I'm not a native New Jerseyan, but it has been my home for the last three and a half years. Before moving here it used to be what it perhaps is still to my coworkers who live in the city: something far away, less cool, where "other" people live. With some hazy images of trees and suburbs.
I've lived in the city for over ten years. I don't miss it, mostly because I'm still there five days a week. I take what I need from it (mostly money, also food sometimes), and go back to the hot sweaty summers in Jersey, full of hikes, cicadas, katydids, the cries of blue jays, ripe and juicy Jersey tomatoes, farmers' markets, and the shore.
I heard of the "shore" way before it was made infamous by MTV. That shore exists. I've been there. The Boardwalk is lined with kiosks that sell burgers, fries, pizza, margaritas and beer. It is full of places offering philly cheese steaks, except when you're on the shore, you order the "Jersey Shore" - a philly cheese steak sandwich stuffed with cheese balls. In the words of one tween we were ahead in line of "when you're at the shore you can't eat healthy." The boardwalk is is full of carnival attractions, with a small amusement park, similar to and just as crowded as Brooklyn's Coney Island.
But there is a different shore. There is the North Shore, which most wouldn't consider "the shore" at all.
At the North Shore, there is Sandy Hook, which used to be an army base but is now a national park, with sandy beaches, a jitney to NYC, and some nudists on one of the beaches named after a military officer John W. Gunnison. A former gun battery, it is still a home to its ghosts. At the very tip of it, there still stand officers' quarters, abandoned and boarded up, but the area is open for biking and exploring.
After a day of exploring this place, a good place to go for dinner is Highlands, NJ. Highlands used to be a popular resort town in the beginning of 20th century and has a rich history (including being a popular destination during the prohibition era). Severely hit and damaged by Sandy, the place is home to some of its own ghosts.
But most of it has bounced back. And it remains a good place to get some seafood. There is Moby's (a shack-type restaurant that serves everything you would want from a shore-front seafood place, in its freshest form - pick up your order at a kiosk and sit on a patio facing the water cracking a lobster or eating clam strips) and its neighbor Bahrs Landing (a sit-down, waitered version with boat access).
This is also a place where the local annual clam fest is held. We were there last year, and again this year. This is one of the best times to get some good seafood, raw clams, oysters, lobsters, lobster rolls, gator sausages, crab cakes, and some of the world's best clam chowder (from Bahrs).
This is a good time to get your fill of summer seafood, have some beer, listen to some good music.
Strangers strike up conversations and people are there just to have a good time, no questions asked. The atmosphere has been what Jersey is to me: unassuming, matter of fact, welcoming, frank. "Is that a lobster roll?" A woman asked us when we sat down to share one, busy with her own plate of clam strips. Upon our assent, she shouted "Hey! Glen! Get me a lobster roll! I'll split it with ya."
Glen was nowhere to be seen, so she went and got one herself.