It's exotic. Gothic. Spooky. And a lot more fun than the Garden State Parkway, if you're not in a hurry. Route 9 is best explored at low speed - perfect for a rainy day at the Shore, or anytime the charms of boardwalks, casinos and gritty bathing suits begin to fade.
We explored about 90 miles of this blue highway from Bayville to Cape May, and discovered dozens of family-style attractions. Some, like the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Oceanville, spotlight the unique ecology along Route 9, where the Pine Barrens' freshwater rivers meet the Shore's salty, blue bays. Others, such as the Cape May County Historical and Genealogical Society Museum outside Cape May Court House, offer a glimpse of life in the area's old farming communities. Still others, like the studio of master decoy-carver Harry Shourds 2d in Ocean View, reveal that the old bayside hunting and fishing culture isn't gone yet.
Even the details are amusing. Like the 15-foot-tall wine bottle - now painted with the logo ``The Champagne of Propane'' - outside Ace Power Equipment on Route 9 at Korman Road in Bayville. Or the concrete dinosaur outside the Crafters Mall in Bayville (it once was an advertisement for a taxidermist's shop). Or the Chair House of West Creek, a narrow, three-story Victorian topped with an armchair. Or the pair of Revolutionary War monuments just east of Route 9 on Old New York Road about three miles south of New Gretna, one a frilly statue erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution celebrating the Battle of Chestnut Neck,, the other a rustic stone honoring American privateers put up by the Sons of the American Revolution.
The charming thing is, Route 9 always makes you feel as if you're someplace real and rich in experience.
Heading south from Bayville, we found a bunch of attractions worth stopping for:
Berkeley Township Historical Museum. Inside this white clapboard 19th-century building are assembled bits and pieces of local history, including old photos of Bayville's famous concrete dinosaur, as well as a turn-of-the-century kitchen. (The museum is at 759 Route 9 in Bayville; 908-269-0345. Hours from June 1 through Sept. 30: 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 to 4 p.m. Sundays, and by appointment. Free.)
Berkeley Island County Park. Occupying a tiny, picturesque peninsula that juts out into Barnegat Bay, this jewel of a park in Berkeley Township has a paved waterside promenade, a small beach studded with shells, a playground, picnic tables, and its own ducks paddling about in a little marshland. There's a spectacular, sun-spangled view across the blue water to wild Island Beach State Park. Paved trails start at the parking lot, for easy walking and handicapped access. (From Route 9, head east on Butler Boulevard, then turn right on Bayview Avenue, then left on Brennan Concourse to the park; 908-506-9090. Open dawn to dusk. Free.)
Forked River Diner. Shiny with deco-style chrome, steel and mirrors, this 1950-something eatery in Forked (natives pronounce it Fork-Ed) River was restored to its former glory in January. Perch on an aqua counter stool and admire the original aqua-and-gold-speckled linoleum or the vaulted ceiling. Gawk at the pies in the old glass case behind the grill, or have a slice. (On Route 9 just south of Lacey Road; 609-693-2222. Open 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. weekdays, 24 hours on weekends.)
Albert Music Hall. Dedicated to the preservation of Pinelands culture, this is the place to hear old-timey local tunes such as ``Come On Down to Waretown,'' ``Ocean County Breakdown'' and ``Forked River Mountain.'' Started as at-home musical entertainment by brothers Joe and George Albert at their Pine Barrens hunting lodge in the 1940s, this Waretown institution moved into its own hall in January. ``There really is a unique Pinelands musical sound,'' said society president Roy Everett. ``It's kind of a mix of country, bluegrass and folk that blended in a special way because this area is so isolated.''
Every Saturday night, Albert Music Hall presents several bands that play in the local style, in a setting that's ``a family atmosphere - no alcohol, no smoking, no bad language,'' says Everett. (On Wells Mills Road, a quarter-mile west of Route 9; 609-971-1593. Concerts Saturdays at 8 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults, $1 for children under 12.)
Barnegat. Browse ``antique row'' in the old, restored village of Barnegat to find your own piece of history to haul home. Notable shops include Babe's in Barnegat, at Route 9 and East Bay Avenue, with alcoves of kitchenware, old-fashioned containers (check out the old-time, 50-pound tubs of lard), and vintage clothing; Cranberry Creek, at 689 E. Bay Ave., which features jewelry and china; and Barnegat Antique Country, at 684 E. Bay Ave., with three floors of old furniture, from cane-seat dining room chairs to ancient bedsteads.
Barnegat Bay Decoy & Baymen's Museum. In a replica hunting shanty in Tuckerton, this museum celebrates the clammers, duck-hunters, decoy-makers, fishermen and boat-builders whose work once fueled a thriving economy along Barnegat Bay. Hundreds of exquisite decoys of waterfowl - from Canada geese to mallards to mergansers - carved from buoyant white cedar line the walls, representing the work of notable local carvers, among them Nathan Rowley Horner and three generations of the Shourds family.. (On Route 9 in Tip Seaman Park; 609-296-8868. Open Wednesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is $2, children under 12 free.)
