During the summer, New Jersey’s Long Beach Island—which is 18 miles long and only a handful of blocks wide at its thickest point—sees its population swell from approximately 12,000 year-round residents to near 100,000, due to an influx of seasonal visitors from Philadelphia, New York and beyond. These folks may be just visiting, but many of these summer guests are LBI lifers—they spent their childhood vacations here, and now they’re back with their own children and families to revisit LBI’s particular magic.

And it is a magical place, one of the few spots on the Jersey Shore not yet despoiled by boardwalk theme parks or big city club culture. Even at the height of the season, it’s largely a tranquil, family-friendly destination. Attractions include the beach, mini-golf courses aplenty, plenty of restaurants options, some shopping and, of course, more beach. I’m an LBI lifer; I’ve spent many a summer weekend visiting family in the small south-island hamlet of Beach Haven (LBI is not governed by one entity, rather it’s divided into six municipalities with numerous small subdivisions).

I got to see a different side of the island in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. While tracking LBI’s ongoing recovery over the 12-month span following the storm for my film This Time Next Year, I fell in love with LBI again, especially its off-season charms. For those unafraid of a brisk wind, winter in LBI, the quietest time of the year, offers myriad pleasures.  

8:00am

Uncle Will's Pancake House

3 S Bay Ave,
Beach Haven, NJ 08008

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Arrive hungry, very hungry, at Uncle Will’s Pancake House in Beach Haven, one of the Island’s most developed—and most quaint—towns. Uncle Will’s has changed hands over several decades, but there are three things you can count on here: nearly 20 varieties of fluffy pancakes; the delicious chewiness and spice of that ever-mysterious breakfast meat, scrapple, which comes from the Pennsylvania Dutch Pannhaas (pan rabbit) and is now a pork and buckwheat loaf mainly served in mid-Atlantic diners; and that you’re likely to leave heavily overstuffed. If you’re lucky and have an empty seat at your table, the restaurant’s mascot and namesake, a three-foot smiling pig statuette, might join you. He holds no beef against those who order up pork products. Mustache Bill’s on the North end of the island might sport a James Beard award, but it doesn’t have Uncle Will’s.

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9:30am

The Beach

1 Centre St.
Beach Haven, NJ 08008

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Leave Uncle Will’s, turn right and then right again onto Centre Street and head for the beach. On the two-block walk, admire the stately Victorian houses lining the street on either side. Beach Haven is one of the few places on the island where LBI’s history as a late 1800s playground still exists, having withstood both the legendary storm of ’62 and Sandy. The walk will be chilly, sure, but enjoy the solitude, the sound of the waves, and the brisk breeze. The white sands nearly glow.  

10:30am

Long Beach Island Museum

129 Engleside Ave
Beach Haven, NJ 08008

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After wandering the beach for a spell, look back toward the island away from the ocean and locate the vast, Victorian, Engleside Inn and the more modern Sea Shell Resort and Beach club. Steer a course up the beach between the two and you’ll be on Engleside Avenue. One block down you’ll find the Long Beach Island Museum, a former church that, since 1976, is home to a wide array of island ephemera.

Having driven over the causeway from the mainland and down the boulevard to arrive in Beach Haven, you might be surprised to see the museum’s collection of black and white photos of gaily dressed men and women disembarking on the island from the long-defunct Tuckerton-Long Beach railroad, whose bridge to the mainland washed away in 1935. If the idea of a LBI railroad catches you off-guard, how about a vanished neighboring island? This isn’t science fiction: look for an exhibit devoted to Tucker’s Island, former sister playground to LBI, a resort destination that was swallowed by the sea in the late 1920s.

12:00pm

Bowker’s South Beach Deli

5406 S Long Beach Blvd,
Beach Haven, NJ 08008

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After a brisk walk and bit of history, you might be hungry again, so cruise down the Boulevard to Holgate on the island’s extreme southern tip. Look for Bowker’s South Beach Deli. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the deli, run by schoolteachers who use the business to keep a foothold for their children on the island they love so much, was utterly destroyed by Sandy, along with much of their neighborhood. Bowker’s roared back to life in time for Memorial Day 2014 and has been going strong ever since. It remains home to Eileen and Brian Bowker, two great individuals, but also one of the best cheesesteaks outside of Philly. Eileen peppers the meat with abandon, and doesn’t skimp on the cheese. The resulting sandwich is moist enough you could almost drink it. This is a good thing.

