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10 Islands to See Before You Die

By Gary McKechnie
January 25, 2011
Islands_CustomPano
Romain Cintract/hemis.fr/laif
We scoured the globe to find 10 islands that belong on your must list. Each of these places offers something that you can’t find anywhere else, from the largest man-made archipelago to hot springs so therapeutic they’ve been popular since Roman times.

If you're going to imagine yourself on an exotic island, dare to dream big! Here are 10 one-of-a-kind islands where you'll discover every item on your wish list, from overwater bungalows and pristine wildlife to sublime street food and mysterious cultural monuments. Of course, traveling to these islands comes at a price; the dollar signs below provide a general indication of how much you'll want to budget for accommdations and food. Multiply by seven if you stay a week or by 365 if you're convinced to quit your job and stay a year.

$: $1–$74

$$: $75–$149

$$$: $150–$224

$$$$: $225–Up

SEE THE ISLANDS!

1. VIEQUES

When the U.S. Navy packed up and left Vieques in 2003, after more than 60 years, it left something behind: unspoiled nature. Land once used for bombing practice is now designated as a national wildlife refuge. So far there are only a few mega-resorts like those found on the Puerto Rican mainland—instead, you'll find homey inns like the aptly named Great Escape B&B, where breakfast is served poolside (from $115). There are only two notable towns (the population is less than 10,000): Isabel Segunda on the northern side of the island, and the far smaller Esperanza on the south. The effect is that when you reach a beach at the end of a dirt road here, your reward is having the sand largely to yourself. Playa de la Chiva (Blue Beach) attracts daytime snorkelers and divers, but the real reason Vieques belongs on your bucket list is Puerto Mosquito. Of the seven bioluminescent bays on the planet, Puerto Mosquito is the most impressive, thanks to the clarity and brightness of its waters. Schedule a moonless night for a swim or kayak tour and you'll be greeted by billions of micro-organisms called dinoflagellates that ignite the water with a magical blue-green glow (Aqua Frenzy Kayaks, from $30 per person). It's like swimming in a watercolor painting. $$

>>Related: Dream Trips: Find a Deserted Beach

2. EASTER ISLAND

With the nearest major landmass, Chile, lying 2,200 miles away, Easter Island is as remote as it is mysterious. No one knows exactly why nearly 900 gargantuan stone monoliths are sprinkled across this isolated, 60-square-mile scrap of land in the middle of the South Pacific—and those long, stone faces aren't talking. For several hundred years, the moai that are unique to this island have maintained their silent sentinel even as the civilization that created them collapsed and a trickle of tourists appeared in its wake. Intended to stand atop cut-stone altars (called ahu), the moai average 13 feet high and weigh nearly 14 tons each; most lie prone, toppled by civil wars in the 17th and 18th centuries. A particularly compelling spot is Rano Raraku, the collapsed volcano where many moai were quarried and where nearly 400 figures remain, all frozen in various states of completion. The island counts only one town, Hanga Roa, where you'll want to check in to Vai Moana, a low-key hotel with 18 rooms set in bungalows (from $102, including breakfast and transport to and from the airport). You can then wander from the volcanic coastline across grassy hills without bumping into another human being who might break Easter Island's spell. $$$

3. BALI

The warm, spiritual essence that writer Elizabeth Gilbert discovered here and celebrated in Eat, Pray, Love has been native to Bali for centuries. It's one of 17,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago—and the only one on which Hindus form the majority (93 percent). Even more striking is the fact that there is a spiritual celebration here nearly every day. Three Hindu temples at the Besakih (the Mother Temple of Bali) survived a 1963 eruption that destroyed nearby villages while missing by mere yards this terraced complex atop volcanic Mount Agung. The event is still considered a miracle by locals, who arrive in regular procession; they balance offerings on their head and climb the steps to the sound of mantras, jingling bells, and the sharp flutter of umbul-umbuls (ceremonial Balinese flags). Anyone interested in exploring the inner self might like the Nirarta Centre, an 11-room hotel set amid rice terraces and gardens that holds daily meditation sessions. After finding your center here, channel your energy into jungle treks, scuba diving, and big-break surfing along beaches of fine white and volcanic black sand. Exhale against a backdrop of rice paddies and Impressionist sunsets that illuminate the Indian Ocean. $$$$

>>Related: Secret Islands of Southeast Asia

4. ISCHIA

This volcanic island in the Bay of Naples has hot springs so therapeutic that they have drawn admirers for 2,000 years. Greeks, Romans, and Turks quickly discovered that Ischia's fumaroles, hot springs, and heated mud hold the power to ease sore muscles—or simply provide a degree of self-indulgence. Today's travelers are likewise pampered by massages and mud wraps courtesy of the island's geothermal characteristic, which helps fill the 22 thermo-mineral pools of the beachfront spa Giardini di Poseidon Terme. After your treatment of choice, peel off the sandals for a walk on the beach, a visit to the 15th-century Castello Aragonese, or a glass of biancolella (white) or per 'e palummo (red) wine from local vineyards. You can also get a taste of the glam, jet-setter lifestyle associated with Italy and depicted in the film The Talented Mr. Ripley, shot here on location. Retreat to the family-run Hotel Villa Angelica, whose garden naturally includes a thermal swimming pool with a Jacuzzi (from $75, including breakfast). $$$

