4 hours, 30 minutes
Hugging the coast of south-central New Jersey, this idyllic 18-mile barrier island has a long history as the summer home-away-from-home for fancy types from Philadelphia, New York, and even Connecticut. Turn right off the Donald J. Henderson Memorial Bridge and you’ll find touches of Hamptons posh and the preppy leanings of Nantucket in the municipalities of Ship Bottom and Beach Haven; head left to Barnegat Light and Loveladies for quieter residential neighborhoods and bucolic, untouched coastline.
A few months after parent company Mercer Management opened Hotel LBI, it also introduced The Boatyard, a massive open-air bar complex complete with lawn games and food trucks in the Manahawkin Bay. You can rent skiffs, pontoons, and kayaks right from the onsite marina, or go all out with Cruisin’ Tikis floating tiki-bar cruises, which debuted last year and also launch from The Boatyard.
By the beach
Here’s the one thing to know about the Jersey Shore: After Memorial Day, a spot on the sand doesn’t come free. The beaches are owned and operated by their respective municipalities, which sell beach tags to cover costs associated with hiring lifeguards and keeping everything neat and clean. Many rentals and hotels offer tags for their guests, but don’t panic if you find yourself without—you can buy them directly, typically for a day rate between $5 and $10 per adult, from the roaming attendants.
In low-key LBI, the shore is covered in lovely white sand, and there are no boardwalks. While many are content to lie out and relax, exercise options abound. The waves draw surfers from all over the East Coast, especially in the off-season, and the island has abundant beaches specifically designated for the sport—Hudson Avenue in Harvey Cedars and Spray Beach between 21st and 25th streets are two popular options. Don’t want to break from your at-home fitness routine? Long Beach’s Black Sheep Studios offers barre classes right on the sand, while Yoga Bohemia leads beachside vinyasas in Surf City and Beach Haven. At South End Surf ’n Paddle (also in Beach Haven), certified instructors guide you through stand-up paddleboard yoga in the bay.
Brought the kids along? Fantasy Island Amusement Park in Beach Haven has carnival rides and arcade games, while Mainland Adventure Park in Manahawkin offers go-karts, an aerial course, a climbing wall, and ziplines. (The 162-year-old lighthouse in Barnegat Lighthouse State Park has long been another popular attraction, but it’s currently closed due to the pandemic.) If the group is strictly grown-ups, there are plenty of fashionable home and clothing boutiques to browse—Vintage Gray, Little Bungalow, The Seawife, Sink R Swim, and Five 0 Six are a few favorites—and popular day-drinking options include The Seashell, Terrace Tavern, and any of the breweries on the Surf & Sip Brew Trail. Come nightfall, the see-and-be-seen crowd normally continues the party at the nightclub at Bird and Betty’s, but COVID guidelines will likely see it closed through the season.
You’ll also never hurt for a good meal in LBI. For breakfast, The Chicken or the Egg, Mustache Bill’s Diner—somehow both a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives favorite and a James Beard Award winner —and Birdy’s Cafe are all solid go-tos. Lunch favorites include Wally’s, The Local Market & Kitchen, and Pearl Street Market for unfussy and flavorful sandwiches and salads, and any local will tell you that no trip is complete without dinner at Black Eyed Susans. And for the ride back home, rainbow bagels from Bageleddi’s, the seasonal specials at Side Door Donuts, and elephant ears from Crust and Crumb Bakery, an LBI delicacy, are both delicious and Instagrammable.
House rentals are the big draw in these parts—and you’ll find especially palatial options in the Harvey Cedars area—but they’re often booked months in advance. Another great place to park your bags is Hotel LBI, a 102-room classic coastal resort that debuted in May 2019 smack-dab in the middle of the island. Though the spa remains closed as of press time due to COVID restrictions, the indoor/outdoor pool, fine-dining restaurant, and rooftop bar are open for the summer, and complimentary beach shuttle service—along with gratis chairs, towels, and boogie boards—makes spending time by the ocean a breeze.
Another great option just a five-minute cruise south, in Brant Beach: Daddy O. This 22-room surfer-kitsch lodge, recognizable by its vintage seaside architecture, has been packed with personality by Fearless Restaurants, a hospitality group known for stylish eateries throughout the Philly area. The hotel is as beloved for its retro rooms as it is for the hopping outdoor rooftop and garden rum bar. Stay cool. —sarah zlotnick