Many villages along New Jersey's coastline facing the Atlantic Ocean are primarily summer-residents only. Because their seasons are short, they've been able to resist erosion - meaning any capitulation to contemporary tastes.
Until quite recently, treasured attractions along the shore (pronounced "show-uh" here), such as the Miss America pageant, Wacky Golf or the East Coast's biggest Ferris wheel, created a prevalent style that was a bit oblivious, but endearingly cheesy nonetheless - something like a teenager with a bright-red sunburn. Think of this as the B.B. era, or Before Borgata.
With the 2003 opening of this glamorous Atlantic City hotel, a new high-water mark of sophistication was reached, and its decorous effect rippled not only across Atlantic City, but up and down the coast.
Visitors who'd never come to New Jersey before arrived in force (according to N.J. officials, 71 million tourists came last year, 69 percent of them from out of state). Suddenly, everyone was talking about year-round tourism and was mindful of the fact that 25 percent of the United States' population (including Baltimore, of course) is within a gasoline tank's drive away.
It's tempting, then, to think of post-Borgata Atlantic City as the bully who kicks sand onto all the other oceanside villages. Neighboring towns have either elected to emulate its boisterous chic and let the good times (and sushi) roll, or run the other way into saltwater-taffy nostalgia. Thus, places like Wildwood and Seaside Heights are known as "party spots," whereas Cape May and Ocean Grove affect a more prim demeanor.
Actually, do whatever you like on the Jersey shore. Munch on a funnel cake for lunch, but have fennel-crusted sea bass for dinner. With 127 miles of nearly continuous beach front, the "show-uh" can, uh, show many different sides: chic and shabby, then and now.
It's all the same ocean, beach and sunshine, but accommodations vary wildly along the shore, from super-sized, modern skyscrapers, to cozy cottages built in the 1800s.
Harrah's Casino, 777 Harrah's Blvd., 609-441-5000; harrahs.com. Thanks to a $550 million expansion, this is the largest hotel in town -- at least for the moment. A 90-foot-high dome includes a "Tropical Paradise" with a lagoon, waterfall, rain forest and Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa. Summer rates: $119-$419.
LONG BEACH ISLAND
Daddy O, 4401 Long Beach Blvd., 609-494-1300. This addition to the lodgings scene brings a luxuriously low-key style of a boutique hotel to the beach. Summer rates: $195-$375.
Green Gables Inn, 212 Centre St., 609-492-3553; gableslbi.com. This beloved guesthouse and tea room was just given a top-to-bottom refurbishing. Summer rates: $325-$500.
Congress Hall, 251 Beach Ave., 609-884-8421. Southern New Jersey's Grand Dame of hotels will, in summer 2007, spin off a collection of Victorian houses for nightly or weekly rental. Call for rates.
Starlux, 305 E. Rio Grande Ave., 609-522-7412; thestarlux.com. Swing out, sister! The soaring, all-glass lobby invites guests into a fond architectural homage to the doo-wop era. Summer rates: $99-$215.
Buddakan, 1 Atlantic Ocean, 609-674-0100. A temple to modern Asian cuisine. Entrees range from $31-$50.
Phillips' Classic Americana Seafood, 2100 Boardwalk, 609-348-2273. This is the region's premier name in Maryland-style crab cakes and regional fare such as baked haddock Parker House-style. Menu items range from $20-$80. (The top price is for a clam bake for two.)
Spice Road, 1000 Boardwalk at Virginia Avenue, 609-449-1000. For a quick passage to India, visit the Trump Taj Mahal's new selection of eateries and shops.
Island Grill, 311 Mansion St., 609-884-0200. Caribbean-influenced cuisine. How about some fresh-caught fish grilled, sauteed and blackened, or maybe a barbecued pulled-pork sandwich? Entrees range from $15.95-$23.95.
Karen and Rei's, 1882 Route 9 N., 609-624-8205. New American cuisine, including juniper-rubbed venison and cranberry duck.
LONG BEACH ISLAND
La Spiaggia, 357 W. 8th St., 609-494-4343. The restaurant (the name means "the beach" in Italian) offers a contemporary twist on classic Northern Italian cuisine, from pork medallions with Kahlua to squid-ink tagliatelle.
POINT PLEASANT BEACH
Latitude 40N, 816 Arnold Ave., 732-892-8553. Grilled mahi-mahi and tempura tuna in a homey, nautical setting.
Do you crave the glare of neon lights more than sunlight? Headliners ranging from Gwen Stefani and Norah Jones to Earth, Wind and Fire and Tony Bennett will be appearing in the next few months in Atlantic City. But there's also plenty of new talent waiting to be discovered at venues where the spirit of the youthful Bruce Springsteen still lingers. For those older than 25, an outing to one of these uproariously rowdy spots is an anthropological field trip - expect big hair, and even bigger attitude.