My earliest recollections picture my father at the wheel of his 1949 Ford woodie barreling through the pine barrens to the south Jersey shore. I'm a mere toddler sitting in the back of the wood-sided station wagon taking in the sights and sounds on our summer vacation to a seven-mile-long island.
Sharing a narrow spit of land with its sister town Avalon, Stone Harbor is set at the southern end of Seven Mile Island. Residents like to say, "it's cooler by a mile." And, it really is. The island juts out into the Atlantic Ocean about a mile further than any other New Jersey beach towns.
While boardwalks, carnival rides, and over commercialization symbolize most of the Jersey shore towns, Stone Harbor has stayed relatively sprawl-free. The beach is the star attraction. Beachgoers over age 12 must carry beach tags, sold in daily, weekly or seasonal increments. In part the fees help support healthy living sand systems full of trees, shrubs, and plentiful reed grass with roots that fan out beneath the dunes. Dynamic systems that grow and shrink, the island's mighty dunes rise to more than 40 feet in some places and are the first line of defense during the worst North Atlantic storms. Paying for nature's gifts won’t seem so bad once you relax on the soft, wide stretches of white sand.
Thanks to a historically tight grip on development, Stone Harbor remains a quiet and upscale residential seashore town. The borough attracts a summer population of upwards of 25,000 people, but that pales when compared with other Jersey shore resorts. Tree and flower shaded streets are lined with multi-million dollar Victorian and American Foursquare-style houses. Occasionally, you'll spy small single-story cottages, dating back to the 1940s. Flashes of candy colors pop up all over the island. A mere three blocks wide, summer homes have dominated Stone Harbor for as long as anyone can remember.
The town's quaint shopping district centers at cobblestoned 96th Street where you’ll find upscale clothing shops, charming art galleries, scores of specialty shops, a bookstore, restaurants, and ice cream parlors. There’s even a movie theatre for rainy afternoons. Just find a place to park and walk up and down the street to discover trendy boutiques selling Lilly Pulitzer, gold-plated lawn sprinklers, and designer birdseed.
The Reeds at Shelter Haven opened its doors in 2013. A boutique hotel at the corner of 96th Street and Third Avenue, the name references the elegant Shelter Haven Hotel, which was constructed in 1912 on the same spot. Comprising 37 rooms and suites, The Reeds is a three story cedar-shake building that overlooks glorious sunsets on Shelter Haven Bay.
Design touches like wrought-iron cattails, glass mosaic walls and driftwood inspired chandeliers act as a backdrop to clean and contemporary furnishings. The rooms, some with balconies, feature a clean coastal inspired look, with muted colors and wide plank, whitewashed oak floors. There is a Keurig coffee maker, mini-refrigerator and free Wi-Fi in every eco-friendly room. Suites are generously sized with a full kitchen featuring a Viking oven and an entertaining area. Twin hot tubs and free morning yoga classes are available in a rooftop lounge area. Electric six-seat golf carts whisk guests to the 88th Street beach, a popular and less crowded spot where a Reeds attendant provides guests with the hotel's signature tangerine beach umbrellas, chairs and towels.
You will also find one of the best one-two dining punches at any South Jersey resort. The Water Star Grille offers a generous panorama of the bay while featuring an outdoor kitchen, a lively wraparound bar and casual deck dining under those chic tangerine umbrellas. On our recent visit, lunch highlights included shrimp cobb salad, chicken alfredo flatbread, and the crab guacamole. Inside at the more intimate SAX, sublime was the word for the truffled mac 'n cheese with mushrooms or the grilled branzino with crabmeat. From the sophisticated cooking and a smart drink program in the cocktail lounge to the attentive staff and ambience, they’ve created a gem here.
A short stroll from the hotel brings you to Springer's which occupies a clapboard building with the look and feel of an old-time ice cream parlor. In the evening lines snake out the door, down the steps and along the sidewalk of popular Third Avenue. Open since Prohibition times, super-premium ice cream is made daily with flavors such as almond amaretto, banana peanut butter, blueberry cheesecake, teaberry (just like the old-fashioned gum) rum raisin and springer chip, made with coffee ice cream.
Just down from The Reeds is Ocean Galleries with an ever-changing display of local artists' watercolors, nationally-recognized artists’ originals, popular beach prints and high-end reproductions. For the past dozen years Ocean Galleries has presented an original show of Peter Max whose vibrant and colorful works have become a lasting part of contemporary American culture and is synonymous with the spirit of the 1960s and ‘70s.
Stop by Coffee Talk where you can grab a great cup of coffee, fresh-baked goods, breakfast sandwiches and chat up the locals who frequent the joint. Back in the day when Taylor Swift spent her summers in Stone Harbor with her family she often played acoustic shows at the cafe. The Farmer’s Market staged each Sunday morning in July and August is a landmark in its own right. Freshly cut flowers, fruits, vegetables, bread, jam, berries, honey, imported cheeses, and freshly ground coffee can be found in the parking lot beneath the giant water tower.
At Donna's Place on 107th Street, you will find a fresh seafood market that spotlights a bounty of clams, oysters, shrimp, mussels, lobster clam chowder (white), seafood chowder (red), and the fresh catch of the day. They will cook your selections to take out or you can buy your favorites and cook at home.
Set in a ramshackle building on 97th Street, Quahog’s (pronounced co-hogs) combines classic New England seafood shack with South American inspired cuisine. Don't miss the BBQ Pacu Pacu fish ribs that melt in your mouth with a rustic sauce that walks a fine line between boldly savory and faintly sweet. Another dish that caught our tastebuds is the Moqueca fish stew, full of surprises concocted with coconut milk and edamame.
When the sun goes down the Windrift Resort Hotel is party central. Located on the borderline of Avalon, “The Drift” boasts five distinctive bars/lounges with four live music spots. Brick-oven pizzas and fresh-made sushi and the spectacular ocean view bar are among the best on the Jersey Shore. On Tuesdays “Wing Night” is the place to be. In recent years for Wing Night during Fourth of July week, the kitchen moved more than 16,000 wings. They book some of the region’s best bands. Wednesday nights you find “Dueling Pianos” at a downstairs bar.
You can find wild life of a different variety at the Wetlands Institute. Birds skimming low in a setting sun to pluck dinner from a tidal creek, terrapins plodding through the salt marsh grasses. Established in 1972, it is an organization committed to protecting and preserving the wetlands and coastal ecosystems along New Jersey’s shore. Thousands of herons nest here, and many lesser-seen varieties -- such as the green heron, the yellow crowned night egret and the glossy ibis -- are often visible from the observatory. Set on 6,000 acres of coastal wetlands, the Institute is a living laboratory where more than 40,000 visitors each year learn about life on this thin ribbon between land and sea.
Stone Harbor has always been an unassuming, quiet community first, and a beach resort second. Its pristine beaches, plentiful wildlife, a bumper crop of dining experiences offer a perfect getaway. And, don't forget Springer's. Where else can you find flavors like "bumpy road" and "emotionally nuts?"