New Jersey is probably the most misunderstood and maligned state in the Union. You’ve heard the jokes -- toxic waste dumps, greasy spoon diners, Giants (aka Jimmy Hoffa Memorial) Stadium, etc .
But I love New Jersey and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Past the refineries, the Turnpike, the Parkway, the malls, the suburban subdivisions, is my New Jersey -- a wondrous land of beautiful parks, beaches, historical sites, lakes, lovely old churches and cemeteries, farms, breathtaking scenery, and the occasional off-beat, quirky little place that you find by accident.
It's no wonder that New Jersey is often referred to as "The Crossroads of the Revolution." With its coastline and its strategic location between New York and Philadelphia, New Jersey was the site of many battles and activities during the Revolutionary War, and the saying "George Washington slept here" probably applies more to New Jersey than to any other state outside of his native Virginia.
I’ve often dreamed of touring all of NJ’s 21 counties on my bicycle (so far, I’ve ridden around Hudson, Bergen, Morris, Passaic, Essex, Ocean, Burlington, Monmouth, and Middlesex), so there are still plenty of places I haven’t been to, let alone heard of. The treasures that await! In the meantime, I’d like to share some of my favorite places in the Garden State, and as I discover more, I’ll add them here. If you’re interested in visiting any of them, please e-mail me at JerZFox@aol.com
Allaire State Park, Wall Twp, Monmouth County
From the 1700s till about 1850, NJ was one of the nation’s leading producers of iron. During the 1830’s, Allaire State Park was the site of the Howell Iron Works, owned by James P. Allaire, a New York businessman and partner of Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamboat.
The restored village features the workers’ rowhouses, manager’s cottage, blacksmith, windmill, stables, Mr. Allaire’s home, general store, and a church which is a popular spot for weddings. There’s also a snack bar, nature trails, equestrian trails, camping, a nature center, a fishing pond for kids, and the Pine Creek Railroad, a rebuilt train which carries visitors around the park. The park also hosts crafts fairs and other events.
Allenwood General Store, Allenwood, Monmouth County
Imagine you had a crazy Aunt Fanny who decided to open a cafe in her attic, and you’ll begin to have some idea of what the Allenwood General Store is like. Not far from Allaire State Park, the store is redolent with the smoky aroma of fried pork roll sandwiches, one of its specialties. The hamburgers are to die for, and the corn chowder is just the thing on a chilly autumn day. The spot is a popular rest stop for bicyclists pedaling along the Edgar Felix Bicycle Trail (see below), which runs behind it.
You can enjoy a sandwich or a cold drink on the front porch or surrounded by the thousands of antiques, chatchkes, and just plain junk that the store sells -- anything from a Life Magazine with a picture of JFK on the cover to an old sewing machine to a washboard to a bandanna.
Berkeley Island County Park, Berkeley Twp., Ocean County
Berkeley is one of the smallest of Ocean County’s 20 county parks -- and my favorite. All sorts of activities are packed into only 25 acres -- boating, fishing, crabbing, picnics, playground, and swimming where Cedar Creek empties into Barnegat Bay.
I used to do a bike ride from Berkeley Island to Double Trouble Park (see below), back towards Beachwood, and along the Toms River, the mandatory pizza stop, then past the salt marshes at Good Luck Point, and back. When I led this ride for my bike club, I used to call it the “How Did Good Luck Point Get its Name?” ride, promising I would spring for lunch for anyone who knew the answer. I never had to make good on that promise. I modified this ride from one in 30 Bicycle Tours in New Jersey by Arline and Joel Zatz
(OK, the version I heard was this: During the American Revolution, a British spy who was being pursued by colonists escaped from there when a British ship rescued him and brought him to New York, so it was good luck for him.)
Cape May, Cape May County
One of New Jersey’s oldest and most charming resort communities, in Cape May you can stay in an old Victorian B & B, rock on the porch, and visit Sunset Beach, where you can hunt for Cape May diamonds, clear quartz crystals which, when cut, polished, and mounted, look like the finest cubic zirconias. The old rusted chunk of concrete several hundred yards off the shore is the remains of the USS Atlantus, an experimental concrete ship built during WWI. If you’re REALLY daring, visit Higbee’s Beach (it’s a nudie beach!).
