and seafood, but CA does Mexican better).

And finally, Ocean City, NJ, is a place with deeply entrenched family-owned local food vendors with multiple outposts spread out over the entire 2.5 mile stretch of boardwalk, such as Johnson’s Popcorn and the wonderful, wonderful Kohr Bros. frozen custard. Your typical CA beach has Sharkeez and a whole lot of aggressively fit and tanned people who would definitely judge you for even looking at a large chocolate-dipped waffle cone of chocolate/peanut butter swirl. Advantage: New Jersey. I have to say, I loved the feeling of walking down the boardwalk with Native Companion, both of us inhaling our frozen custard judgement-free.

Ocean City

Fancy an actual sit-down restaurant out of town? Don’t worry, there’s Smitty’s Clam Bar for the grown-ups in Somers Point, NJ, just across the bridge. Though the decor is what one might call “truck stop with seafood,” it’s BYOB, the prices are good, and the food is totally worth the 45-minute wait for a table (but you can drink some of that B you brought while you wait, since Somers Point is not a dry town). Plus, it’s a got a pretty nice view of the marina. And yes, that’s an innuendo on their logo.

Activities

Remember what I said about Ocean City being Vegas for kids? Yeah, instead of clubbing and gambling, this place has bike rentals, carnival rides, and mini-golf. Lots and lots of mini-golf.

By the way, bike rental places don’t just offer the standard beach cruisers – they’re all about the surreys. With the fringe on top. I had never ridden in one, because even though they have them at CA beaches, nobody rents them except tourists. But by God, I was a tourist now, so Native Companion and I rented one, and drove it up and down the designated surrey lane on the Ocean City boardwalk for an hour one morning, which was actually really fun.

Ocean City

For carnival-type rides, your options are Gillian’s Wonderland Pier or Playland’s Castaway Cove. Tickets are fairly expensive and the rides are more county fair than Six Flags, but they’re still fun. Plus, the ridiculous themes of each park, combined with their age, give off something of a shabby charm.

And the mini-golf. Oh the mini-golf. It became clear as soon as we arrived in Ocean City that Native Companion’s inner 7-year-old wanted his mini-golf fix.

Ocean City

There’s another huge difference: I can’t think of a single CA beach town with a mini-golf course in close proximity, let alone multiple mini-golf courses. You can’t swing your arms without hitting a mini-golf course on the Ocean City boardwalk. We hit Haunted Golf, Goofy Golf, and Tee Time Golf, each of which have their merits and drawbacks with regards to obstacle quality, theme, and price. Seriously, ask Native Companion, he’s a connoisseur.

All of those mini-golf courses really add a certain…something to Ocean City that’s missing from most of the CA beaches I grew up with. And by certain something, I mean a totally unabashed cheeseball ridiculous everything-you-simultaneously-hate-and-love-about-America tackiness that deserves to be spoken about on its own. Which brings me to…

The Kitsch

The sheer fascinating kitsch of Ocean City, NJ can only be described here with more photos, and of course, another haiku:

“Off-brand Mickey waves/
Wonderland, Playland light up/
Mini-golf graveyards*.”

*Someday, I want to write a book about the discarded, derelict mini-golf obstacles/obstacle pieces I saw lying off to the side throughout the various courses, like cast-off pieces of pop culture that everyone is either too sentimental or lazy to clear away.

Ocean City

The Beach Itself

With all that kitsch and junk food, it probably seems like the beach is an afterthought at this point. But in the case of Ocean City, don’t let it be. It’s probably thanks to a lot of beach restoration that happened in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, but the beaches themselves were pretty pristine compared to what I was expecting. The lifeguards, though, seem far more risk-averse and whistle-happy than their Californian counterparts  – they’ve got a pretty weird idea of what qualifies as “rough” surf, and they insist you stay within a ridiculously narrow swim area. Plus, they don’t always communicate the fact that said surf is “too rough” to allow boogie boards out to the guy who oversees boogie board rentals, so that’s annoying. It’s almost like they don’t actually want us to go into that big wet thing we just traveled to be near. See, where I’m from, in California, we call that big wet thing the ocean, and it’s meant to swim in as long as you’re capable of swimming – and most of us don’t consider waist-high waves “too rough.”

/end rant.

On a positive note, Ocean City is on the Atlantic ocean, which is much more pleasant and easy to get used to, since it’s warmer overall during the summer than the Pacific could ever hope to be. The sand is clean-ish, and there always seems to be someone making a sand sculpture. Sure, it’s no Laguna as far as pure dazzling natural scenery, and nothing will ever be as cool as hanging around a bonfire with your contraband booze in Newport Beach, but it’ll do. It’ll definitely do.

Ocean City

Final Thoughts

Overall? As Native Companion made sure to point out, it’s a very kid-oriented place, and much of the action takes place on the boardwalk (we didn’t really want to know what was going on under it). However, it’s a great place to reconnect with your inner kid in a purely hedonistic, id-fueled way, which isn’t always the California beach experience – I don’t think I’d have gotten to see Native Companion grinning ear to ear as he went full 7-year-old at the shooting gallery or on the mini-golf courses at, say, Venice or Malibu.

I came back from the weekend with a sunburn that’ll make you want to stay indoors forever, and probably took years off of my life with all that boardwalk food – but it was relaxing. And fun. And isn’t that the point of any beach?

Information

Berkshire Hathaway | Home Services
817 Pennlyn Place
Ocean City, NJ

Manco and Manco Pizza
Ocean Heights Shopping Center
Somers Point, NJ 08244

Kohr Bros
12th Street
1140 Boardwalk
Ocean City, NJ 08226

Smitty’s Clam Bar
910 Bay Ave
Somers Point, NJ 08244

Words and photography by Sarah Flocken, for more from Sarah follow her on Twitter at @sflocken.