Best: Family Fun Beaches

Point Pleasant Beach

Exit N-90/S-98
Fun House isn’t just an attraction on the Point Pleasant Beach boardwalk; it’s an appropriate moniker for this seaside playground with its world-class aquarium, live entertainment, amusement rides, wide beaches and an array of dining options. The boardwalk’s newest attraction: Jenkinson’s Adventure Lookout Ropes Course. Also on the boardwalk, Jenkinson’s South Amusement Park features more than 20 rides for kids of all ages. Want to get the kids out of the sun? At Jenkinson’s Aquarium, they can view sharks, penguins, alligators and seals—even sea stars and stingrays in the touch tank. For dinner, head over to Frankie’s Bar & Grill on Richmond Avenue to feast on 10-ounce sirloin burgers. A $6.95 children’s menu offers six selections served with fries and a glass of milk or soda. End a great day at Hoffman’s, where you can indulge in delicious homemade ice cream—from strawberry bonbon to peanut butter nugget.

Beach Haven (Long Beach Island)

Exit 63
Most of the towns on LBI are quiet retreats; Beach Haven, on the other hand, is hopping, with plenty of fun attractions for the whole family. LBI’s only amusement park, Fantasy Island, bustles with arcade games and kid-friendly rides. Across the road, water slides and mini-golf await at Thundering Surf Waterpark.  For shoppers, there are plenty of browsing opportunities (and dining, too) at Schooner’s Wharf and Bay Village. For a rainy-day diversion, the Museum of New Jersey Maritime History has two floors of artifacts and underwater finds that are sure to fascinate. Of course, the main attraction is Beach Haven’s mile-square stretch of guarded ocean beach, but families with young ones are happy to discover the calmer waters (and play area) of Taylor Avenue beach on the bay side of LBI.

Best: Quiet Family Beaches

Stone Harbor

Exit 10
With its small-town charm, laid-back shopping district and varied restaurants, Stone Harbor offers fun for the whole family—at a slower pace than many of its Shore neighbors. The beaches are never crowded and are within walking distance of all points in the town. Shoppers flock to 96th Street, but the town has plenty to keep the kids entertained as well. Peek through the windows at the Original Fudge Kitchen to see the sweet stuff being prepared; pop into Island Studio to paint your own pottery; rent bikes for a tour of the cycling-friendly island; or play a rooftop round of mini golf at one of Tee Time’s two locations. For fun on the water, you can rent a kayak or a surfboard from Harbor Outfitters for some flat-water paddling on the calm bay. For a better understanding of the bay’s ecosystem, visit the Wetlands Institute, which has an ambitious schedule of tours and nature-oriented festivals. Cap off the day with a trip to Springer’s Homemade Ice Cream, a Stone Harbor staple since the 1920s. On summer Mondays, bring a blanket to the firehouse lot at 7 pm for family nights featuring magic shows, jugglers, puppets, and songs.

Sea Girt

Exit 98

With one mile of uncrowded beaches and an old-fashioned boardwalk, Sea Girt is ideal for a quiet family getaway. The newly rebuilt boardwalk begins at the foot of the Sea Girt Lighthouse and runs to the south end of town. Hungry? Check out Rod’s Olde Irish Tavern, a turn-of-the-century saloon, for some traditional pub fare. For people watching, grab a table for lunch at the Parker House—but be ready for long lines. For indoor fun, try the Lanes at Sea Girt.

Best: Boardwalk

Ocean City

Exit N-25/S-30
The sandy beach seems endless here—it’s eight miles long—and so do the activities on the 2.5-mile boardwalk. Ocean City Bicycle Center opens at 7 am. Rent an adult trike, kid’s bike, cruiser or surrey, and scope out the scene at a leisurely pace. You’ll be glad you got a little exercise before caving to the aroma of fresh donuts wafting from Brown’s Restaurant—right on the boardwalk. Come early—the line can be a mile long on summer mornings. For seaside excitement, check out Gillian’s Wonderland Pier with its 28 rides and attractions. For an encore, there’s Playland’s Castaway Cove, which boasts 10 thrill rides, including the new GaleForce triple-launch coaster, and plenty of family favorites like the Antique Cars and the Ferris wheel. Grab a slice for lunch at one of Manco & Manco Pizza’s three boardwalk locations. For dinner, Clancy’s by the Sea offers patio seating with great views of the beach. Save room for sweets at Shriver’s, where you’ll be torn between saltwater taffy, creamy fudge, and other confections.