At night, stroll the stops and restaurants along Washington Mall or enjoy a seafood dinner along the docks.
Chatsworth Cranberry Festival, Woodland Township, Burlington County
Ever try cranberry sherbet? Or cranberry chutney? If you think cranberries are just for Thanksgiving,, then check out this celebration of all things cranberry.
Every third weekend of October, thousands of visitors descend upon the tiny community of Chatsworth to chow down on cranberry goodies and funnel cakes, visit the craft show, and take bus tours of the cranberry bogs. My bike club used to run a ride out of Buzby’s (God, how I miss that place!), a now defunct general store and cafe which used to serve some really incredible waffles.
So next time you open a can of cranberry sauce or chug down a glass of cranberry juice, think (and thank) Chatsworth, NJ!
Double Trouble State Park, Bayville, Ocean County
When I first heard of Double Trouble Park, I thought it was named after my two kids. Actually, legend has it that way back about 150 years ago, when the area was an active lumber producer, beavers chewed through a dam twice in one week , causing the residents to complain, “Now we’ve got double trouble.” You can launch a canoe or go fishing (or maybe go skinny-dipping) in the tea-colored waters of Cedar Creek. The dark color comes from the tannins from the numerous cedar trees growing in the area, and the water. known as “sweet water”, was prized by ship crews because the tannins kept the water fresh longer.
East Bay Ave., Barnegat, Ocean County
I used to like to ride my bike along this 5 mile horseshoe-shaped road, past a street called Santa Claus Lane (a reminder that no matter what time of year it is, he’s making his list and checking it twice), the wildlife refuge, and the Bay, then turning back over the bridge past the municipal docks, the Barnegat Historical Society, an 18th century Friends meeting house with a cemetery, and finally to replenish at the Hurricane House, an ice cream parlor built in 1920 and looking as if it had been stuck in a time warp. Listen to the old player piano, indulge in a fountain treat, and pick up some penny candy (which costs a quarter or so, but hey, inflation...)
Edgar Feliz Bicycle Path, Manasquan, Monmouth County
I don't know who Edgar Felix is or was, but this 4 mile paved bike trail is built along an old abandonded railroad right-of-way extending through wooded areas and subdivisions from the pleasant beach community of Manasquan to Farmingdale. From there it's a short ride along local roads to Allaire State Park. The path goes right behind one of my favorite eateries, the Allendwood General Store.
English Neighborhood Reformed Church, Ridgefield, Bergen County
Every day, thousands and thousands of cars zip around the Ridgefield traffic circle on their way to the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, the GW Bridge, Rtes. 3,4,17,46, the Turnpike, the Parkway, the malls, wherever. Not the sort of place you'd expect to find an 18th century church. But travel one block west on Hendricks Causeway, and there it is, surrounded by factories and the nearby Public Service generation plant: the English Neighborhood Reformed Church, looking pretty much the same as when it was erected on Cornelius Vreeland's farm in 1793.
The church was originally built in 1768 in nearby Leonia. After the Revolution, the church was rebuilt in its present site, using much of the building materials from the original structure. The earliest tombstone I found dates to 1799. Vreeland himself died in 1819 and was buried in the churchyard. His epitaph credits him as "the Founder of Our Church."
Years ago I briefly entertained the thought of becoming a teacher until my better judgment took over. I wanted to teach American history to perhaps 5th-6th graders. I would take them on a field trip to an early American cemetery because you can't learn about how Americans thought about life without learning how they thought about death. It would be a sobering experience for them to learn that, unlike them, many kids back then didn't make it to their 12th birthdays.
Englishtown Auction and Flea Market, Englishtown, Monmouth County
Attention, flea market fanatics! If you visit Englishtown, you’ll swear you’ve died and gone to heaven! Acres and acres (and acres!) of stuff for sale -- anything from Pokemon trading cards to clothes to hubcaps for your 1954 DeSoto. If it isn’t at Englishtown, it probably isn’t, period. Wear comfy shoes, bring lotsa cash and/or plastic, and get there early.
