This installment in our series of articles about great places to visit in the United States takes us to the Garden State, a.k.a. New Jersey. It’s a place near and dear to my heart, and I know “Joisy” almost as well as my home States of Pennsylvania and California. My family occasionally visited the Jersey shore when I was a child, and I spent four years at university in the center of the State. As our tour guide, I have enlisted my recently arrived colleague Justin Kimmons-Gilbert, who will be working in our Auckland Consulate General for the next couple of years.
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Welcome to Beautiful New Jersey
by Justin Kimmons-Gilbert
Welcome to the underdog capital of the world, the tenacious and lovely state of New Jersey! Flanked by the Atlantic Ocean along eastern coast and near countless urban and rural attractions, this relatively small State is packed with activities and surprises that attract visitors year-round.
New Jersey has a long and interesting history. Geologists tell us that about 180 million years ago it abutted North Africa, and that the collision between the two land masses is what created America’s Appalachian Mountain range. The plates of course then drifted apart over many millions of years. The State’s big rivers, many wetlands, and deep gorges are a result of the retreat of the glaciers that covered the territory for a couple of millennia after that.
Humans first settled in the territory after the end of the Ice Age, more than 4,000 years ago. The largest Native American tribe in the area was the Lenni-Lenape, a complex society defined by matriarchal lines and divided into three large clans — the Wolf, Turtle, and Turkey. Dutch traders and explorers arrived in the early 1600s, establishing the large Dutch colony of New Netherland. There were also waves of Swedish settlers during that time. The colony passed into English hands in 1664 when the English fleet captured Fort Amsterdam (now known as New York City).
New Jersey and New York were originally governed as a single English Crown colony, which greatly upset settlers in New Jersey. In 1738 King George II separated the territories and appointed Judge Lewis Morris as the first governor of New Jersey.
In part because of its strategic position between Philadelphia and New York City, as well as its great wealth, New Jersey played an influential role in colonial and Revolutionary America.
It was one of the original 13 Colonies that took up arms against the Crown, and several decisive battles were fought on its territory.
George Washington’s iconic crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas 1776 turned the tide of the War with decisive victories at Trenton and Princeton.
Princeton University’s Nassau Hall served as the new Nation’s capital for a time, and it was there that the Continental Congress learned of the British surrender.
Bordered by New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and the Atlantic Ocean, New Jersey today is one of the most populous States in the Union with 9 million residents sitting between the large metropolises of New York and Philadelphia. Just half the geographic size of New Zealand’s Canterbury region, New Jersey is also one of the smallest States, ranking #47 out of 50 in area, ahead of just Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island (our smallest State). Because of those two factors, New Jersey is the most densely populated of the 50 States.
Its largest cities are Newark and Jersey City (both part of the greater New York City metropolitan area), with approximately 300,000 people each. More than 35 million passengers a year pass through Newark International Airport, which has excellent public ground transportation including a direct link to the State’s extensive rail system and to Amtrak. The State capital is the historic colonial city of Trenton, established in 1679 on the banks of the Delaware River by the Quakers.
New Jersey has the distinction of being one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse States in the country, which explains in part the dynamism of our culture and the richness of our food and traditions. A full 42% of the Jersey population is Latino, African American, Asian American, Pacific or Native American, or multiracial.
More than 56% of our younger population falls into those groups. We have the second largest Jewish population (after New York) and second largest Muslim population (after Michigan). All that diversity pays dividends — we have more scientists, engineers, and PhD’s per square mile than anywhere else in the world.
Yes, there is great dynamism, but New Jersey is known as the “Garden State” because of our lush scenery. The gardens throughout the State are a delight for the senses. Leaming’s Run Gardens is the largest and one of the most beautiful annual gardens in the America. Other gems not to be missed include the massive New Jersey State Botanical Garden with its impressive safe-haven for rare plant species from around the world, Presby Memorial Iris Gardens (a National Historic Site for its array of rare irises), and Grounds for Sculpture (a large sculpture garden that showcases emerging and well-known sculptors).