Best: Amusement Parks

Exit N-4B/S-6
There’s no more exciting place in New Jersey than Morey’s Piers, the three amusements parks clustered in a 12-block span of the Wildwood boardwalk. Combined, the parks boast more than 100 rides and attractions. Mariner’s Pier has the air of a traditional amusement park, with classic rides such as the Teacups and the Giant Wheel. Surfside Pier feels like a seaside carnival, with endless games and the glow of neon lights. Adventure Pier is the spot where thrill seekers kiss the sky on rides like SkyCoaster and SpringShot. But the entertainment isn’t limited to roller coasters and ring tosses. Culturally minded adults can peruse artBox, a 10,000-square-foot interactive artists’ colony comprising 11 brightly painted shipping containers that double as artist studios.

Best: Dining Scene

Cape May
Indian curries from a Scottish chef? As chef/owner Jack Wright will tell you, curries are the most popular food in his native land. They are selling so well at his Exit Zero Cookhouse that he plans to expand. High-end dining options abound in Cape May, from the Washington Inn to the Ebbitt Room at the Virginia Hotel to the Peter Shields Inn.  Our fave breakfast spot is George’s Place, but the Mad Batter has a decades-long track record of making people happy. Speaking of happiness, people form lines at Hot Dog Tommy’s, a sidewalk institution with a humorous owner offering any kind of dog and topping combo you can think of. Cape May’s most exciting and creative chef, Lucas Manteca, sets up a couple miles down the road in Cape May Point. An NJM Top 25, Manteca’s Red Store is worth the drive, and the Point is an Edenic enclave.

Best: Nightlife

Atlantic City

Exit 38B
Even if gambling isn’t your thing, there is plenty of nightlife to enjoy in the Garden State’s casino capital. Haven, a 12,000-square-foot nightclub located inside the Golden Nugget Casino, brings the fun with techno lighting, multiple dance floors, two bars, table service and 28 comfy banquettes. At the Tropicana, Ivan Kane’s Kiss a Go-Go is an audio-visual explosion with dazzling images and edge-pushing dancers.  The scene at Premier in the Borgata is no less frenetic. The 18,000-square-foot club boasts tiered booth seating, a horseshoe-shaped mezzanine and an A-list roster of guest deejays. If you want to stay in the swim after the sun goes down, Harrah’s Pool After Dark is the ideal party spot. The pool, enclosed in a 90-foot-high glass dome, has five Jacuzzis, 12 cabanas, and an indoor/outdoor deck, plus a gaming loft. By day, you can relax in this faux tropical oasis; on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights, deejays transform the space into an all-out dance party. The newest AC hotspot is the Playground (formerly the Pier Shops at Caesars), with its myriad of entertainment venues, including Wav, a 20,000-square-foot nightspot with an outdoor terrace that sits right over the Atlantic. And did we mention that Atlantic City’s showrooms attract some of the biggest names in music and comedy all year long?

Best: Beach Shopping

Long Branch
Exit 105
If shopping rivals running on your list of favorite Shore activities, Pier Village in Long Branch is the beach for you. Just across the street from the boardwalk, the Pier Village shopping plaza is lined with unique boutiques, including Molly & Zoey for trendy clothes; Wish for chic women’s fashions; Nirvana for denim creations; Carter & Cavero for gourmet olive oil; Shore Runner for athletic gear; Aloha Grove Surf Shop for surf accessories; and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory for sweet treats. This is an upscale see-and-be-seen beach destination—take a dip and hit the stores, then grab a bite at Avenue, one of our perennial favorite oceanfront restaurants.