5. CHILOÉ

The lush, cloud-covered Chiloé archipelago may lie off the western coast of Chile, but its history, customs, and language bear little resemblance to those of the mainland, or anywhere else in the world, because of its isolation. Local farmers have passed down a mythology of gnome- and witch-filled woodlands and ghost ships. Valdivian temperate rain forests are protected within Parque Nacional Chiloé. In the Pacific, dolphins, penguins, otters, and the largest creatures in history—blue whales—are studied and protected by the Cetacean Conservation Center. In the central city of Castro, order a steaming meal of curanto (shellfish, meat, and potatoes) and peruse handicrafts made of wood and colorful garments created from Chilean wool. Residents still live in traditional palafitos (stilt houses). Jesuit missionaries, who first arrived in small numbers in the 1600s, used local materials and construction techniques to build exquisite chapels. Their work survives in more than 50 wooden churches found in communities such as Castro, Nercón, Chonchi, Dalcahue, and Quinchao; their appearance reflects a hybrid of European and indigenous styles that you won't find anywhere else on earth. $$

6. BORA BORA

If you envision yourself on an island in French Polynesia, Bora Bora is the place to hang your hammock. Even novelist James Michener, who penned sweeping epics set in the South Pacific and beyond, dubbed it the world's most beautiful island. Mingled in among the Society Islands northwest of Tahiti, Bora Bora's lowland reefs and islets are lorded over by Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu, twin peaks forming an extinct volcano in the island's interior. Super-expensive upscale resorts along the western edge—and a fair share of inns and vacation rentals—feature overwater thatch-roofed bungalows built on stilts above shallow, clear-as-gin waters. (Maitai Resort is a comparatively affordable option, considering the $800-plus competition, with rooms from $198 and bungalows from $408, including taxes.) Slip on a sarong and relax while savoring the vision of endless miles of soft sand beaches and lagoons. Luxurious, certainly, but of even greater value is the philosophy of Bora Bora's residents: Aita pea pea. In other words, "not to worry." $$$$

>>Related: Overwater Bungalows: Stay Literally on the Ocean

7. KEY WEST

Laid-back, beach-y living coupled with a flamboyant arts scene lends a one-of-a-kind appeal to this lowland island (peak elevation: 18 feet). Key West inspired Mississippi-born balladeer Jimmy Buffett, and it remains hallowed ground for his followers—the "parrotheads" that roost here throughout the year and keep the mythical utopia of Margaritaville alive. Tennessee Williams, Harry S. Truman, and Ernest Hemingway were also seduced. Defying easy categorization, Key West is capital of the Conch Republic, the tongue-in-cheek micro-nation created in 1982 by residents proud of their liberal lifestyle. Natural sand beaches are surprisingly rare here, but with the chance to snorkel above North America's only living coral reef and enjoy the company of a Technicolor collection of 400 species of tropical fish, it would be a shame to spend your beach time on land, anyway. When you've dried off, head to Mallory Square to catch street performers during the daily Sunset Celebration. Follow it up with brews along the "Duval Crawl," a tour of watering holes in the early 20th-century buildings that line Duval Street. From there, it's a pleasant, 15-minute walk to the Grand Guesthouse (from $98, including breakfast). $$$

8. PENANG

Start your food crawl at stalls that crowd the streets of Georgetown, Penang's largest city and Malaysia's food capital. The delectable fare on offer memorably mingles Malaysian, Chinese, Indian, and European flavors. Foodies in search of supreme bliss should head to the marketplace Ayer Itam—adjacent to Kek Lok Si (the Temple of Supreme Bliss)—to dine on a variety of dishes based on rice, noodles, fish, shellfish, chicken, pork, vegetables, eggs, and coconut. Look for lor bak (deep-fried marinated minced pork served with a chili sauce); lok-lok (skewered seafood, meats, and vegetables); and ikan bakar (grilled or barbecued fish marinated in spices and coconut milk, wrapped inside banana leaves, and grilled over hot coals). The same fusion of cultures is evident in the local architecture, which ranges from modern high-rises to buildings built by 19th-century British colonialists. Add to the mix beach resorts, preserved mangroves, small fishing villages, and a share of temples, mosques, and churches. Kek Lok Si best exemplifies this coexistence. At seven stories, it's the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia, and it reflects the shared values of Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism—designed with a Chinese octagonal base, a Thai-accented middle tier, and a Burmese-style peak. $$ 

