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Experience Ocean City, N.J.- USA Today article

USA Today photo

Photo: Donald B. Kravitz, DBKphoto)

It’s hard to find a place more wholesome than Ocean City, N.J., where going “down the shore” feels a lot like attending a fantastic family reunion. Eight miles of soft beach beckon, perfect for swimming, surfing and simply worshiping rays, but the warm embrace of the sun seems almost secondary to being hugged by this welcoming community. From sand sculpting competitions to beauty contests for crustaceans, there’s always some event generating camaraderie that culminates in ample ribbons for excellence and effort.

A boardwalk, boasting two amusement piers and a water park, trims the beach for nearly three miles. Whimsical miniature golf courses, arcades buzzing with games and outlets specializing in signature seaside snacks abound. Shriver’s has been enticing beach patrons with salt water taffy since 1898. A relative newbie, Johnson’s Popcorn arrived in 1940. Its Salty-N-Sandy combination of artisan cheddar and original caramel — regularly hand-mixed in copper kettles to the delight of onlookers — suits the setting. Plenty of vendors supply umbrellas and chairs, too. The only thing missing is alcohol. Originally founded by Methodists as a religious retreat, Ocean City remains a “dry” town.

Strolling the boards proves as popular as walking the beach, and surveying the entire scene from atop Ocean City’s landmark, 141-foot Ferris wheel ranks as another rite of passage. “Family Night” rolls around every Thursday during summer, upping the ante on old-fashioned fun with free face-painting, balloon art, roaming magicians and more. Plus, this beach boardwalk loves a good parade. You’ll find everything from Miss New Jersey contestants aboard convertibles to merchant mascots in surreys to a brigade of babies with and without carriages. The latter distinguishes itself as one of the oldest baby parades — 2014 marks its 105th anniversary.

While most people gravitate toward swaths of sand near the boardwalk, quieter stretches exist toward both ends of the strip. Sand dunes with patches of native scrub give these areas a windswept vibe. Lifeguards protect the beaches and tags must be purchased for entry. Comfort stations dot the boardwalk, but a fee for bathhouses applies. There are open-air showers for rinsing. Parking options include municipal and private lots as well as metered and free street spots.

By: Dana Hammond, Special for USA TODAY     4:29 p.m. EST February 20, 2014