Despite our population density, there are also extensive wildness areas to enjoy. Nearly 22% of New Jersey’s total land area is encompassed by the Pine Barrens, a heavily forested range of coastal plains with astounding biodiversity. The United Nations designated the Pinelands National Reserve as an International Biosphere Reserve. There are endless opportunities for bird watching, kayaking, hiking, fishing, and camping in the area. Visitors can also explore old abandoned towns, like the Batsto Village, that thrived on iron ore extraction during the late 1700s and early 1800s.
If you visit the Pinelands, you may encounter the “New Jersey Devil” of popular regional folklore. Legends of the creature originated in a combination of early-settler and Native American folklore of a kangaroo-like creature, with the head of a goat, bat-like wings, and a forked tail. The legend created a pop-culture icon, inspiring several organizations to adopt the name including the Professional Hockey team the “New Jersey Devils.”
No trip to New Jersey would be complete without a hike on the Appalachian Trail. This 2,180 mile trail is one of the longest continuously marked footpaths in the world. It crosses 14 states and 5 national parks. Over 2 million people a year set foot on the trail. As a summer camper, I spent four nights there on my first backpacking adventure that has inspired many more since then. The total elevation gain along the trail is the equivalent to climbing Mt Everest 16 times; however, the tallest peak is only 2,037 meters.
Stunning natural beauty aside, the state boasts unique urban cities worth exploring. The first city of note is the also the state’s largest urban area, Newark. A massive city, Newark is perhaps best known for its performing arts. The city is home of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Symphony Orchestra, State Opera, and (every even-numbered year) the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, considered the Woodstock of poetry. All of that and more make Newark 6th the country’s largest performing arts center.
Tourists can also visit the Newark Museum – the largest museum complex in New Jersey, exhibiting everything from planetariums to restored Victorian mansions to extensive art galleries. The Museum also cosponsors the Newark Black film Festival. The New Jersey Historical Society, Newark Public Library, and Jewish Museum of New Jersey all maintain fresh historical exhibits for tourists who visit Newark’s creative center.
There are many wonders beyond museums and centers in Newark. A trip to the Military Park is recommended, where visitors can view a massive statue commemorating the fallen soldiers of every war America has partaken in. The Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart is one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in America, and received a visit from Pope John Paul II in 1995. Foodies should take advantage of their proximity to Ironbound, the historically industrial sector of Newark turned shopping and dining mecca, which doubles as the city’s nightlife neighborhood.
Jersey City is another must-see urban area, which places an emphasis on green space, such as the Liberty State Park, a 1,212 acre (4.9 km sq) public domain. The park houses the Liberty Science Center, a state-of-the-art facility with 8 expansive galleries and America’s largest IMAX dome theater. Other attractions include the historic Central Railroad Terminal, which chronicles Jersey City’s early heritage as a first stop for immigrants, the Museum of Russian Art, the Katyn Memorial, and the Colgate Clock. Though the park is most famous for being a launch point for ferries to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
The world-famous Statue is actually in New York State, thanks to a compact reached in 1834 setting the States borders at the midpoint of Upper New York Bay. That agreement decreed that the original islands, including Liberty Island, would remain a part of New York State, although recently reclaimed land on all the islands in the bay is considered to be New Jersey territory.
In 1987, “Lady Liberty” was subject to a law suit brought by U.S. Representative Frank J. Guarini and then Mayor of Jersey City, Gerald McCann, which contended that New Jersey should have dominion over the great icon, as it was on the New Jersey side of the state line. However, the court chose not to hear the case, so the legal status of the Statue remains unchanged.
The park also houses the Liberty Science Center, a state-of-the-art facility with 8 expansive galleries and America’s largest IMAX dome theater. Other attractions include the historic Central Railroad Terminal, which chronicles Jersey City’s early heritage as a first stop for immigrants, the Museum of Russian Art, the Katyn Memorial, and the Colgate Clock.
Just west of Jersey City is Hoboken, the home of Frank Sinatra, the first recorded game of baseball, and the trendy River Street with its boutique shopping and dining. In recent years the city has become a “transit village” for New Yorkers as the community experiences gentrification, imbuing Hoboken with a young, hip vibe. Some of the city’s more notable highlights include the Frank Sinatra Park, kayaking on the Hudson, Movies Under the Stars at Pier A, the Comedy Festival, International Film Festival, Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, and Italian Festival.