Best: Upscale Beach

Spring Lake
Exit 98
There’s a case to be made to skip the beach while visiting Spring Lake and just wander the tree-lined streets looking at the gorgeous Victorian homes with their perfectly manicured lawns. But don’t skip the beach—it’s two miles of pristine sand (no food, no drinks) bordered by the longest non-commercial boardwalk in the state—a magnet for astonishingly fit joggers and young couples pushing strollers. There’s plenty to do off the beach: Enjoy a bloody Mary on the porch of the Breakers Hotel and restaurant, stroll past the shops on Third Avenue, fish along the shores of Spring Lake or grab a slice at the Spring Lake Gourmet Pizzeria. You can also splurge on dinner at the Black Trumpet in the Grand Victorian Hotel or Whispers at the Hewitt Wellington. For overnight stays, there are plenty of B&Bs from which to choose.

Best: Party Scene

Exit 98
The town has made a concerted effort to broaden its appeal and play down its rep as party central. To a large degree, it has worked, but the south end of Belmar is still hopping. D’Jais Bar & Grill is still the hottest of the hot spots, with its choice location, across Ocean Avenue from the beach. Away from the waterfront, the Boathouse Bar and Grill on Main Street boasts one of the few outdoor patio set-ups in town. Also, on Main Street, the new tap room at the Beach Haus Brewery is sure to draw crowds.

Best: Secluded Beach

Strathmere (Upper Township)

Exit N-13/S-17
Tucked between bustling Ocean City and Sea Isle City, this cozy 1.5-mile hamlet requires no beach tags and remains under the radar for most beachgoers. Approach the beach from two-lane Commonwealth Avenue (where you can always find free street parking, even in the height of summer) and stake out a sandy spot for the day. Enjoy sunbathing at the shoreline, take a walk to the northern end of the island for views of OC, watch the dolphins commute, or try ocean kayaking, surfing, fishing, even kiteboarding—all without kitschy shops and boardwalk hubbub. For a break from sun and sand, grab an ice cream at the Old Shack or a cold beer or two during happy hour at hole-in-the-wall Twisties or on the outdoor deck at the popular Deauville Inn. Just don’t tell anyone you heard about it from us. The town’s oval car decals even say “Shhh.”

Best: Nude Beach

Gunnison Beach (Sandy Hook)

Exit 117
You’re in for an eyeful when you venture to Gunnison Beach. Not only do you get some of the best views of Manhattan and Brooklyn, but the two-mile stretch of sand is also the largest nude beach on the East Coast and the only legal nude beach in New Jersey. Past the signs that read “Beyond This Point You May Encounter Nude Sunbathers,” anything goes, so expect to see a whole new kind of beach bum. The crowd is super friendly and nonjudgmental, but the amenities are minimal—a small snack shack and volleyball net. Beach badges are not required (where in the world would you pin one?), but parking is $15. Apply sunscreen liberally—and don’t gawk at your neighbors.

Best: Gay-Friendly Beaches

Asbury Park
Exit S-102/N-100A
Diversity is one of the elements that make the revitalized Asbury Park a standout destination. Here, buff and bronzed Speedo-clad men roam comfortably on the beach and boardwalk alongside preppy young couples equipped with diaper bags and beach pails. The lively boardwalk starts at Convention Hall on the north end and runs to landmark Casino Pier at the south end. In between, there’s a bit of everything—even a miniature water park and putt-putt course for the kids. Mostly, though, it’s about food and drink and music: Grab a beer at McLoone’s Asbury Grille, tapas at Langosta Lounge, cocktails at the Asbury Park Yacht Club, or a well-dressed hot dog at Mayfair Boardwalk Grill. At each stop, the people watching is fabulous. Paradise, in the Empress Hotel, is the late-night hangout—equal parts gay revue and nightclub.