1:00pm

Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge

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Take a few steps from the door of Bowker’s Deli to the entrance point of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. This area was massively reshaped by Superstorm Sandy, and the parking lot, benches, and the like are all recent additions. From this vantage point, you’ll feel nearly at the end of the Earth, and might be able to, on a clear day, see forever—or at least to the massive casinos of Atlantic City off in the distance. It’s one of the best views on the island. Or look down, and see if you can spy the adorable, endangered piping plover birds scurrying across the sands.

2:00pm

Beach Haven’s Fantasy Island

320 7th St,
Beach Haven, NJ 08008

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If you’re on LBI on a weekend, head back up the Boulevard to Beach Haven’s Fantasy Island. It’s a charming amusement park and arcade, though the park closes down for the winter. Hit the arcade for a few rounds of skeeball and look out for the Mayor of Fantasy Island—a plush gator who walks upright, resplendent in a red mourning coat. He’s an august personage on the island; when the beaches were reopened following Sandy, he was in attendance at the ribbon-cutting.

2:30pm

Triton Craft Beer & Oyster Bar

308 Centre St.
Beach Haven, NJ 08008

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Time for an afternoon snack! It wouldn’t be a trip to LBI without some seafood. Though mainly considered a tourist destination, the island is also home to one of the most active deep-sea fisheries on the East Coast and a vigorous community of bay clammers. So walk a few blocks over to the classy Triton Craft Beer & Oyster Bar at 308 Centre St. Oysters may be in the name, but get the local clams raw, likely gathered from the bay in the last 24 hours. Slurp them down with an IPA, perhaps, or ask the bartender for another regional recommendation.

3:30pm

Barnegat Lighthouse

Broadway,
Barnegat Light, NJ 08006

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After these three meals you are probably going to want—or need—some exercise. Drive north as far as you can go until you find yourself at the tower that is Barnegat Light (affectionately dubbed “Old Barney”), which was commissioned in 1859, and is the second-tallest lighthouse in the United States. This will take you about a half hour, even though the majority of the Island’s traffic lights get switched off after Labor Day for easier cruising. Enjoy the drive, and take note of the colorful town names you’ll pass along the way—Loveladies, Harvey Cedars, The Dunes, Haven Beach, Spray Beach. Once you reach the lighthouse, walk through the surrounding scrub and take the 217 steps to the top to help burn off everything you’ve eaten. Once at the top, you’ll have seen LBI’s other best view.

4:45pm

North Beach

Long Beach Township, NJ 08008

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Hustle down off the lighthouse and head south. Sunset is coming and you’re going to want a first class spot to watch it all go down. Best bets are probably in nearby Harvey Cedars or North Beach. Just turn off the boulevard towards the bay on a promising block, park and watch the sun drop below the horizon. Expect to see brilliant shades of red and orange—nature’s fireworks display.

5:30pm

Ron Jon's Surf Shop

801 Central Ave.
Ship Bottom, NJ 08008

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Head further south still until you’re back in Ship Bottom, home to the causeway leading back to the mainland. Stop in Ron Jon’s Surf Shop, founded in 1959, for a quick perusal of all things colorful and surf-centric. If you’re not much for the surfing life, but want a souvenir, a Ron Jon’s sticker won’t set you back more than a few dollars. Check out the 24-foot surfboard as well. Note that this four-story behemoth isn’t the “Original” Ron Jon’s even if the worldwide surf franchise did start on LBI.

6:30pm

Mud City Crab House

1185 E Bay Ave.
Manahawkin, NJ 08050

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Dinner time. There are great eateries on the Island, but something is lost if you don’t experience a bit of the community across the bridge, Beach Haven West, which is a vital part of the LBI ecosystem. Choose between two dining options owned by the same proprietors: Mud City Crab House, which deals in terrific crab cakes and fresh fish, or the next door, the Old Causeway Inn, labeled a “steak and oyster house.” (Get a steak.) Can’t decide? Try both—or hit up one for dinner and have a drink at the bar at the other. Catch live music on the weekends at The Old Causeway.

Throughout the day, keep your eyes peeled. As you make the long drive up and down the Boulevard, you’ll note construction happening everywhere. Take in the varieties of architectural styles—one-story bungalows set next to Victorian mansions next to houses that once existed at ground level, but are currently being lifted up into the air and placed on stilts–precautionary measures to keep the next storm from leaving behind as much disastrous wreckage as Sandy. A place this small is fragile, and everything screams impermanence. Like Tucker’s Island, Long Beach Island might well be underwater in our lifetime. If you listen carefully while driving, you can almost hear the island urging you to enjoy it while it lasts.