>>Related: 7 Little-Known Islands: Get There First

9. GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS

The namesake tortoise is only one reason to explore this archipelago overrun with more than 500 spectacular native species found nowhere else. Charles Darwin's 1835 visit sparked his curiosity, leading to his landmark book and the observation that these islands are the "laboratory of evolution." Much of the biological kaleidoscope noted by Darwin—such as penguins, sea lions, finches, blue-footed boobies—is still visible on the Galápagos, which are scattered more than 600 miles west of Ecuador. Look out for the waved albatross, which has a 7- to 8-foot wingspan, on Española. Tour operators navigate the islands on everything from luxury catamarans to motor yachts, and many employ naturalists to guide you through the archipelago's rocky coasts, lagoons, coral reefs, bays and white sand beaches. Gap Adventures offers small-group itineraries that often include meals, airfare from Quito, and a cabin aboard a 16-passenger ship. Life on the island is only half the equation, so pack your mask, snorkel, and wet suit. $$$$

10. PALM ISLANDS DUBAI

Nature creates and removes islands every day, but it took a supernatural influx of cash and credit to create what developers hope will be the permanent Palm Island archipelago. Based on a sketch by a sheikh, the world's largest man-made islands are being dredged up and put in place as destination resorts: the Palm Jumeirah, Palm Jebel Ali, and Palm Deira. Each work-in-progress is designed to attract tourists, who (more than fossil fuels) can provide a renewable source of income. If all goes well, the three islands will be the focal point of Dubai and become a Middle East playground of spas, resorts, upscale residences, villas, and superior shopping malls. Palm Jumeriah is already in place with an Atlantis resort and its wild water park open and a Trump hotel slated to open in 2011. (A more concrete, if off-island option, is the Arabian Courtyard, whose rooms have hardwood floors and richly colored upholstery, with prices as low as $100 a night.) Some islands might be more exotic—and certainly less expensive—but none are more impossibly engineered and ambitious. $$$$



