If you think the Jersey Shore means just sand and surf, the National Park Service wants you to think again.
This month, it will take the wraps off an ambitious project called the New Jersey Coastal Heritage Trail. Stretching along 275 miles of coastline, the trail's scope is huge: American Revolution sites, Victorian seaside comfort stations, wildlife habitats, commercial fishing hamlets, boardwalk amusements and summer religious retreats.
"People usually look at this area because of recreation," says Janet Wolf, the project's director. "But the coast has important stories to tell."
In an effort to organize these stories into a compelling narrative, Ms. Wolf and her staff have organized the sites -- many of which are already listed on national and state historic registers -- into five themes: maritime, relaxation and inspiration, coastal communities, wildlife migration and coastal habitats.
New Jersey is rich in maritime history, Ms. Wolf points out, because its location on the mid-Atlantic coast makes it equally strategic for navigation, trade, commerce and defense. To illustrate this, the park service has singled out harbor installations, boat-building operations, lighthouses and forts.
"We know it's going to evolve," adds Ms. Wolf. The complete narratives for all the themes will be published eventually in brochures.
Since 1988, Ms. Wolf has been amassing information on the state's coastal history from the second floor of the two-room wooden schoolhouse that was once the Mauricetown Academy. Using the English pronunciation of "Morris," Mauricetown is located near the Delaware Bay in that part of the trail where the state's commercial fishing heritage is prominent. In fact, neighboring hamlets go by the fanciful names of Shellpile and Bivalve. A few miles away in dense underbrush there are the remains of Caviar, where sturgeon were once brought in.
The New Jersey Coastal Heritage Trail is funded with federal money, thanks to the efforts of Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley, who sponsored the legislation in Congress. The funding allows the National Park Service to research and write the self-guiding tours that tell the cultural and natural history of one of the country's original 13 Colonies.
The trail is designed so that visitors can pick it up at any point convenient to their itinerary. To follow it is as simple as turning off either the Garden State Parkway -- the state's north-south coastal corridor -- or Route 49 -- a highway that rolls from southeast Deepwater on the Delaware River through the state's farm-rich lowlands to the mouth of the Tuckahoe River south of Atlantic City.
While it may be later in August or early September before the blue, green and tan signs bearing the trail's coastal logo are erected, visitors can pick up brochures at the welcome centers at Fort Mott in Deepwater and at Cheesequake State Park off Exit 123 on the Garden State Parkway. Brochures also will be stocked at the Ocean View rest area near the parkway's Exit 17 in Cape May County.
The trail begins south of Newark International Airport in Perth Amboy, then rumbles along the Atlantic Ocean from the Sandy Hook peninsula past lighthouses and neon-lighted casinos, through beach towns and wetlands to the gingerbread Victoriana of Cape May. From there, off-shoots of the trail take the traveler past turn-of-the-century private homes that double as local post offices and wooden stack houses that date from the latter 1800s to end at Fort Mott, a few miles south of the Delaware Memorial Bridge that leads into New Castle, Del.
Among the maritime sites on the heritage trail are:
* Raritan Yacht Club at 160 Water St. in Perth Amboy, one of the oldest boat clubs in the country, established in 1865 as a canoe and rowing club.
Today, the yacht club occupies the former home of the Cooper family, longtime oystermen on the Raritan Bay. The white-washed, three-story brick house with a mansard roof and red trim is located on the Harbor Walk, a year-old project undertaken by Perth Amboy to revitalize its waterfront. Visitors will find antiques shops, the renovated Naval Reserve Armory and the Tottenville Ferry slip * Spy House, north off Route 36 in the Port Monmouth section of Middletown. Built in 1663 on the southern rim of Raritan Bay, it was an inn during the American Revolution, and patriots would be dispatched from it to sink understaffed British ships moored in the bay whenever the lookout spied Tory sailors coming ashore. Open daily; hours vary.
* Fort Hancock, at the tip of Sandy Hook, part of the much larger Gateway National Recreation Area. During the American Revolution, the Sandy Hook Light was a military target for British forces who occupied New York harbor. In the 1870s, its remote location was used by the U.S. Army to test-fire ordnance and weapons. One of the yellow brick officers' houses is home to the fort's museum. Open daily.