A New Jersey Homecoming
by Perri Capell
photography by Perri Capell and Lynn Brown
Many motorcyclists don’t have New Jersey on their hit parade of tours because of its reputation for, well, ugliness. Sure, I wouldn’t give you a plugged nickel for some of the views from the New Jersey Turnpike. But I spent almost 20 years in New Jersey before moving out West. As an ambitious daily newspaper reporter in Trenton, I got to know the state intimately while chasing down stories in my 1967 VW Bug. From my travels, I can vouch for New Jersey’s unique beauty and allure. And—no lie—you can find solitude on the back roads, even in the nation’s most densely populated state.
To prove my point, I gave my Idaho-born husband Lynn a motorcycle tour of New Jersey’s highlights and some of my old haunts. We cruised mostly two-lane county roads during our sojourn, visiting such one-of-a-kind places as the Victorian city of Cape May, Lakehurst Naval Air Station (where the Hindenburg airship crashed), Princeton of Princeton U. fame, and the roads less traveled in Hunterdon County.
I had another reason to return: Moto Guzzi was loaning me a candy-apple-red Norge for the ride. Naturally, Lynn wanted time in the saddle of this 1,200cc Italian job so to keep peace between us, I took the Transalp at times and let him test the Guzzi.
It was early April, so we layered up before departing West Chester, Pennsylvania, for New Jersey’s southernmost city of Cape May. I wanted to get there in time for afternoon tea at the Queen Victoria, our bed-and-breakfast for the night.
Taking the Commodore Barry Bridge south of Philadelphia over the Delaware River shielded us from Philly road warriors. U.S. 322 then passes through Mullica Hill, where we picked up NJ 45 south. The scenery turned rural and, thankfully, the metro area traffic stayed behind.
While continuing on NJ 45 to 49 is a more direct route, I led us east and south on county roads after we passed through Woodstown, a town of well-preserved 1700s and 1800s homes. The farmlands that give the Garden State its nickname gave off a rich, loamy smell, and since the Salem County roads form a grid, we didn’t get lost.
Eventually, the back roads led out to 49. At Bridgetown, we turned south on County 553, which is dotted with communities founded while my British ancestors still governed these parts. That hot tea was calling more strongly now, so after crossing the Maurice River we hightailed it south on NJ 47 to NJ 9. This route is part of what the National Parks Service now calls the New Jersey Coastal Heritage Trail, which links historic and park sites in the coastal area (for maps and other information, go to www.nps.gov/neje).
Route 9 terminates at Cape May. Warning: If you don’t like cute, stay away, because here lives the largest collection of wildly colored turn-of-the-century gingerbready Victorian-era structures this side of the Atlantic. Tourists first came from Philadelphia for the sea breezes more than 200 years ago, so Cape May claims fame as the nation’s oldest seaside resort.
Indeed, visiting means taking a step back to the late 1800s. To ensure preservation, the entire town is a National Historic Landmark. Many restored houses are now stately B&Bs, including the Queen Victoria. Tea was still being served when we arrived on the later side of 4 p.m. We followed it up with a dinner of meaty crab cakes at Frieda’s Restaurant a few steps away and called it a night on a high, soft bed in a cozy room named after Prince Albert, Victoria’s husband.
While I lived near Princeton during my Jersey years, my folks owned a rambling three-story home in Cape May’s historic district. I showed Lynn my favorite places, including the nearly 150-year-old Chalfonte Hotel. Its restaurant offers Southern fare, including renowned fried chicken. After sucking down dinner, you can snooze in a rocking chair on the wrap-around veranda.
I’m also fond of Cape May Point’s Sunset Beach, where you can still see the experimental concrete ship Atlantus that sunk a few hundred yards out in 1926. For atmospheric reasons that are beyond me, the sunsets are spectacular here, and the patriotic nightly flag-lowering ceremony during the summer shouldn’t be missed.
A Colossal Elephant
As travelers, our big problem is that we try to fit too much into our days. This trip was no exception. But at least the next day was my turn on the Norge. This new tourer succeeds on many levels, especially its rider wind protection, comfort and agility. I could see why Lynn didn’t want to hand it over.
After taking a few photos of B&Bs, we boogied north up the coast on Ocean Drive, a series of county roads between Cape May and Atlantic City. If you take it, don’t plan on being in a hurry. Each of its five drawbridges may be rising for boats just as you pull up.
I’m no gambler, so Atlantic City doesn’t excite me. However, I do get misty-eyed about Lucy the Elephant nearby. This wooden colossus stands 65 feet tall in Margate, New Jersey, and I wanted Lynn to see her more than the tacky casinos. In 1881, a real-estate developer built Lucy to help market his land. She later housed a tavern and served as a family home before falling into disrepair. Now restored, Lucy is on the National Register of Historic Places. We admired her painted toenails and then paid $5 each for a tour and to enjoy the grand view from her “howdah” (www.lucytheelephant.org).
Next stop, Atlantic City, but not for poker—just a quick look at its famous boardwalk before backtracking south to County 559. Hugging Great Egg Harbor Inlet, this scenic road served as our ticket to the Pine Barrens, a national reserve stretching more than 1 million acres over seven New Jersey counties. At May’s Landing, the landscape changed dramatically as we officially entered the largest open land area between Boston and Richmond, Virginia.
