Were you to whiz back as a time traveler to Stone Harbor, New Jersey in the early 1900s, you would step into heavily wooded stands of juniper trees punctuated with sand dunes, some towering as high as 70 feet. Earliest guests arrived via the West Jersey railroad line that rumbled along what is now Second Avenue.
This summer marks the 100th anniversary of Stone Harbor’s incorporation. Located on a narrow barrier island it shares with Avalon, the picturesque beach town is set between The Wildwoods and Ocean City. Three to four city blocks wide, Stone Harbor comprises the southern end of “Seven Mile Island.”
Both Stone Harbor and Avalon have preserved a large portion of the natural vegetation-covered dunes, one of the few remaining high dune systems on the East Coast and the highest on the Jersey shore. The dunes keep the upscale towns from flooding and create the perfect home for plants and small animals indigenous to the area.
The entire barrier island sits a mile seaward than other shore towns, giving Stone Harbor a reputation as a beach with delightful ocean breezes and great for surfing and boogie boarding. While boardwalks, carnival rides, and commercial development have overpowered most of the Jersey shore towns, Stone Harbor has stayed relatively sprawl-free.
The beach is Stone Harbor’s star attraction. And great effort is taken to preserve it. Last summer upwards of 800,000 cubic yards of sand were dredged offshore and added to the Stone Harbor beaches, the first line of defense during any coastal storm.
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 dunes rise to more than 40 feet in places in Stone Harbor. And paying for nature's gifts won’t seem so bad once you relax on the wide and clean expanses of the golden sand.
Thanks to a historically tight grip on development, Stone Harbor remains a small, quiet residential seashore town. The borough attracts a summer population of upwards of 25,000 people, but that pales compared with other Jersey shore resorts. Its streets are lined with elegant Victorian and American Foursquare-style houses that snuggle alongside vine-covered small single-story cottages, many dating back to the early 1900s.
Flashes of candy colors appear all over the island. Summer homes have dominated Stone Harbor for as long as anyone can remember.
“We try to make a house that is enduring and has its own sense of quality and place,” says Mark Asher, owner of Asher Architects in Stone Harbor. “These are almost heirloom houses. People don’t want to sell them. They want to keep them in the family for their children and grandchildren.”
The town's quaint shopping district centers at 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 last June. 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 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.
The Reeds offers possibly the best one-two dining punch at any South Jersey resort. The Water Star Grille takes full advantage of its generous panorama of the bay and the gorgeous sunsets. It features an outdoor kitchen, a lively wraparound bar and casual deck dining under chic orange umbrellas. On our visit last August, lunch highlights included watercress and roasted chili chicken salad, lobster mac and cheese, and garlic Atlantic shrimp and grits.
Inside at the more intimate SAX, a fresh burst of culinary energy is delivered by executive chef David Utley. Sublime was the word for the seafood sampler of shrimp, scallops and mussels, all prepared to perfection and showcased in an ice boat. Don’t miss the double cut natural pork chops or Alaskan halibut francese with fried basil brown butter. From the sophisticated cooking and a smart drink pro0gram in the cocktail lounge to the excellent service and ambience, they’ve already created a gem in SAX.
Tucked in across 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. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Graham Nash saw his artwork displayed on the walls last summer. So did famed pop artist Peter Max, whose works are on display at 1,300 museums across America. For the past ten years Ocean Galleries has presented an original show of Max’s brightly-hued paintings in every size and style.
A short stroll up Third Avenue brings you to Springer's Homemade Ice Cream where lines into the clapboard building sometimes stretch for a block. But few complain since the end result is the scrumptious ice cream made by hand daily. Featuring upwards of 65 varieties, they include the old standbys of vanilla and chocolate, as well as black raspberry, peanut butter cup and all the chips, including Springer chip made with coffee ice cream.
A recent visit by Guy Fieri of the Food Network to Quahog’s (pronounced co-hogs) Seafood Shack quickly turned their BBQ Pacu Pacu Fish Ribs into the talk of the town. Succulent and rich, the Pacu fish (related to the piranha with a vegetarian diet) almost melts in your mouth, and the rustic sauce 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.
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 water tower.
Head down to 107th Street and you will find Donna's Place where singer Taylor Swift worked as a teen. The fresh seafood market spotlights stellar 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 as you prefer.
When the sun goes down the Windrift Resort Hotel is party central. Located at 80th Street, two years ago “The Drift” underwent a massive facelift of the hotel, rooms, pool, and dining and bar facilities. It now boasts five distinctive bars/lounges with four live music spots. The best addition is the spectacular ocean view bar and restaurant on the second level. On Tuesdays “Wing Night” is the place to be. For Wing Night during Fourth of July week, the kitchen moved more than 16,000 wings. The Windrift books some of the region’s best bands. Wednesday nights you find “Dueling Pianos” at a downstairs bar. Try a Beergarita or few. And as always, everything is just steps from the beach.
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? How about terrapins plodding through the salt marsh grasses? Situated 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.
The southern tip of the island also acts as a funnel for migratory birds between the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay. The 21-acre Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary could be considered the heron capital of America. Internationally known by ornithologists, it hosts thousands of beautiful colonial water birds such as the black crown night heron, snowy egret, great white heron, little blues and the yellow crowned night egret and glossy ibis-- often visible from the observatory. You will learn all about the delicate ecosystems of the sensitive shore areas and marshes. If there’s a full moon grab a flashlight and take a Harry Potteresque walk on the sanctuary’s Holly Path.
Stone Harbor has always been an unassuming, quiet community first, and a beach resort second. For those looking for a laid-back holiday, you can’t do much better than the ocean breezes, plentiful wildlife, a bumper crop of dining experiences, and its beguiling small town charm. Happy 100th, guys!