Smithville. Two hundred years ago, this little town was home to fishermen, sea captains and a one-room stagecoach inn. Today, get a sense of just how hard life was by strolling among the graves of Smithville's departed at the two-centuries-old cemetery of Emmaus United Methodist Church. Look for Capt. Peter T. Smith, lost at sea in January 1820, and for Sarah Smith and Rebecca Smith, first and second wives of Thomas Smith, who died within five years of each other.
Then, cross Route 9 to shop at the renovated Village Shops in the Historic Town of Smithville. Once a popular rainy-day diversion for Shore visitors, this shopping district is undergoing a major refurbishing and now boasts 32 businesses selling everything from artsy teapots to handmade chocolates, bird-watching accessories to Southwestern artwork, local wines to antiques and crafts. The Smithville Inn, the town's former stagecoach stop, is set to reopen this summer after being shuttered for the last three years.
(Smithville United Methodist Church, southeast corner of Route 9 and Moss Mill Road. The Village Shops in the Historic Town of Smithville, northwest corner of Route 9 and Moss Mill Road; 609-652-0440. Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Labor Day. )
The Noyes Museum of Art. This is a pithy art gallery in a picturesque setting of pine and holly trees beside a serene pond in Oceanville. Four galleries offer a satisfying mix of crafts, paintings and photographs. Now on display: ``Shorebird and Swan Decoys''; ``Easy Access: Highlights from the Noyes Museum Collection of Contemporary Art'' (with special tours conducted in American Sign Language for hearing-impaired people); ``Treasures of Art History from the New Jersey State Museum,'' including a Picasso linoleum cut and a drawing by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, plus works from ancient Egypt, Greece, India and Ethiopia; and ``Conduct, Diligence and Drawing: Recent Works by David Ambrose,'' artwork that makes novel use of painted lace.
Take a break in the museum's lobby sitting room, where the modern leather-and-chrome chairs and views of the pond and woods are art themselves. (From Route 9, head east on Lily Lake Road about half a mile to the museum; 609-652-8848. Open Wednesdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $3; students and senior citizens, $2; children under 18 free; free to all on Fridays.)
Edwin B. Forsythe National
Wildlife Refuge. Drive, bike or hike along an eight-mile loop road through the southern section of this unspoiled, 40,000-acre refuge for waterfowl and migrating birds. This expanse of marshes and open ponds is an important stopover during spring and fall migrations, when dozens of species arrive, including huge flocks of snow geese. In May and June, look for ruddy turnstones - small migrating shorebirds - arriving by the thousands to feast on freshly laid horseshoe crab eggs. From mid-June to mid-July, ducklings hatch.
The wildlife drive circles a freshwater pool, wetlands, a salt marsh, and a brackish pool where salt and fresh water mix. On a springtime drive, we watched two gulls engage in an elaborate mating ritual of head-bobbing and strolling. The white plumage of egrets shone against tawny marsh grass, and great blue herons fished for lunch. The salty air was brisk, the sun bright, and the world seemed a million miles away - except for the skyline of Atlantic City rising in the distance.
(From the traffic light on Route 9 in Oceanville, head east on Great Creek Road for less than a mile; 609-652-1665. Open dawn to dusk. Admission is $4 per car; $15 seasonal pass good at all refuges.)
Friendship School. A pot-bellied stove warmed young scholars and their teacher back in 1830, when this one-room schoolhouse was the only place to learn reading and writing for the children of watermen and farmers living in little Palermo, a crossroads town in Cape May County. Restored by the Historical Preservation Society of Upper Township, this wooden building is a glimpse at old-time education - complete with dunce's stool and cap in the corner, a century-old map of the United States on the wall, and a drafty privy in the yard. (Route 9 at Ocean Avenue; no phone. Free.)
Cameron Wildlife Sanctuary. A gaggle of goslings - 20 twittering, hungry balls of yellow feathers - picked their way amid prickly-pear cactus, red cedar and holly trees, tended by a pair of adult geese. A swan family shepherded its cygnets on a training voyage across a secluded lake. Mallards rested on the shoreline. At this wildlife sanctuary in Palermo, birds have the right of way. As a result, winged creatures flock here and, from a network of sandy trails, visitors can watch birds doing what comes naturally. (Route 9 just south of Route 631; 609-390-8773. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. No jogging, no dogs. Free.)
Duck's Nest. This is the studio of Harry Shourds 3d, a third-generation decoy carver from a renowned Jersey Shore family of artisans. Inside this old red barn in Seaville, he creates delicate, museum-quality renderings of waterbirds. The craftsmanship won Shourds, now semiretired, a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts in 1989. (2025 S. Shore Rd.; 609-390-0427. By appointment only. Free.)