First Dutch Reformed Church, Hackensack, Bergen County
The First Dutch Reformed Church was founded in 1686, which makes it the second oldest existing congregation in New Jersey. The first church and the adjacent Village Green were constructed in 1696. Over the years the fieldstone and brick church was expanded and rebuilt to the present building, erected in 1868. Embedded in the outer walls are 300+ year old bricks and plaques bearing the names and initials of the original founders. On top of the steeple is a brass rooster which was made in Holland in 1691.
The oldest marked grave in the surrounding churchyard is a simple fieldstone engraved with the initials "HB" and dated 1713. It is believed to be the grave of a Native American woman. In the corner nearest the Village Green is the unique table-shaped grave marker of Gen. Enoch Poor, who died in 1780 at age 44. His funeral was attended by George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, and soldiers of the Continental Army. A statue of Gen. Poor stands between the cemetery and the Village Green. But by far one of the most interesting and poignant grave markers in the cemetery is that of 4-year old Albert, who died in 1879. On top of his marker is what must have been his favorite toy. "Bertie's Jim Horse" is a wooden horse pulling a cart, and it is in surprisingly good condition, given over a century of exposure to the elements.
Hoboken, Hudson County
Long before Hoboken was transformed into Yuppieville-on-the-Hudson, my grandparents and uncle owned stores on Washington St., the town’s main drag. My grandparents owned a fine old two-family brownstone on Bloomfield Ave. & 11th St., just a few blocks from the Elysian Fields, where the first ever baseball game was played. My mother inherited it when my grandmother died in 1965 but unfortunately she had to sell it when the taxes went up. God only knows what that brownstone would be worth today in a town where you can’t touch a 800 sq. ft. condo in an old refurbished tenement for under $250,000 And yes, my mother knew Frank Sinatra, Hoboken’s most famous son. Hoboken was the type of town where everyone knew everyone else. My uncle Morris was a longshoreman on the Hoboken docks, where the movie "On the Waterfront," starring Marlon Brando, was filmed in 1954 ("I coulda been someone, Charlie, I coulda been a contender.") Maxwell House used to have a factory in Hoboken, and whenever I go there, I can still smell the coffee roasting.
Island Beach State Park, Berkeley Twp. Ocean County<
If New Jersey’s 125 miles of beaches are its crown, then Island Beach is surely its most precious jewel. This is not your typical boardwalk Jersey beach. It’s 8 1/2 miles of unspoiled wilderness.
The bike club I used to belong to regularly held an Island Beach ride, and I used to go once a year to remind myself why I didn’t go more often. The headwind riding into the park is brutal! But anyway, the park has two guarded bathing beaches with bathhouses, and a nature center called the Aeolium, complete with nature trails, as well as wildlife sanctuaries, dune buggy areas, and fishing. The Governor’s summer mansion, Ocean House, is on the water, and the accompanying guest house, Bay House, is across the road. Several years ago, Jodie Foster filmed a movie called "Stealing Home" at Ocean House.
Liberty State Park, Jersey City, Hudson County
Out of the ashes and debris of a decaying railway terminal and waterfront rose Liberty State Park in lower Jersey City. With the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and lower Manhattan as a backdrop, the park offers miles of walkways where you can take in the view as you walk or ride a bike or take the Circle Line to the Statue or Ellis Island. NY Waterways offers ferry service to the financial district from the nearby marina. The world's largest clock can been seen at the site of the old Colgate-Palmolive factory. Science buffs can visit the Liberty Science Center, which has a state of the art IMAX theater, where I got dizzy after watching a travel movie on Alaska a few years ago. Railroad history fans will appreciate the restored CNJRR station, where, if you use your imagination, you can almost hear and see the Blue Comet Special arriving.
Mount Holly, Burlington County
If you love early American architecture, this is the place! The courthouse, built in 1796, is still in use and is an outstanding example of Federalist architecture. The stone prison (now a museum) dates back to 1804 and was for many years the model for prison structures built in the US. The Friends meeting house dates to 1775, and along the streets, houses and stores proudly display the year they were built (anywhere from the mid 1700s to the late 1800s).