Ocean Grove
Exit N-102/S-103
This quaint community is literally adjacent to Asbury Park but figuratively miles away. A long-time religious retreat, Ocean Grove is known for its Victorian homes, the Great Auditorium, B&Bs, summertime churchgoers—and more recently, a growing gay community. The pristine boardwalk is lined with benches, street lamps, and potted flowers but nary a shop, bar or restaurant. For that (minus the bar), head to Main Avenue, with its boutiques, gift shops, pizzerias and a few fine restaurants. A crowd favorite is Nagle’s Apothecary Cafe for ice cream and outdoor seating. On the beach, generations of families co-exist with the gay population. Restrooms and showers are convenient on the south end of the boardwalk, near the fishing pier. Parking can be difficult, even with blocks of on-the-street free parking.

Best: Surfing Beaches

Inlet Beach, Manasquan

Exit N-90/S-98

Surfing in New Jersey is generally an exercise in either patience or fearlessness. When the water is warm, you’ll often wait weeks for decent breaks. When the water is cold, the waves are epic but often beyond the skill level (and temperature threshold) of most casual surfers. Enter Inlet Beach, the Garden State’s most consistent year-round surfing spot. The beach’s reliable surf can be attributed to its enormous jetties, which corral approaching waves into long, glorious breaks even in the flat summer doldrums. Things get particularly interesting just before storms and during late-summer swells when it’s possible to find standup barrels as the inlet breaks at 15 or 20 feet. However, the spot can get crowded on summer weekends. When the surf’s down, pay a visit to Inlet Outlet, Manasquan’s favorite surf shop and a local institution for more than three decades.

Whale Beach, Upper Township

Exit 17
Go down to Sea Isle City, turn left on Landis Avenue, and keep going until you pass Taylor Avenue. Once the homes and crowds begin to disappear, you’ve arrived at Whale Beach, one of the Jersey Shore’s best-kept (until now) surfing secrets. Frequent sandbars create nice, long, clean breaks all summer, and the lack of crowds allows everyone to have his or her own little slice of wave heaven.

Long Beach Island (southern tip)

Exit 63

The most crowded break on LBI can be found at Holyoke Avenue in Beach Haven. But go a little farther south to the island’s southern tip, and you’ll find great waves and far fewer people. An imposing jetty creates an intimate and consistent cover of long, tidy lines. Make sure you bring some bug spray—the greenhead flies can get pretty intense. But the waves are worth it.

Best: Pet-Friendly Beaches

Fisherman’s Cove (Manasquan)
Exit 98
Located on 55 acres of marshland along the Manasquan Inlet, Fisherman’s Cove Conservation Area has a designated Dog Beach Park where leashed canines are welcome all year-round. The park includes a sandy beach where dog-owners can rest and relax in-between dips in the cool inlet water. Open from 7 am to dusk, the beach is free and conveniently located less than a quarter-mile from Manasquan’s oceanfront beach and just over a mile from the borough’s downtown district, which includes shops, food, and the Algonquin Arts Theatre.

Island Beach State Park (Seaside Park)
Exit 82
Island Beach is for lovers of animals, both wild and domestic. One of the few undeveloped barrier beaches on the north Atlantic Coast, it is home to a large osprey colony, as well as red fox, blue herons, peregrine falcons and more than 400 species of plants. Man’s best friend is welcome south of the ocean swimming areas as long as they are on a leash no longer than six feet. Check in with the park office before bringing your furry pal, as there are certain times of the year when birds nest and dogs are prohibited—canines are specifically prohibited on the Spizzle Creek Bird Blind Trail out of respect for the wildlife there. Most visitors with four-legged friends pack picnic lunches when visiting the park, which is open from 7 am to dusk on weekends and 8 am to dusk on weekdays.

Stone Harbor Beach (Stone Harbor)
Exit 10
Don’t be misled by the oceanfront signs saying pets aren’t allowed on Stone Harbor’s beach. The borough has opened the northern end of the beach between 80th and 83rd streets for leashed canines before 9 am and from 6 pm until dusk. During the day, the 82nd Street Park is popular for dog-toting families. Your pup can take in the fresh air and green grass while your family enjoys the playground, the baseball, and soccer fields as well as the basketball and tennis courts. At night, take your dog for a stroll downtown, where the staff of Paw Prints hands out treats to quadrupeds.