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Destinations

10 Beautiful Castle Hotels

1. ASHFORD CASTLE County Mayo, Ireland With a spectacular setting of 350 acres full of towering woods and tidy gardens along the shores of Lough Corrib, Ashford dates all the way back to 1228. The 83-room gray stone castle was once the property of the Guinness family (yes, as in the beer), so it's practically Irish royalty. Transformed into a five-star luxury hotel in 1939, Ashford has since welcomed celebrities and discriminating travelers alike who come to experience not just exemplary dining and service, but also fresh-air fun: Riding, shooting, archery, and a robust game of golf are just some of the ways to fill your time during a visit here. Double rooms from $139 per person per night, 800/346-7007, ashford.ie. 2. PENTILLIE CASTLE Cornwall, England Built in 1698 by James Tillie, Pentillie Castle has had a fair share of drama—Tillie scandalously married the widow of his employer and still managed to squeeze a knighthood out of King James II. But its checkered past hardly detracts from Pentillie's enviable location on the banks of the River Tamar, not far from Plymouth. The yellow-hued castle is surrounded by gardens bursting with rhododendron, azalea, and camellia flowers, and most of the estate's 2,000 acres is still tenant-farmed, with some woodlands reserved for pheasant hunting. The hotel has nine double rooms, making Pentillie Castle a favorite location for intimate weddings. Double rooms from $75 per person per night (breakfast included), 011/44-1579-350-044, pentillie.co.uk. >> Related: Secret Hotels of Paris 3. CASTLE OF THE FOUR TOWERS Siena, Italy This 807-year-old castle made of red brick has a commanding view of Siena from its hilltop position. Originally built as a private home in the 14th century, the castle's location turned out to be as strategic as it was picturesque, and the building served as a 15th-century fortress during the period of civil strife that the marked the region until peace was restored in the 16th century. Once again a private residence, rooms and suites can now be rented, including a spacious one-bedroom apartment that sleeps up to four people. Visitors can wander the maze in the garden or stroll in the olive groves or vineyards, or hop in the car and tour the rest of sun-kissed Tuscany. From $46.75 per person per night, sleeps up to four people, 011/39-339-497-7999; quattrotorra.it. 4. CHÂTEAU KRASNA LIPA North Bohemia, Czech Republic A nice Czech waltz is the only thing missing from the fairy-tale atmosphere at Château Krasna Lipa, located in Czech Saxon Switzerland. Built in 1886, this fanciful palace has turrets and Juliet balconies; not to mention gracious rooms with 14-foot ceilings, furnished with antiques, hand-carved furniture, and Rococo oil paintings. The surrounding area is home to lush forests that invite romantic souls to discover intricate rock formations—and crystal-clear lakes and rivers—also prime fishing areas. Now a vacation rental, the castle has eight luxury suites with private baths and flat-screen TVs—some suites have walk-out terraces with panoramic views. As with any dream trip, excellent service is a must, and Krasna Lipa delivers: Private tour-guides and interpreters are available to guests, as are pick-ups from Prague airport (80 miles away) or the nearby Decin railway station. Double rooms from $50 per person per night (breakfast included), 1/416-529-1523, romantic-chateau.com. >> Related: Top 10 Weirdest Hotels 5. SCHLOSS SOMMERSDORF Bavaria, Germany Any castle situated just off Germany's famed "Castle Road" has to earn its keep, and 803-year-old Schloss Sommersdorf does so by sheer longevity. The 14th-century structure endured a period of upheaval during the Thirty Years' War in the 17th century, but its graying façade, bricked turret and moat are still standing. Visitors can stay in three apartments or two rooms in the castle proper, or opt for more modern accommodations in the newly renovated Bohemian House, on the castle grounds. On the road between Niederoberbach and Grossenried, Schloss Sommersdorf is ideally located for exploring a portion of the 621-mile Castle Road—and there's a unique fleet of cars available for guests to rent, including a 1905 Cadillac, a 1913 Ford "Tin Lizzie," and a 1926 Durant Rugby R touring model. Double rooms from $56.50 per person per per night (minimum 3-night stay), 011/49-9805-91920, schloss-sommersdorf.de. 6. PARADOR DE CARMONA Andalucia, Spain Being a country with a strong Moorish history, Spain has thousands of castles. Narrow down the options with Paradores of Spain, a website that lists dozens of castles, fortresses, convents, and palaces throughout the country that have been converted into hotels. Our favorite, the 14th-century Arabic-inspired Parador de Carmona, is named for its town, about 18 miles from Seville. Inside, a graceful Moorish courtyard, vaults, and columns combine with antique Spanish furnishings to create a four-star experience reminiscent of times gone by. Deal hunters should check for discounts on multi-night stays (20 percent off) and for seniors (30 percent off). If you'll be exploring the area, consider purchasing the site's five-night card for $699, which is good at almost all Paradores and averages out to a discounted  $139 per night. Double rooms from $112 per person per night, 011/34-95-414-1010, paradoresofspain.com. >> Related: World's Best New Boutique Hotels 7. CHÂTEAU DU PEYRUZEL Aquitaine, France Few castles that saw battle during the Hundred Years' War have come through as elegantly as the Château du Peyruzel, a 13th-century fortress about three miles from the town of Domme in the Dordogne wine region. From its location high on a hill, the château commands a view of the valley below, full of hay bales and cows; windows in all four towers let in copious amounts of sunlight. With massive stone walls hewn from bedrock, a five-story spiral staircase, chestnut floors, and ceiling beams of darkened walnut, the château screams "Middle Ages," but has been equipped with every amenity the 21st century has to offer: a 45-foot-long swimming pool, luxurious bedding and linens, satellite TV and Wi-Fi (and, perhaps most important: indoor plumbing). From $67 per person per night, sleeps up to 14 (reservations available by the week only), 1/916-837-0934; vrbo.com. 8. NEEMRANA FORT-PALACE Delhi, India For those venturing beyond the ancient feudal domains of Europe, there are still castles to be explored, such as this incredible 10-story fortification in Rajasthan, India. Completed in 1464, the Neemrana Fort-Palace's three-acre estate is built in a horseshoe shape into a hillside on the Delhi-Jaipur highway, about 62 miles from Delhi International Airport. The rooms are furnished with traditional Indian and colonial pieces and most have private balconies with views of the 60-mile-high Aravalli mountain range. Within the walls of the fort, guests can take a dip in the vista pool, sign up for free yoga and meditation exercises, or request holistic rejuvenation treatments. Double room from $38.50 per person per night, 011/91-941-405-0068, neemranahotels.com. 9. HOLLYWOOD CASTLE Los Angeles, California Like many things in L.A., the Hollywood Castle is playacting—it was built in the 1970s. But the castle's charm is still tangible, with ivy-covered walls, a moat with a drawbridge, and rooms furnished with suits of armor and huge thrones serving as chairs. Located on a full acre of land just beneath the Hollywood sign, the hotel has eight rooms (some with shared bathrooms) and three patios with 360-degree views of the sparkling city below, plus a Jacuzzi and a nightclub. From $83 per person per night for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom suite that sleeps up to six, 323/868-4076, thehollywoodcastle.com. 10. FAIRMONT LE CHÂTEAU FRONTENAC Québec, Canada Standing high on a bluff overlooking the St. Lawrence River, the turrets and towers of Fairmont Le Château Frontenac are part of the identity of Old Québec, which has been designated a United Nations World Heritage Site. Named after Louis de Buade, Count of Frontenac, who served as governor of New France from 1672 to 1682 (and again from 1689 to 1698), the Château Frontenac proudly displays the Count's coat-of-arms on the outside wall of the entry arch. Though the impressive castle looks positively medieval, the oldest section of the 618-room hotel, the Citadelle, dates back only to 1899. The Fairmont has been a bastion of gracious living ever since, with four-star service and renowned Chef Jean Soulard's in-house restaurant. Double rooms from 6;111 per person per night, 866/540-4460, fairmont.com/frontenac. MORE POPULAR CONTENT: Top 10 Beaches From the Movies Readers' Best Coastline Photos Top Budget Destinations 2011 Vote for America's Coolest Small Towns