Traveling to the South, New Jersey is most popular for its shoreline (and no, it’s not like you see on TV). Located along the shorelines, are 11 majestic lighthouses that have guarded mariners sailing the Atlantic Ocean and intercoastal waterways for over a century. Pictured below, the 157-foot-high Cape May lighthouse is still an aid to navigation. Visitors who climb the 199 steps to the top of the lighthouse are rewarded with a spectacular panoramic view of the scenic Cape May peninsula. The first known lighthouse at Cape May was built in 1823.
The shore offers up something for every visitor, from vibrant nightlife, live-music, to family oriented beaches and boardwalks. With over 130 miles of beaches, it is a perfect place to experience a bit of summertime Americana. The most active boardwalks are Wildwood, Seaside Heights, Ocean City, and Atlantic City. Although each has its own unique flavor, popular attractions include carnival and arcade games, carousels, funnel cake stands, souvenir shops, and amusement piers.
Atlantic City is a major resort city along the shore known for its casinos, boardwalk and beach, and is the home of the Miss America Pageant. From its founding, Atlantic City has been an iconic entertainment mecca because of its location. It hosts a number of big events year-round in addition to the Pageant, including the very popular Atlantic City Airshow, “Thunder over the Boardwalk.” It is the only major air show in the U.S. not held at an airport or military base.
There is something for everyone in Atlantic City. The casinos offer not only gaming but luxury spas, world-class shows, and other entertainment. Shoppers will delight with countless high-end boutiques like Tiffany & Co all the way to one of the largest outlet malls in the U.S., the Tanger Outlets. Despite damage in Hurricane Sandy, the boardwalk in Atlantic City is back in business.
AC is also the inspiration for the original version of the popular board game, Monopoly. For more family friendly activities, check out Six Flags Great Adventure, a large amusement park featuring the latest rollercoaster technology, water rides, and a drive-through safari. My father used to take me to Great Adventure when I was a kid, and I’ll never forget the thrill of riding roller coasters for the first time.
Just further south of Atlantic City off exit 63 on the Garden State Parkway, and you will find yourself on Long Beach Island, a beach lover’s paradise. LBI, as it is known by locals, is renowned for its white sandy beaches, which stretch for the entirety of the island’s 18 mile length. In the north lies the historic Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, which offers walking trails, picnicking areas, and breathtaking vistas of the Jersey Shore for those who climb to the top.
Miniature golf is one of the island’s largest attractions, and there is no dearth of spectacular courses. You will even find one in the island’s iconic Thundering Surf Water Park! Here, you can also try flowboarding, a rapidly growing board sport that incorporates elements of other board sports such as surfing and snowboarding. You can also head to Fantasy Island, a Victorian-style amusement park that is great for families. The island is also filled with small coastal towns, offering a plethora of cafes, restaurants, and shopping opportunities.
Music lovers will have plenty to explore throughout the State. The list of famous musicians from New Jersey is impressive and includes songsters Frank Sinatra, Dionne Warwick, and The Four Seasons, rock icons Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi, hip-hop stars Akon, Queen Latifah, and Wyclef Jean, and modern indie-rock greats like The Lumineers, Yo La Tengo, and Far East Movement.
Asbury Park is a particular music mecca and inspired the name of favorite son Bruce Springsteen’s first album. The town is consistently rated as one of the best places in America to see live music. Make sure to check out the world famous Stone Pony, considered the must-see/must-be-seen venue for up and coming stars. And visit the New Jersey Music Hall of Fame to learn more about all the greats.
There’s also an outstanding variety of music festivals. One of the most interesting is Gospelfest, an annual gospel music festival, talent competition, and fundraiser in Newark. Involving over 1000 performers, it has been described as the largest collection of “gospel talent ever assembled.” Headliners of 2013 festival included Aretha Franklin and Donnie McClurkin.
Sports lovers will have plenty to see and do. New Jersey boasts some of the best golf courses in the nation, with Pine Valley consistently rated a top spot. College football traces its roots to New Jersey when the first season of intercollegiate football was played in 1869 consisting of just two total games, both of which occurred between the Rutgers University and Princeton University.