Bauer's Fishing Preserve. Angle for channel catfish, largemouth bass, trout and hybrid striped bass in this two-acre, spring-fed lake in Seaville. Admission to this private pond buys a day's fishing, no license required. There's an additional charge to keep your fish - ranging from $3 for a bluegill to $4 for a trout. Rod and reel rentals also are available. Owners Joe and Kathy Bauer stock the pond - formerly a gravel pit for the construction of the Garden State Parkway - with hybrid striped bass that weigh 4 to 14 pounds. ``Catching one is pure pandemonium,'' says Joe Bauer. (On Route 9, three-tenths of a mile south of Route 50; 609-624-1304. Admission is $10 a day for adults, $5 for children under 12. Open weekends, 6 a.m. til dark; weekdays, 10 a.m. until dark. From June 17 through Sept. 1, open 6 a.m. until dark daily.)
Flyertown Toy Train Museum. Used to be, Joe Jones' collection of more than 100 S-gauge toy trains and thousands of accessories - track, switches, miniature train stations and more - were crammed into a backyard storage shed. ``I used to just go out and look at them,'' he says. Now, these beauties are on display in this small, surprising museum in Clermont, and seven of the loveliest chug and clatter around a 384-square-foot platform where tracks wind through a city and a village and past a lighthouse. Watch for a miniature steam engine, freight lines, Pullman cars that light up from within, and trackside toys that Jones says he used to moon over in train catalogs back in the 1940s and '50s, such as a machine that stacks logs on a flatcar, and a coal scoop.
Train lovers will appreciate Jones' extensive American Flyer collection. For others, the best moment comes when he dims the lights and cues up a recording of train whistles. The platform lights up like a magic city, complete with pedestrians, crowded streets, cops hiding in the bushes waiting for speed demons, a lighthouse, and miniature billboards.
(Route 9 just north of Route 83; 609-624-3173. Open weekends, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $2.50 for adults, $1.50 for children 5 to 12, free under age 5.)
Leaming's Run Gardens. Twenty-five theme gardens sprawl across this 30-acre preserve in Swainton that contains one of the nation's largest gardens of flowering annuals. But beyond the ferns, the sweeping lawns and the salvia, this garden also features a reproduction of a circa-1695 colonial farm, with one-room log cabin, crops of tobacco and cotton, and an astoundingly beautiful flock of chickens, representing historically correct breeds. (1845 Route 9, one mile south of Route 83; 609-465-5871. Open daily, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $4.50 for adults, $1 for children 6 to 12, free for under 6.)
Cape May County Park & Zoo. Nearly 250 species - from a Bengal tiger to a pair of river otters, from camels to a herd of capybaras, the world's largest rodents - live in large, grassy enclosures in this pleasant, leafy zoo. A weekend favorite for young families, the zoo was crowded with kids under the age of 10 on a recent visit. ``This is like paradise,'' said one visiting mother from New York. ``There's free parking. No lines. And it's beautiful.'' We enjoyed typical denizens of the zoo, which is in Cape May Court House, including a lion, giraffe and zebras, as well as lesser-known Patagonian cavys that looked like long-legged rabbits. (Route 9 at Pine Lane; 609-465-5271. Zoo open daily, 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Free, donation requested.)
Cape May County Historical and Genealogical Society Museum. Once the farmstead of John Holmes, an 18th-century flax farmer, this museum houses 300 years of Cape May County's past - including an old-fashioned doctor's office, portraits of the Holmes family, and, out in the barn, a mid-19th-century lens from the old Cape May Point lighthouse. (504 Route 9, just north of Cape May Court House; 609-465-3535. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays except holidays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Self-guided tour, $2.50 for adults, 50 cents for children under 12. Guided tours at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., $4.50 for adults, $1 for children 6 to 12, under 6 free. Genealogical library open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays.)
Historic Cold Spring Village. Located in a real-life town of renown of the early 1800s - thanks to the area's first tide-powered grist mill and its freshwater spring - Historic Cold Spring Village is a living reproduction of early American life. Watch printers, potters, bakers, innkeepers, weavers and others reenact the crafts and chores of daily living. Or wander over to the Old Grange Restaurant, in a restored farmers' grange meeting house, for a bite to eat. Look for a superb 1872 map of Cape May County in the stairway landing. (720 Route 9, Cape May; 609-898-2300. Open weekends through June 22, then daily through Labor Day, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission: $4, $3 seniors, $2 children ages 5 to 12, under 12 free.)
David Douglass Sr. Memorial
Rotary Park. Where Route 9 meets the Delaware Bay. The highway's New Jersey section ends at this narrow, bayside beach known for its great sunset views. But wait, there's more of Route 9 ahead. The Cape May-Lewes Ferry (turn left on Route 9, about a half-mile before the park) takes motorists and bikers across the water to this old shore road's northern starting point in Delaware, where the journey continues.
Maybe next year. . . .