Destinations

Reclaiming the Jersey Shore

Until late last year, it was hard to imagine how New Jersey's image could get much worse. Bon Jovi, 148 miles of turnpike, The Sopranos, Real Housewives—it all added up to a big-haired, acid-washed caricature of the state. Those of us from Jersey could do little more than shrug and laugh. I mean, Whaddayagonnado? But then, in December, MTV unleashed Jersey Shore. The wildly popular reality show, whose second season debuts this month, follows the summer-rental adventures of eight overtanned, overmuscled, undereducated young people in the shore town of Seaside Heights. No matter that "Snooki," "The Situation," and the rest of the cast mostly hail from places like Staten Island and The Bronx: It seemed that the trashiest place on earth had found the mascots it deserved. For someone who actually grew up on the shore, MTV's live-action cartoon was one insult too many. My fondest memories are dusted with sand and clotted with saltwater taffy. And while Bruce Springsteen's "carnival life on the water" might have been an overly romantic depiction even in the best of times, it was still my romance. I'll admit that the Jersey burbs can verge on the generic, but the 130 miles of beaches and towns along the coast are all color, from the wilderness of Sandy Hook to bed-and-breakfast-studded Cape May. And as I've been hearing, two of the shore's best-known towns—the once-glittering resorts of Asbury Park and Long Branch, both in my native Monmouth County—are in the midst of unexpected revivals. So as any spurned local might, I grabbed my fiancée, Jen, hopped a ferry from Manhattan to Atlantic Highlands, near Sandy Hook, and set out on a journey to redeem my home state's battered reputation. Of all the towns on the Jersey shore, Asbury Park is the most famous—and not necessarily for good reasons. Over the span of a few decades, the city transformed from flashy resort to gritty rock-music mecca to poster child for urban decay. Yet when Jen and I pull into town, it's as if history has somehow reversed itself. Our first stop is Convention Hall, just off the boardwalk. The hulking beaux arts structure was built with Jazz Age exuberance in 1929 to house acts like Benny Goodman and the Marx Brothers. Terra-cotta sea horses and serpents swim over its brick-and-limestone façade, and a copper model boat sits at its peak, a memorial to a cruise ship that ran aground here in 1934. Just three years ago, the venue, which once hosted the Doors, Janis Joplin, and the Who, was visibly falling apart, rotting in the salt air after years of neglect. But today, thanks to extensive restoration, it gleams like new and draws a fresh crop of big names—from Jeff Beck to Tony Bennett—to its adjacent Paramount Theatre. Over on the boardwalk, things are spiffed up and the same all at once. In a storefront, I spot the visage of Tillie, a leering, Alfred E. Neuman–like clown who is the closest thing Asbury has to a mascot; the character even inspired protests when a building with his image on it was torn down a few years ago. At the site of a once tragicomically decrepit Howard Johnson (TV host and chef Anthony Bourdain visited in 2005 and was afraid to order anything more elaborate than a grilled cheese), we duck into the bustling McLoone's Asbury Grille for a Bloody Mary before heading down the boardwalk to the Silver Ball Museum—home to 100 or so vintage pinball machines. Inside, it's a riot of bells and clanking metal, and we hand over $7.50 apiece for 30 minutes of unlimited play. In some senses, the story of Asbury Park's revival can be told through the Hotel Tides, where we're staying the night. Tucked away on a residential street, the hotel is an unlikely labor of love, as I learn when I meet co-owner Martin Santomenno. A real estate investor who was once maître d' at the World Trade Center's Windows on the World, Santomenno, along with a few partners, converted a dowdy guesthouse into a modern 20-room boutique hotel. "It started as a minor renovation, then it turned into a minor rehab, and then a major rehab," he recalls with a laugh. An airy lobby now doubles as a gallery that showcases work by Asbury-based artists. The rooms are smartly designed, with iPod docks, ultra-high-thread-count Anichini sheets, and rain-forest showers with river-rock floors. Santomenno began weekending in Asbury in 2001, a couple of years after a residential resurgence led largely by the gay and lesbian community. Attracted to Asbury by its cheap real estate, broad beach, and the 90-minute drive to New York City, these new residents bought big, run-down houses and restored them piece by piece. As the community grew, home owners lobbied for civic improvements and eventually opened businesses. Their vision of Asbury isn't just about tradition: Santomenno is far more excited about the time composer Philip Glass stopped by the hotel than when Springsteen's people scouted his house for a music video. "We consider ourselves a cultural center," he says. "People come to Asbury for the music, the art, and the food, not just for the beach. Right before last summer, 21 new businesses opened—we're keeping mom-and-pop stores alive." If Hotel Tides is a look at Asbury's future, then Vini "Maddog" Lopez is a part of its past. The original drummer in Springsteen's E Street Band (E Street is an actual road in Belmar, just to the south), Lopez joins us for breakfast the next morning at Frank's, a 50-year-old diner on Asbury's Main Street that, in his words, "has good mud." Lopez, grizzled and friendly, holds tight to his history: He currently plays in Steel Mill Retro, a band that re-creates the long-lost songs of the late '60s, pre–E Street days. He happily shares stories