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Nikki Ekstein

The Jersey Shore—Yes, That Jersey Shore—Is Now a Luxury Destination

Developer Bart Blatstein’s earliest memories of the Jersey Shore are of pomp and splendor. “It was beautiful,” he says, referring to the 1960s.

“At night, people got dressed up for the boardwalk. The older women would put on their best jewelry and get pushed around the boardwalk in rolling chairs...” he recalls fondly, pausing briefly to explain what the heck a rolling chair was. (Picture Cinderella’s carriage, but made of wicker, with an open roof.) “It was quite the scene.”

The decades that followed were not kind. There were periods of mobster violence, long-lasting reputational damage courtesy of early-2000s MTV and $37 billion in devastation from Superstorm Sandy. In popular awareness, there’s no doubt the Jersey Shore has a beloved-but-bad rap.

Recently, though, a slew of sophisticated openings and nine-figure development deals up and down the 130-mile-long coast is helping to return the Eastern seaboard’s most maligned beach destination to its glory days.

Take Atlantic City, where Blatstein spends much of his time. Here, on streets made famous by Monopoly, casino titans have invested more than $1 billion in hopes of reviving a sort of Las Vegas East, with Caesars Entertainment providing $430 million of that.

Remodels of its namesake resort, Harrah’s and Tropicana wrap this summer, including dozens of new restaurants backed by top chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Bobby Flay. The Caesars tower will also welcome a Nobu hotel and, in June, an offshoot of Las Vegas’s semi-absurd, absurdly-popular theatrical dining concept Superfrico. (Think of it like the dining equivalent of Sleep No More, with a cast of carnies and acrobats offering impromptu performances, both tableside and around a series of rambling bars.)

Blatstein’s baby is practically next door. The $150 million revamp of the former Showboat casino and resort is the first megaproject to hit Atlantic City in decades that’s not centered on gambling. “The casinos are focused on keeping people in,” he explains. “I want people to enjoy the city as a whole.”

In July he’ll cut the ribbon on Island Waterpark, a 120,000-square-foot beachfront amusement park. Under its retractable roof will be an adults-only zone with poolside service inspired by the One&Only Palmilla in Los Cabos, Mexico, where attendants spontaneously show up to massage your feet. For toddlers, there will be a splash pad; for teens, a surf simulator and 12 towering waterslides.

The top-to-bottom renovation of the adjacent Showboat—which already boasts the world’s largest arcade—comes next. Think of the entire project as a supersized, upscaled twist on Kalahari Resorts that’s sure to substantially raise the share of family visitors to Atlantic City, a number that currently sits at 8%.

Not all of the innovators along the shore are dealing in flashy projects with outsize budgets—though there’s more of that in Long Branch, roughly an hour south of Manhattan by ferry and car. That’s where the Kushner family pumped $300 million into seaside Pier Village in 2019, with more investment to come.

At the Wave Resort the rooms, from $350 per night, are all black-and-white with clean lines. Go on a busy summer weekend and the scene is almost Hamptons-y—think DJs, seafood towers and elaborate margaritas—with elbow-to-elbow crowds on the sand during the day.

In Cape May, at the shore’s southernmost point, the simple upscaling of a ferry terminal to feature Brooklyn-worthy food trucks represents a major evolution for the tiny town rich in Victorian bed-and-breakfasts. And that terminal may soon serve the south shore’s first luxury resort in 50 years.

“We want it to be the nicest hotel on the East Coast,” Icona Resorts Chief Executive Officer Eustace Mita said at an Ocean City council meeting in February of its $150 million, 160-room beachside proposal. “This end of the boardwalk needs an anchor to give it class we know it deserves.”

Farther north in Asbury Park, known as a spiritual home of rock ’n’ roll, change has also been gradual, quietly building to a crescendo for years. Most significant is the arrival of St. Laurent Social Club, a whitewashed historic building with 20 pale-hued hotel rooms (from $450) and a full-service pool deck—complete with a vintage Piaggio beverage truck offering Aperol spritzes on tap.

Its excellent restaurant, Heirloom, is practically hidden by a side entrance; it’s run by Top Chef and Eleven Madison Park alum David Viana, who makes market-driven New American food. (The blood orange marmalade duck is the runaway favorite.)

That kind of subtle sophistication has flourished beyond Asbury Park’s newly refinished boardwalk, where nostalgia still reigns supreme. Below Mediterranean hotspot Reyla, just off the arterial Cookman Ave., is Laylow, a red-lit cocktail den with a world-class menu. (One hit, Guava the Hut, is a gin-and-fruit punch served in a fish-shaped glass with tiki umbrellas.)

Purple Glaze, a closet-size doughnut operation, assembles its delights to order, with flourishes such as maple glaze or cannoli filling. Nearby brunch spot Cardinal Provisions offers top-notch pastries: xuixos, a Catalonian churro-croissant mashup stuffed with lemon cream or passion fruit curd.

“It’s almost like people didn’t realize they wanted luxury in Asbury Park,” says Matthew Grey, head of marketing at the St. Laurent. “Wait until you see the number of million-dollar-plus condos they’re building around here,” adds club co-owner Merissa Fleischhauer. “The demand for a higher level of experience is only going to keep growing.”

Ten minutes south, in quiet, residential Bradley Beach, George DiStefano agrees. “We’re getting so many people who are done with the traffic to the Hamptons,” says the 30-year-old. His boutique hotel,  the James Bradley, has 16 monochromatic rooms (from $325) brimming with interesting textures; a quiet, dune-lined beach is a block away.

The conversion he describes has happened slowly, even stealthily. “Here’s what everyone always tells me,” he says. “ ‘We had no idea this kind of place existed in New Jersey.’ ”

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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