Seen the sea? Dive into new experiences

Posted: May 21, 2010

OK. It was a bad winter. The economy has seen better days. And there is a lot to worry about in the world.

But it's time to forget all that and get your Jersey Shore on. No, not that idiotic MTV show, but the real thing. You know, the warm beach with sand between your toes and salty wind in your hair. And saltwater taffy, junk food that's good for your soul.

So squeeze into your swimsuit and dust the cobwebs off the beach chair and let's get going! Now!

All your favorite haunts are waiting. But to really shake off the wintertime blues this year, maybe you should consider doing something you've never done at the Shore before: turn an evening stroll down the Ocean City boardwalk and its not-so-good-for-you treats into your dining for the night; challenge yourself to get on that big, scary roller-coaster in Wildwood and really let yourself go; forget the waves of the Atlantic Ocean for the day and allow the cooling waters of a snazzy Atlantic City spa to be your retreat; or make an overnight or two out of your usual day trip and sleep in one of the jazzy new hotels dotting the coastline.

And on this sentimental journey of indulgence, it isn't too soon to start thinking about a rest stop along the way. Just past Hammonton, where the upland landscape of the Pinelands starts to give way to the flat sweep of the coastal plain - ah, you can smell the sea air from here - is a good place for a pit stop.

Especially when your first taste of the fruit of that sandy coastal plain - blueberries - can be had in the form of a unique indulgence that's been an on-the-way-to or an on-the-way-back-from the Shore tradition for more than five decades. Generations of shoregoers have stopped at Royale Crown Custard at 1051 Route 30 in Hammonton since 1953 for a scoop or two of homemade blueberry ice cream.

Like all the super-creamy ice cream at Royale Crown - from the classic flavors like the deeply rich Crown chocolate to the heavily vanilla bean-studded Crown vanilla, or the giant Bing cherry-laced pistachio - the locally famous Crown blueberry is prepared by members of the Graziano family. But it's available only during blueberry season, which usually starts in mid-June and runs through August. The rest of the time the place is open, between late April and Labor Day, pick any other flavor and it'll be a winner. It opens at 11:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday. Please note: The sign out front on this down-home place reads "Closed when we get tired."

"I think ice cream is the first thing a lot of people think of when they want to indulge themselves," said Sharon Graziano, whose husband, Louis, an architect by trade, took over the family business from his parents.

The senior Grazianos started the ice cream stand after they returned from a honeymoon car trip to Yellowstone in the early 1950s. They were entranced by all the family-run dairy bars dotting the highways and byways. In a kind of Zen building rehab, Louis Graziano a couple of years ago took his parents' 1950s ice cream stand and redesigned it into - voila! - a 1950s ice cream stand. This time with snazzy new stainless steel on the outside and pink tables and chairs inside. Poodle skirts anyone?

All right, so your idea of living a little after the harshness of the last year doesn't involve high-calorie intake; you may still want to fit into that swimsuit, after all. Perhaps your next stop should be a really cool place like the Qua Baths and Spa at Caesars Atlantic City.

At Qua, a 16,000-square-foot oasis for rest and renewal modeled on the famous Qua at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, the staff contends that there is something about the warm summer weather, flowers blossoming everywhere, and the organic seaweed treatments that put people in the mood for a little self-indulgence.

And the new "Spring Into Summer" promotion that's running until June 30 doesn't break the bank, either: The Qua Ocean Spray Body Renewal and Detoxification Therapy is a full-body treatment that includes exfoliation with rockweed and sea kelp scrub, a seaweed body masque, a hand and foot massage, and a therapeutic seaweed gel treatment for as little at $99 for 50 minutes.

Sound a little too touchy-feely for you? Is pummeling, shaking and rolling down death-defying curves more your style? Perhaps a leisurely perambulation through a funhouse is your idea of, well, fun?

Wildwood's got just the thing. How about a bone-shaking jaunt on 2,100 feet of twisting steel with your feet dangling in the breeze? Hop aboard the Great Nor'easter, which was installed in 1995 and has recently undergone a $1.2 million upgrade that includes a restraint system that loops the ride over the ocean and the amusement park at intimidating speeds of up to 50 m.p.h.

This summer, Morey's is also unveiling a new attraction (the details of which are remaining top secret until midnight next Friday). Whatever it is, it's said to be like nothing the Wildwoods have ever seen, with paid actors as part of the attraction.

"It's going to top the famous Castle Dracula, that's all I can say," said Susan Adelizzi-Smith, a spokeswoman for Morey's Piers. Castle Dracula was a favorite Wildwood boardwalk attraction operated by the Nickels family from the late 1970s until it was destroyed by fire in 2002.

It's been a long day. But why end the fun now and drive all the way home? There are plenty of places up and down the coast to turn in for the night.

For a real treat, how about a place called Daddy O? It's a restaurant, bar, and 22-room boutique hotel at 4401 Long Beach Blvd. in Brant Beach on Long Beach Island with a stylish, retro-meets-postmodern feel. Flat-screen televisions and wireless Internet connections are de rigueur, with ultra plush mattresses, fine linens and rain showers in the marble and natural wood baths featured in every room. Rooms run between $280 and $435 in high season.

Closer to the cape? Head to the Beach Shack, 205 Beach Ave., Cape May. With a chic retro feel of its own this casual, beach-style hotel features efficiency rooms and suites with a commanding view of the ocean. Rooms in high season range from $299 to $429 per night.

"I think people are looking to live a little this summer, get out there and spend time with their families relaxing. It's time to have some fun and indulge a little," said Diane Wieland, director of the Cape May County Department of Tourism. "The great American road trip is back."

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