If folks on the Jersey Shore had but one message to convey to the world, it would be an emphatic "YES, WE ARE OPEN."
Pummeled by superstorm Sandy in October, many towns along the 124-mile stretch of New Jersey's Atlantic coastline have been scrambling to complete a Herculean cleanup in time for the summer season, on which so many depend. And with the exception of a few of the hardest-hit communities (some of which still resemble a war zone), those efforts appear to have paid off.
"For the most part, everything is back up and running and we're ready to greet our vacationers," says Jeanne DiPaola, director of public affairs and tourism for Ocean County, which covers one-third of the Jersey Shore, from Point Pleasant Beach to Long Beach Island (732-929-2000, www.co.ocean.nj.us/tourism).
Much attention has been paid to the rebuilding effort, most recently by Britain's Prince Harry, who praised "the American spirit" as he toured storm-stricken Mantoloking and Seaside Heights with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie this month.
A drive along the Jersey Shore in mid-May revealed what you can expect as you plan your own visit. Here's a look at a few of the more prominent seaside communities:
At the northernmost tip of the Jersey Shore is Sandy Hook, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area (exit 117 off the Garden State Parkway South). The popular park in Monmouth County draws more than 2 million visitors a year and has been busily digging out from sand and debris to prepare for this summer's guests. Closed for months after Sandy, much of the seven-mile barrier beach is now open to the public, including beach area B, along with Gunnison and North beaches. Recovery work continues in certain areas; park officials say those areas will reopen when it is safe to do so. Sandy Hook's iconic lighthouse came through the storm unscathed and offers daily tours from 1 to 5 p.m. The visitors' center has been relocated to the Lighthouse Keepers Quarters (732-872-5970, nps.gov/gate).
POINT PLEASANT BEACH
The storied Jenkinson's Boardwalk (circa 1928) at Point Pleasant Beach (Garden State Parkway exit 98) is in good shape, with its arcades, games of chance, restaurants and shops eager for the summer throng of beachgoers. The Carousel, Crazy Bus, Flitzer and other amusement rides are up and running, as is Jenkinson's Aquarium. "The aquarium animals did great during the storm," says Toby Wolf, director of marketing for Jenkinson's. "Eight members of the staff stayed to make sure that the animals were properly cared for, that all of the pumps and filtration systems stayed on through the power loss." He adds, "We have over 1,800 animals. There was no loss of animal life." Hotels and motels have made necessary repairs and are available. And, as of mid-May, so were 30 percent of rental properties, according to Mike Corbally, co-owner of Barefoot Real Estate, who says Point Pleasant Beach is ready for fun in the sun. "The sand has been sifted and we've had divers out in the ocean that have cleaned up what was out there," he says. "The boardwalk is ready from end to end. We're good to go." (732-892-0600, jenkinsons.com; 732-899-2424, pointpleasantbeachchamber.com)
Seaside Heights took a particularly severe beating. Yet, seven months later, this scrappy beach community (Garden State Parkway exit 82) says it's open for business. Most of the hotels and motels were not badly damaged, according to Michael Graichen, the borough's public information officer. But, he says, a number of individual rental properties are still awaiting insurance claims to be settled.
The mile-long boardwalk has been rebuilt, and Graichen says 90 percent of boardwalk businesses will reopen in time for summer visitors. The FunTown Pier, at the south end of the boardwalk in neighboring Seaside Park, likely will be off-limits this summer as it is a considerable work in progress, having lost a reported 90 percent of its amusement rides. At the boardwalk's north end, representatives of the Casino Pier -- also devastated by Sandy -- say Breakwater Beach (its water park) is now open, as are its boardwalk arcade and games of chance. Casino Pier officials are working to reopen the lower deck of the amusement pier by Memorial Day, offering a mixture of kiddie and thrill rides. One of the most enduring post-Sandy images flashed 'round the world was that of the pier's JetStar roller coaster, mangled and half-submerged in the Atlantic. The coaster was dismantled and removed a week ago. "It needed to be out. It kind of reminded everyone of the devastation that we went through," says Casino Pier marketing manager Maria Mastoris. "Now it's time to start fresh and rebuild and show that we made great progress in the last six months." (732-793-6488, casinopiernj.com; 732-793-9100, seaside-heightsnj.org)
Denizens of Long Beach Island (Garden State Parkway exit 63) say they've been frustrated with what they felt were exaggerated accounts of the damage wrought to their 18-mile island, which, with no boardwalk, relies heavily on rentals and day-trippers. Pat Sepanak, owner of Sand Dollar Real Estate in Surf City, launched the "LBI Is Alive" campaign, yet, as of mid-May, she says there was a 30 percent vacancy rate in LBI rental properties.
"We're in very good shape. A lot of our homes already were raised up on pilings, so if we were looking at some water, it was in the garages, by and large," says Sepanak, a 30-year LBI resident. "The oceanside, up and down the island, didn't take the beating that the bayside did, and most of our rental properties are on the oceanside." Many restaurants, hotels and other businesses suffered structural and water damage, but officials say about 95 percent of them have reopened.
Barnegat Lighthouse, at the northern tip of the island, survived with little to no damage and is open to the public. And, near the southern end, Beach Haven's amusement park, Fantasy Island, is up and running, as is the Surflight Theater (also in Beach Haven), which, after being forced to scrap its winter production, opened its 64th season last month. (lbiisalive.com; 609-494-7211, visitlbiregion.com)
ATLANTIC CITY AND POINTS SOUTH
Much of the lower third of the Jersey Shore -- from Atlantic City down to Cape May -- fared relatively well by comparison. But several shore communities farther north are still struggling, most notably Mantoloking, Ortley Beach and Lavallette. Mantoloking, a wealthy enclave of private residences (a majority of which are still uninhabitable) with no business district, has only a few public beaches that remain closed as of this writing.
Ortley Beach will continue rebuilding over the summer but hopes to open a small portion of its public beach in June. And Lavallette officials remain positive they can recapture at least some of the summer season. A borough spokeswoman says 85 percent of Lavallette's businesses have reopened, while the pedestrian boardwalk and access ramps to roughly 11 of its 26 beaches have been rebuilt.
ELSEWHERE ON THE JERSEY SHORE
It is, of course, impossible to list all of the Jersey Shore's seaside communities. Most, if not all, sustained some damage when superstorm Sandy blustered through. All have worked hard to get ready for the summer. Here are a handful more to consider (and feel free to explore other locales) as you plan your visit.