Don’t get us wrong – Atlantic City is the top dog in this unique stretch of the Jersey shore. But it’s easy to get swept up in the gambling, entertainment, and free beaches of the most well-known city on Absecon Island. And that means visitors often miss three hidden gems located nearby. Longport, Margate, and Ventnor City all offer distinctive experiences, and even some iconic New Jersey stops. Join us as we take a closer look.
The smallest and most residential of Absecon Island’s communities, the odd way Longport came to exist foreshadows its relative obscurity as a shore destination. The southern end of Absecon Island had several owners until James Long acquired it in the 1850s. He owned the land for more than two decades, during which the natural littoral drift along the coast added nearly a mile of sand to his holdings. He then sold this entire area to a friend, who named it Longport in honor of the former owner. This same dramatic process is responsible for reshaping much of the shore, particularly in the Cape May region.
But like many barrier islands, even the most careful planning can’t top the power of the sea. Gradually, a significant shift in the flow of Great Egg Harbor Inlet submerged a portion of this newly claimed land. You can still see the effects of this today. It’s the reason Longport’s southernmost street is 11th Street, with the previous 10 now part of the inlet.
For most of the years since its 1898 incorporation, the town has been primarily residential, sandwiched between the larger vacation destinations of Ocean City and Atlantic City. And for the most part, locals seem to like it that way. Beaches are relatively quiet, with few out-of-towners. But those looking for a quiet respite from the crowds of Atlantic City may enjoy a day trip here. It’s worth heading out to The Point, a park at the island’s southern tip with a small beach looking across toward Ocean City and a stone jetty with good fishing.
The next town to the north is Margate, or Margate City as it’s officially known. It takes its name from the seaside town in southeastern England, one of several local communities that repurposed the names of British sea resorts. Unlike many shore towns, it’s almost entirely residential, with no hotels located within its borders. Even more notably, Margate also has few rentals, meaning much of the area is populated strictly by second or summer homes that are empty much of the year. However, there are still plenty of visitors drawn from nearby Ocean City and Atlantic City. Beaches here are narrower than many parts of the shore, though there’s still plenty of space to spread out.
Lucy the Elephant
Margate’s most famous resident is also one of the Jersey shore’s most iconic sights. Her name is Lucy, a massive, six-story wood and steel elephant just feet from the beach. It’s a tourist attraction with a long and storied history, dating back to the late 19th century. It was built in 1881 to help lure would-be real estate buyers to the then-undeveloped area. Visitors hopped off a new railroad just steps from Lucy (known at the time as “Elephant Bazaar”) and climbed to the “howdah” on her back for a birds-eye view of potential lots.
Shortly after the turn of the century, Lucy was converted to a tavern and then one of the shore’s most distinctive summer homes. But she gradually fell into disrepair over the decades until the structure was nearly demolished in the late 1960s. It was donated to a newly-formed “Save Lucy” committee in 1970, which moved the elephant a short distance to its current location and began a years-long, painstaking restoration process that wasn’t completed until 2000. She was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976.
It’s truly a spectacular structure – 65 feet high, 60 feet long, 18 feet wide, and weighing 90 tons. Altogether, it’s the 12th tallest statue in the entire United States! Over the 140 years of her existence, Lucy has withstood lightning strikes, countless hurricanes, and other storms, including 2012’s Superstorm Sandy that notoriously devastated much of the shore. That’s more than can be said for its counterpart known as the Light of Asia in the now-lost city of South Cape May, built around the same time but destroyed by the elements (along with the rest of the town) in the first half of the 20th century.
Lucy Today – Your Chance To Sleep Inside An Elephant
These days, you can stroll the area around Lucy the Elephant and gawk at this magnificent structure for free or pay $8.50 for a guided tour of the interior, explaining more fun historical facts about her. You can even spend the night inside Lucy, which began operating as an Airbnb several years ago. At $138 per night, it’s more reasonably priced than many other local hotels and motels!
Lucy also has a rather, er, unfortunately (or hilariously, depending on your perspective) placed window on the rear. We’re sure the views are great, though!
Marven Gardens – A Nice Place For Some Houses Or Hotels
Anyone perusing a map of Absecon Island might start to recognize some familiar streets. Baltic Avenue. St. James Place. Atlantic Avenue. Yes, this much-maligned seaside casino resort town was the inspiration for the properties on the classic Monopoly board. But sharp eyes will notice one difference – on the board, the real-life Ventnor neighborhood of Marven Gardens is misspelled Marvin Gardens. The correct spelling makes sense when you consider its origin. As it lies on the border of Margate and Ventnor City, developers combined the first syllables. Mar + Ven = Marven Gardens. What could have led to nearly a century of hurt feelings and resentment toward Parker Brothers luckily didn’t. Residents of the neighborhood seem to enjoy their place in board game history.
Marven Gardens has a distinctive design that stands out from the mostly gridlike area surrounding it. Inside the rectangular boundary of the neighborhood, four streets radiate from the corners to a central oval road.
Some may also know Marven Gardens from the 1972 film “The King of Marvin Gardens,” starring Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, and Ellen Burstyn. The film was shot on location in Atlantic City, providing a unique look at the area in the early 1970s.
Set in the central part of Absecon Island, tourists venturing south to Margate or Ocean City or north to Atlantic City can often overlook Ventnor City. It’s somewhat understandable. The town (which also took its name from an English counterpart) is just 3.5 square miles, with nearly half of that water. There are no tourist attractions, no bustling boardwalk, good but not great beaches, and relatively little going on. In fact, many may find themselves straying into Ventnor by accident. Atlantic City’s iconic boardwalk simply keeps going once at the town’s southern border. It extends the entire 1.7-mile length of Ventnor to the border with Margate. So if you’ve had one too many and miss your hotel on a late-night walk down the boardwalk, Ventnor City may be where you end up.
Ventnor is also a great fishing spot for fishing. The town is home to a 1,000-foot long fishing pier, one of New Jersey’s longest. It’s located along the boardwalk at Cambridge Avenue.
Absecon Island: Not Just Atlantic City
When many folks think of the Jersey shore, they think of the major destinations – Seaside Heights, Point Pleasant, Atlantic City, Wildwood, Cape May, and more. But you can truly learn about the fabric that ties these unique communities together into a cohesive region in the small towns that lie between them. So the next time you’re enjoying the glitz and glamor of Atlantic City or the family-friendly boardwalk attractions of Ocean City, don’t forget about these quiet but interesting shore towns just a short trip away.