Ghost Town in the Barrens
Local settlers dubbed the area the Barrens because the sandy soil was too poor for farming, but perfect for the rare pygmy Pitch Pines that thrive here. Later, mining and smelting bog iron became the main industry. We cruised along County 542 and across the tea-colored Mullica River toward the ghost town of Batsto. The bikes had a rest as we strolled among the former mining and logging community’s 19th-century structures. Batsto is within Wharton State Forest, and visiting is free (www.batstovillage.org).
From there, we continued to 563, a straight shot taking us north past acres of cranberry bogs and blueberry bushes. We had the road to ourselves, as traffic on spring weekdays in the Pinelands is light to nonexistent. On summer weekends, watch out—drivers play chicken as they race to pass cars on these back roads while heading to the beach.
Our route took a dogleg west on NJ 72 and then east again on 70 toward Lakehurst. Lynn wanted to visit the Naval Air Station where the Hindenburg airship burst into flames and crashed in 1937. County 547 takes you to the base’s front door, where we learned visitors weren’t permitted that day.
An old friend had invited us to stay the next two nights at his farm in Frenchtown about 50 miles north, and to make it by dinner we began hustling along County 571. Almost out of nowhere, we came across two towering Russian Orthodox churches. It seemed surreal to find them in rural New Jersey until we learned that the Russian immigrant population is sizable here.
Farther north, we detoured quickly through Roosevelt, a town constructed for Jewish garment workers from New York during the Great Depression. This self-contained community fascinates me because all its houses, factory, school and other structures are designed in German Bauhaus style. My architect husband says the flat roofs are impractical, but I still love Roosevelt because it freezes a moment in time, perfectly capturing the Depression’s utopian philosophy.
Teenagers were playing lacrosse as we passed the exclusive Peddie School in Hightstown, while later on, we watched university students rowing on Lake Carnegie in Princeton. There we continued north on NJ 206, then west on County 518 through Hopewell to Lambertville. Following NJ 29 north, we reached Meils Restaurant in Stockton, where we met our friend and host. We were ready to get off the bikes for a homestyle dinner.
As Lynn noted, riding 100 miles in New Jersey is like riding 400 miles in Idaho because of the stoplights and traffic.
Reliving the Hindenburg Disaster
We planned to take the Hindenburg tour the next day, so after a hearty breakfast of French toast at the Frenchtown Café, we backtracked to Lakehurst. On the spot where the world’s largest airship went down in flames, a society member held us spellbound as he spoke of that terrible evening—the severe thunderstorms that delayed the landing, the tension leading up to the zeppelin’s arrival and the wide turn it took before approaching the docking tower.
Just after the first docking line was dropped, survivors reported hearing a muffled roaring sound. The flammable hydrogen filling the ship had ignited. Within 34 seconds after the first flames were observed, the airship crashed to the ground. Although some people suspect sabotage, a static charge is the most likely cause of the disaster, the society believes.
We enjoyed the memorabilia displays and guided tour of the 803-foot-long airship’s hangar, which includes a replica of the control gondola built for the George C. Scott movie The Hindenburg. I left wishing that rigid airships were still in service. I’d love to cross the Atlantic in one of them—filled with nonflammable helium, of course. If you want to tour the base, contact the society first. You’ll need a reservation and to pass a security check (www.nlhs.com).
Returning to Princeton, we parked the bikes near the main intersection of Nassau and Witherspoon Streets for a walk around Princeton U.’s campus. For history buffs, this place can’t be beat. The university was founded in 1756, and in 1777 General George Washington scored a victory over British forces led by Charles Cornwallis in the Battle of Princeton. Battlefield State Park commemorating the event straddles County 583 south of town.
The bottom line on New Jersey? If you only have a day, head straight for Hunterdon County. Its narrow county roads past old stone farms and Delaware River towns make for grand riding. From Princeton, we stayed on 583 to Interstate 95 South, exiting NJ 29 at Washington Crossing. Yes, General Washington and his troops did row across the Delaware River here on December 25, 1776, on their way to attack a Hessian garrison in Trenton, New Jersey.
The river road hugs the old Delaware and Raritan Canal, built to allow goods to be transported by mule-towed barges from manufacturing centers across the narrow neck of New Jersey to New Brunswick. This 22-mile section plus another 44-mile stretch are now a state park. Instead of mules, joggers, walkers and bicyclists keep the weeds down on the tow path.
We paused for photos in Lambertville, a blue-collar mill and fishing town that was a nice seedy place for a young reporter like me to live in the 1970s. Since then, new arrivals have restored the old row houses and brick homes, causing real-estate prices to rise and upscale coffee shops and antique stores to multiply. Continue over the bridge and you’ll find New Hope, Pennsylvania, a weekend cruiser-bike Mecca with gridlock matching the Los Angeles freeways.
Take my advice and spend time exploring the narrow lanes surrounding the less crowded old towns of Stockton and Frenchtown. You might find a stone bridge over a brook, as we did after saying good-bye to our host and aiming for Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and our starting point. Our New Jersey sojourn was short but sweet, whetting our appetites for more back roads and another history lesson in the nation’s busiest state.
[From the October 2007 issue of Rider]