Not far from Mount Holly is Smithville, the beautiful home of H. B. Smith, an industrialist who manufactured, among other things, a high wheeler bike with the high wheel in the back, which allowed for greater stability and control than the conventional “penny farthing” bike of that era. Smith’s life read like a soap opera. He married his beautiful young business partner, Agnes Gilkerson -- supposedly while still married to his wife Verona Eveline in Vermont (Verona was six months pregnant at the time H. B. married her). H. B. even sent Agnes to medical school in Philadelphia, and she became not only a doctor but an editor. H. B.'s oldest son Elton vehemently opposed the marriage, and several years after H. B. died, Elton tried to have his father exhumed from his spot next to Agnes to bury him next to Verona -- only to discover that H. B. had shrewdly had his coffin encased in iron bars and cement to prevent such an undertaking! (Sorry). To this day H. B. still lies next to his beloved Agnes in a forgotten corner of St. Andrew's Cemetery in Mount Holly. Later, H. B.'s successors built a bicycle railway for employees to travel from downtown Mount Holly to the factory.
New Bridge Crossing, River Edge, Bergen County
George Washington led his troops across the bridge during his retreat from Fort Lee in November 1776. It was here that Thomas Paine got the inspiration for his famous "These are the times that try men's souls" essay. A month later, Washington and his troops defeated the British at Trenton, the capital of New Jersey. The original bridge, which was built in 1745, was replaced in 1889 by the present iron truss swing bridge.
Also at New Bridge is Steuben House, a stone Dutch Colonial house built in 1713 and awarded to Baron von Steuben, a German army officer, for his part in helping to train the American troops during the Revolution.
New York Renaissance Faire, Sterling Forest, Tuxedo, NY
Yea, I knowest this be in New YORK, but, prithee, m’lords and ladies, beareth me out. Don a capelet or a cuirass or a farthingale or a houppelin, pack up thine trusty sword or mace, and head ye back once upon a time to when men were knights or wizards and fair maidens were princesses or bawdy wenches.
Verily, every weekend from early August to mid-September, refugees from yon 21st century dress up in fantasy costumes and visit the Faire to chow down on turkey drumsticks, hoist a tankard or two or mead (booze made from honey), or take in a jousting match. There be stands all over the place selling costumes (Verily, if thou wouldst visit the Renaissance, thou must dresseth the part), jewelry, food, and crafts. Mine own favorite section be the Kissing Bridge, where fair maidens must kiss yon hunky gentleman to cross over (Gadzooks, I be one old bawdy wench!) Getteth there early so thou can park thine conveyance in yon parking lot ere the throngs arrive forsooth. Or taketh ye Short Line Bus from yon Port Authority Bus Terminal in yonder kingdom of Manhattan. Being New York, no one wouldst ever notice that thou art wearing a suit of armor...
Old Paramus Reformed Church, Ridgewood, Bergen County
New Jersey is a state filled with remarkable contrasts. Right next to bustling Route 17 stands this stately old fieldstone church. The congregation dates to 1725, with the present structure built in 1800. During the Revolution George Washington maintained headquarters here and presided over the court martial of General Charles Lee in 1778. The cemetery next to the church has burials dating back, as far as I can tell, to the 1770's, although many of the headstones are so old and worn that the inscriptions are missing. Generations of Westervelts, Ackermans, and Bantas are buried here, reflecting the early Dutch heritage of Bergen County, and their descendents still live in the area.
Old Tennent Church, Freehold, NJ
The Battle of Monmouth, the famed “Molly Pitcher” battle of the American Revolution, was fought on June 28, 1778. Old Tennent Church, built in 1751, served as a field hospital during the battle, and American and British soldiers who were killed were buried in the churchyard (the equanimity of death). Legend has it that a bloody handprint can still be seen on one of the pews.
The church is a fine example of colonial architecture, and the large graveyard surrounding it is a history lesson in itself. The many graves of kids and young adults are a somber and poignant reminder of the tenuousness of life in the early days of American history.
I used to do a bike ride from Monmouth Battlefield State Park to the church, past the site said to be Molly’s well (actually about 400 yards to the east) and past Battleview Orchards for cider and donuts. (And I wonder why I never lose weight from bike riding).