of nights at long-vanished clubs like the Student Prince and the Upstage, but he's quick to dismiss Springsteen's more fanciful visions of the city, heard in songs about wooing girls under the boardwalk. "There were rats underneath there," Lopez says. After saying our good-byes, Jen and I swing past Cookman Avenue, an up-and-coming stretch with an indie theater (think obscure and Swedish films) and some posh boutiques like Shelter Home, a home furnishings store co-owned by a textile designer who works on Broadway productions. From there, we turn our sights south. For 20 miles we bump through coastal towns like Belmar, Manasquan, and Point Pleasant, and then cut onto the Barnegat Peninsula, a spit of sand separating the Atlantic from Barnegat Bay, as we approach Seaside Heights, the now infamous home of Jersey Shore. For months, I've been hearing people talk about Seaside Heights as if it's some anthropology experiment, a case study in bumping clubs and boardwalk fights. But when we pull into town, it's clear that stereotypes don't hold. Instead of alcohol-fueled chaos, we find an unpretentious, kid-friendly resort town full of little cottages crowded up to the coast. It's not yet prime season, so things are pretty quiet. We pass the police station, where at least one Jersey Shore cast member was locked up, and cruise by Club Karma, now famous for cheap shots and dance music. Yet by the beach, it's as if the show never existed. A mini amusement park sits at either end of the mile-long boardwalk, and a Ferris wheel stands on a pier. Inside the 57-year-old Lucky Leo's Amusements, everything's familiar: the wooden skee ball lanes, the barker at the wheel of fortune, the paper tickets waiting to be traded for an endless selection of trinkets. The scene is timeless—a snapshot from the classic American summer—and it stands in contrast to our final destination, Long Branch. In many ways, Long Branch is the original shore town. The city began as a fashionable destination in the 1860s—well before Asbury or Seaside—starting with a visit from Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Honest Abe. Then, like many other towns, it settled into prolonged decay. The final blow came in 1987, when the amusement complex on its pier (including a haunted mansion I never mustered the courage to enter) burned to the ground. All that remained were a few sad little arcades, seedy strip clubs, and the occasional music venue. That could've been it for Long Branch, but five years ago a local developer rebuilt the boardwalk and pier. Unlike the grassroots refurbishment of Asbury, the result here is a slick retail and residential complex called Pier Village, complete with upscale restaurants and bars, a bookstore, and a Gold's Gym (where we work out the next morning on treadmills facing the ocean). The Bungalow Hotel is one of the latest additions to Pier Village. The white-on-white rooms are hardly a bargain at $199, but given the fact that they could pass for ones at a $500-a-night Miami resort, they seem a worthy splurge, with South Beach–inspired faux fireplaces, faux-cowhide chairs, and Apple TV. With all the driving that afternoon, Jen and I had skipped lunch, so we immediately walk to Avenue, a glass-and-steel oceanfront restaurant that attracts young, hip-for-Jersey patrons—and at the moment, too many of them. The place is packed for happy hour. Instead of waiting, we decide to retreat inland. A few blocks from the beach, the flash of Pier Village mellows, and old-school Italian restaurants and simple hot dog stands remain as bulwarks against the city's new image. We opt for Tuzzio's, a squat brick-and-stucco establishment across from a dry cleaner. The crowd here (families of six and elderly couples) is anything but hip, and the same goes for the decor, highlighted by a stained-glass version of the restaurant's logo and gold-mirrored beer-company signs. But the leather booths are inviting, the vibe couldn't be warmer, and the food is a throwback: rich sausage and peppers in marinara sauce, and salad with special house dressing, a distinctly tangy blue-cheese vinaigrette. "If you don't like it," the grandmotherly waitress says with a smile, "I'll bring you something else." Back at the boardwalk, we eventually return to Avenue, which has quieted down. We sit at the polished-steel bar, where I get a dirty martini and a few oversize shrimp from the raw bar—we did skip lunch, after all. Jazz remixes play from overhead speakers. I bite into a shrimp, sip my martini, and feel a pleasant sense of disorientation. This is definitely not Snooki's Jersey Shore. It's not Bruce's, or at least not the one he sings about. It's not really mine, either. But for the moment, I'll take it. LODGING Hotel Tides, Restaurant & Spa 408 7th Ave., Asbury Park, hoteltides.com, from $95 Bungalow Hotel 50 Laird St., Long Branch, bungalowhotel.net, from $199 FOOD McLoone's Asbury Grille 1200 Ocean Ave., Asbury Park, mcloonesasburygrille.com, entrées from $8 Frank's Deli & Restaurant 1406 Main St., Asbury Park, 732/775-6682, sandwiches from $3 Avenue 23 Ocean Ave., Long Branch, leclubavenue.com, entrées from $16 Tuzzio's Italian Cuisine 224 Westwood Ave., Long Branch, tuzzios.com, entrées from $11 Max's Famous Hot Dogs 25 Matilda Terrace, Long Branch, maxsfamoushotdogs.com, from $3 ACTIVITIES Convention Hall Ocean Ave. between Asbury and Sunset Aves., Asbury Park, apboardwalk.com Silver Ball Museum 1000 Ocean Ave., Asbury Park, silverballmuseum.com, 30 minutes' unlimited play $7.50 Lucky Leo's Amusements 315 Boardwalk, Seaside Heights, luckyleosamusements.com Pier Village 1 Chelsea Ave., Long Branch, piervillage.com SHOPPING Shelter Home 704 Cookman Ave., Asbury Park, shelterhome.com