Today, both the New York Jets and New York Giants football teams have headquarters in New Jersey, giving local fans easy access to all of the action. The 2014 Superbowl will be played at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Other professional teams include the New Jersey Jets Basketball team and the New Jersey Devils Hockey Team.
New Jerseyites are real, relatable people which has helped inspire many TV series based off the New Jersey culture from the Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire to the Jersey Shore, Jerseylicious, and Real Housewives. While not representative of everyone, they demonstrate an aspect that no one in Jersey can deny – throughout the State, you can find unfiltered, “out there,” and oversized personalities willing to speak their mind. And with very big hearts.
The cuisine in New Jersey is similar to its mid-Atlantic neighbors, but with added flair. Known as a hot-dog stronghold, its most famous is the Rutt’s Hutt “ripper”, which are hot-dogs that are deep-fried until the casings burst. The food at Rutt’s is so good that it’s been listed in the book “1000 Places to See in the USA and Canada Before You Die” as well as numerous Food and Travel Network specials. For a sweet treat afterward, Atlantic City is the birthplace of salt-water taffy, which can be found throughout the shore.
Nearly everyone in New Jersey has a favorite diner, as there are more diners per capita than anywhere else in the United States. The diner got its start, and has been perfected in New Jersey since 1912. My family and I have a particularly beloved tradition — on Christmas Eve we go see a late-night movie and then hit up our favorite diner, the Edgewater Queen. It’s your standard NJ diner, which is to say you can get most anything you want any time of day.
If you are hungry after a busy day (or night), you can also head to the notorious Rutgers Grease Trucks. There are dozens to choose from, but most are basically a meal-on-a-roll. The Fat Cat features two patties, cheese, all the fixins, plus french fries on a roll. Other variations include mozzarella sticks, chicken fingers, bbq sauce, bacon, and on and on. Not for the faint of heart, but absolutely memorable.
There are of course regional differences in native Jersey cuisine. You’ll find a heavy concentration of world-class sloppy joes, submarine sandwiches, pastrami, bagels, pizza, and swarma in the north, and big soft pretzels, cheesesteaks, cheesecake, water ices, and scrapple (a loaf of pork scraps, cornmeal, and spices) in the south. Trenton is known for its tomato pie and pork roll. I’m particularly partial to disco fries (french fries with mozzarella and brown gravy) and the breakfast delicacy known as danger dogs (deep-fried hot dogs wrapped in bacon with eggs and cheese).
With all that, visitors may be surprised to find that New Jersey is also home to a robust collection of dozens of vineyards and wineries that regularly win international awards for their vintages. (The production of wine in New Jersey has increased significantly in the last thirty years following a relaxation of residual Prohibition-era restrictions in 1981.) A wine and beach vacation is a particularly great way to enjoy my home State, so feel free to stop by, kick off your shoes, raise a glass, and have fun!
There’s so much more to see and do in New Jersey than I can describe here, including many historical sites, quaint colonial towns, the Barracks Museum, lots of family farms where you can buy or even pick your own fresh produce, high-end spas, an African-American History Heritage Trail, great festivals such as the Cuban parade or Greek Festival, and a wide range of outdoor recreation and adventure sports options.
When you come, I’m sure you’ll find as much to love about my home State as I do. For more information about what New Jersey has to offer, please take a look at the State’s official tourism guide www.visitnj.org, the official State website www.state.nj.us, or the general travel website Discover America.
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I certainly endorse Justin’s views. I have spent a great deal of time in Jersey and have enjoyed the State’s sights, sounds, tastes, and activities from the far north to the far south. I am particularly partial to the beaches and still have a bucket of seashells from my pre-tween explorations around Margate, Ocean City, Brigantine, and Atlantic City. Some of my most vivid childhood memories are of the elephant in Margate, running wild on the Atlantic City boardwalk, and gorging myself on salt water taffy.
I should also restate an obvious point, which is that New Jersey is very easy to visit. You can fly into one of a half dozen proximate international airports, and the Amtrak rail network connects the State’s major destinations with nearby New York City, Washington, Philadelphia, and Boston. You can easily combine a Jersey vacation with a business trip or many different holiday itineraries.