Palisades Amusement Park, Cliffside Park, Bergen County (posthumous)
Click on the above link to read about a vanished bit of Jersey's glory
Saddle River Bike Path, Ridgewood through Fair Lawn, Bergen County
One of the finest multi-use recreational trails in New Jersey (if not the entire country), the 7-mile Saddle River bike path connects a series of parks in Ridgewood, Glen Rock, Paramus, Fair Lawn and Saddle Brook like a thread connecting pearls. On any given day, pedestrians, in-line skaters, bicyclists, joggers, and scooter riders (scooterists?) travel along the Saddle River, under busy Rtes. 4 and 208, past the Old Mill (1745), and around lakes.
Sandy Hook, Monmouth County
Sandy Hook is the "hook" which juts out of the northermost part of the New Jersey coastline. It's the NJ unit of the Gateway National Recreation Area. Miles of unspoiled beach and its proximity to northern NJ and NY make it one of the most popular beach areas in NJ.
Situated at the northernmost area of Sandy Hook is the Sandy Hook Lighthouse, America's oldest operating lighthouse, built in 1764. (Across Sandy Hook Bay, atop the hills of nearby Atlantic Highlands, there's another interesting lighthouse, the unique Twin Lights, dating to 1862). Surrounding the lighthouse is Fort Hancock, a military installation established in the early 1900s. The area also includes a museum, a Coast Guard station, and the Brookdale Community College Environmental Sutdy Center.
A little further down the road, the remains of two six-inch gun batteries built in 1904 mark the entrance to Gunnison Beach, known as a "clothing optional" area. (Yes, I've tried it, and it was great! No wet, sandy bathing suit to contend with, but it was weird putting sunscreen on body areas that are not accustomed to getting sunscreen. Mine was certainly not the only "more than perfect" body skinny-dipping. At least no one reported a beached whale! The only thing was, I kept noticing everyone's surgical scars, and thinking, "Hip replacement...gall bladder...CABG..."). About 2 1/2 miles north of the entrance you'll find the Spermaceti Cove Visitor's Center, which exhibits the natural history of the area.
Van Saun County Park, Paramus, Bergen County
Not far from the megamalls of Paramus is this megapark, which features a zoo, a train ride, a merry-go-round, a reconstructed farm, a botanical garden, a lake, a restaurant, wooded areas, and picnic tables galore. Get here early on a weekend --the parking lots fill up fast!
Whitesbog, Pemberton Twp., Burlington County
Next time you bite into a blueberry muffin, you can thank Elizabeth White, for it was she who first cultivated blueberries here. To honor White’s contribution to agriculture, every year the Whitesbog Preservation Trust sponsors its annual Blueberry Festival on the last Saturday in June. After touring the area and visiting the craft stands, visitors can refresh with blueberry bagels with blueberry cream cheese (weird but delicious), blueberry pastries, blueberry muffins, but unfortunately not the notorious Piney blueberry moonshine which local bootleggers produced during Prohibition.
Every year White used to recruit Italian immigrants from Philadelphia and New York to work in the fields. She would even hire someone to tell stories and read Italian newspapers and books to the workers during their meals. The Trust also sponsors other events at Whitesbog: hikes, mountain bike rides, lectures, and the annual Halloween Haunted hayride around the blueberry fields, along with scary stories around the bonfire and plenty of donuts and hot cider.
Wildwood, Cape May County
The great mother of all NJ boardwalks, this span is 2 1/2 miles and loaded with more souvenir shops, arcades, rides, and food stands than Coney Island, not to mention 2 (two!) huge water parks. If the thought of walking daunts you, for about 2 bucks and change you can hop a tram from one end of the boardwalk to the other(from the southern end of Wildwood to the northern end of North Wildwood), although be prepared to heard the recorded message, “Watch the tram car, please” repeat in your dreams for months to come. Or you can spend the early morning riding a rented coaster brake bike along the boardwalk and join the thousands of other bike renters and pedestrians dodging the trams. The beaches themselves are free and the distance formt he boardwalk to the water is probably equivalent to 3 or 4 city blocks.
If you don’t dig the boardwalk scene, stay in Wildwood Crest, the southernmost of the Wildwoods. Unlike its sister communities, however, the Crest is dry, so BYOB.