Destinations

Top U.S. Water Parks

1. WILDERNESS TERRITORY WATERPARK RESORT AT WISCONSIN DELLS, WI.  Near Madison, WI. (55 miles) The Wilderness Territory's most popular ride is the Hurricane: Riders experience the eye of the storm as they rapidly descend through a four-story funnel. Flashes of lightning, rumbling thunder, and drifting fog convey the sense of a full-blown natural disaster. Details 511 E. Adams St., Wisconsin Dells, Wis., 800/867-9453, wildernessresort.com. Kids eat free with adult purchase.Other Wilderness locations A new, 150-acre Wilderness resort in Sevierville, Tenn. Parks nearby Other water parks in Wisconsin Dells: Mt. Olympus Water & Theme Park and Noah's Ark. 2. KALAHARI RESORT, SANDUSKY, OH.  Near Toledo, OH. (60 miles) Kalahari doubled the size of the park in December 2007. The highlight is the Swahili Swirl. In a four-person inner tube, you'll be ejected from a steep tube slide into a 60-foot-diameter bowl; it's a dizzying three times around before you're sucked down the drain and dropped into a 50-foot-long landing pool. It's like a really fun toilet bowl. To mellow out, relax under the 40,000-square-foot clear Texlon roof, which houses tropical plants and allows guests to catch sun year-round.Details 7000 Kalahari Dr., Sandusky, 877/525-2427, kalahariresort.com. Look for "Beat the Clock" lodging specials on the website. Other Kalahari locations Wisconsin Dells Wis. And a new water-park resort is under development in Fredericksburg, Va. 3. AQUATIC BY SEAWORLD, ORLANDO, FL.  Near Tampa, FL. (85 miles) The signature experience here is the Dolphin Plunge, 250 feet of clear underwater tubes that plunge riders into a lagoon populated by charismatic black-and-white Commerson's dolphins. For a split second, you'll feel as if you're swimming with them. Aquatica's attractions include something for everyone: 36 slides, six rivers and lagoons, and more than 80,000 square feet of white-sand beaches.Details 5800 Water Play Way, Orlando, 888/800-5447, aquaticabyseaworld.com. 4. DAYTONA LAGOON, DAYTONA BEACH, FL.   Near Orlando, FL. (55 miles) Daytona Lagoon's most hair-raising experience is Blackbeard's Revenge. After you climb the 62-foot tower and mount an inner tube, you'll take a 15 mph, six-story tumble down a twisting, pitch-black tunnel slide. Don't miss the brand-new Kraken's Conquest, either: It's a four-lane, 55-foot-long ProRacer-series speed slide. Friends and families can challenge each other to high-speed, watery showdowns. Details 601 Earl St., Daytona Beach, 386/254-5020, daytonalagoon.com. The park offers a different special each day; for example, every Thursday you can get unlimited use of miniature golf, the carousel, and the rock-climbing wall from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. for $10. 5. WATER WORLD, DENVER, CO.  Near Boulder, CO. (30 miles) The 67-acre Water World's calling card is the Voyage to the Center of the Earth. Brave riders hop onto inner tubes and journey into the dark—where they're confronted by large, animatronic dinosaurs, including a 15-foot T. rex. If you're scared of the dark, but not much else, the TurboRacer might be more your style: Jump headfirst onto toboggan mats and race your friends down four stories, eventually launching—at more than 20 mph—onto a straightaway to the finish line. Each rider's time is recorded, so you can tell if you're the fastest waterstud in Denver.Details 1800 W. 89th Ave., Federal Heights, Colo., 303/427-7873, waterworldcolorado.com. Families can bring a picnic into the park; parking is free. 6. GULF ISLANDS WATERPARK, GULFPORT, MS.  Near New Orleans, LA. (77 miles) The most popular ride here is the Horn Island Blaster water roller coaster. The attraction ferries two riders at a time through more than 500 feet of twists and turns, including some thrilling uphill blasts at angles greater than 45 degrees. Families with young children might opt instead for the Ship Island Wreck, a slide for kids as young as 2. Details 13100 16th St. Gulfport, 866/485-3386, gulfislandswaterpark.com. 7. WATER PARK OF AMERICA, BLOOMINGTON, MN.  Near Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN. (13 miles) Given that it's adjacent to the gargantuan Mall of America, it's no wonder that the Water Park of America is a year-round attraction. The highlight is its mile-long indoor Whitewater Family Raft Ride, which propels riders over a river suspended 10 stories above the cars and trucks zipping along Interstate 494. Other standouts include an immense video arcade and the Trillium Spa— the latter for those who would prefer to skip the action.Details 1700 American Blvd. E., Bloomington, 952/698-8888, waterparkofamerica.com. The Radisson, which connects to the park, offers packages that include tickets. 8. SPLISH SPLASH, LONG ISLAND, N.Y.  NearNew York City, N.Y. (73 miles) The most popular offerings pitch you into darkness to up the thrill factor: Dragon's Den, Barrier Reef, Hollywood Stunt Rider, and the super popular Alien Invasion. The last ride begins by blasting your four-person raft down a steep slide before spinning it out of control and launching it into a dark pool. For raw intensity, try the Cliff Diver—you'll drop eight stories in three seconds. 'Nuff said.Details 2549 Splish Splash Dr., Calverton, N.Y., 631/727-3600, splishsplashlongisland.com. 9. MOUNTAIN CREEK WATERPARK, VERNON, N.J.  Near Trenton, N.J. (89 miles) Vertigo, a fully enclosed water coaster, cannons riders around tight curves in total darkness. Passengers on the park's signature ride, High Anxiety, drop four stories in the dark before entering into a funnel at breakneck speed.Details 200 Rte. 94, Vernon, N.J., 973/864-8444, mountaincreekwaterpark.com. Season-pass benefits include two bring-a-friend-for-free days and free parking. 10. RAGING WATERS, SAN JOSE,  CA.  Near San Francisco, CA. (50 miles) The 23-acre Raging Waters includes the winding, 60-foot-long Blue Thunder/White Lightning tunnel slide, and the newest attention-grabber, Dragon's Den, which catapults a two-person tube through darkness before a sudden, gut-wrenching drop into calmer waters. Details 2333 S. White Rd., San Jose, 408/238-9900, rwsplash.com. Other Raging Waters locations San Dimas (near L.A.) and Sacramento, Calif. (season passes are good for all three parks). 11. WET 'N WILD EMERALD POINTE, GREENSBORO, N.C.  Near Raleigh, N.C. (78 miles) Wet 'n Wild is well-known for its speed chutes like Daredevil Drop, with a hair-raising 76-foot plunge, and Double Barrel Blast, a ride which ends abruptly in midair—launching you from a four-foot edge before you hit the pool. Contrary to its name, Wet 'n Wild also lets you skip the water altogether: The Skycoaster combines the thrills of bungee-jumping and hang gliding, allowing up to three people at a time to experience the sensation of flying without getting even a little soggy.Details 3910 S. Holden Rd., Greensboro, 336/852-9721, emeraldpointe.com. Wet 'n Wild offers various promotions throughout the summer, from Girl Scout Day (June 20) and Home Educator's Day (August 20). 12. SPLASHTOWN WATERPARK, SAN ANTONIO, TX.  Near Austin, TX. (80 miles) The 20-acre Splashtown features more than 50 rides and attractions, from simple wave pools to true screamers, such as the five-story Hydras tube-slide tower and the aptly named Wedgie, a precipitous speed slide that tugs on your trunks like an 8th-grade bully as it fires you into the pool below. Details 3600 N. I-35, San Antonio, 210/227-1400, splashtownsa.com. Special events include magic shows and "dive-in" movie screenings. Parking is free.Parks nearby Other area parks include Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels, Texas. If you find yourself in Dallas, Bahama Beach is an option. 13. SIX FLAGS WHITE WATER, ATLANTA  Near Athens, GA. (73 miles) The nine-story Cliffhanger is one of the world's tallest free falls. It's so high that just peeking over the top might be thrill enough. But the signature ride is the Tornado, an intense four-person inner-tube nosedive of greater than 50 vertical feet—all while 5,000 gallons of water swirls around you. Details 250 Cobb Pkwy N., Marietta, Ga., 770/948-9290, sixflags.com/whitewater. Other Six Flags locations Six Flags has many Hurricane Harbor water parks adjacent to existing amusement parks; locations include Gurnee/Chicago, Ill.; Arlington, Tex. Eureka, Mo.; Jackson, N.J.; Valencia/Los Angeles, Calif.; Agawam, Mass.; and Largo, Md.

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