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New Jersey Travel Tips


The capital of New Jersey seems to be in a state of change. It's almost as if the city had all these beautiful old buildings at one time, tore most of them down or let them fall into disrepair, and only recently realized the goldmine in these old brownstones and other 18th, 19th and 20th century structures, and are now rushing to save and restore what's left. A tour through the city gives the visitor a distinct impression of a work in progress. Some neighborhoods are completely restored and beautiful, while others, one street over, reveal the pre-restored state of similar structures in their sad stage of neglect. It's almost like a before-and-after makeover one sees in magazines, which, in itself makes a very interesting driving tour. Noteworthy examples of beautiful restorations are: the 19th century War Memorial, now a performance center and home to the Trenton Symphony and Opera company; The 18th century New Jersey State Capitol, the 18th century Old Barracks museum, and the 18th century Trent House -- all three described below.

Statehouse, Trenton (609) 633-2709
The New Jersey statehouse is the second oldest in continuous use in America. The original structure was built in 1792, with various additions, wings and stories added through the centuries. A complete interior restoration of this 18th century statehouse was completed only four years ago; the gold dome was restored just this year, its shiny gold leaf plating capturing the sun's rays in a mirrorlike reflection is testimony to its newness. Possibly one of the building's most interesting features is its place within the city. Because of it's long-standing presence, this old statehouse is one of the few without a privacy greenspace in front of it. Most Capitols have a large, fenced in lawn or garden, but the front door of the New Jersey Capitol opens directly onto the city sidewalk, sharing space with other older and newer buildings, mixing and mingling with the hustle and bustle of city life, giving the feeling of a genuine "working" Capitol, not a museum, but a full-functioning statehouse. The interior of the building is charming. Not too elaborate, but enough gold, bronze and marble to add distinction without being ornate. Of particular interest are the stained glass windows in the small rotunda and the beautifully carved wood lintels.

Old Barracks Museum, Trenton (609) 396-1776
From 1755 to 1763 England dispatched British soldiers to New Jersey to help protect the colonists from Indian attacks during the French and Indian War. At first, the soldiers were quartered in colonists' homes, but in 1758, there were too many soldiers and too few homes. Barracks were built in Perth Amboy, Elizabethtown, Trenton, New Brunswick, and Burlington. These in Trenton are the only barracks still standing. At the time, the Barracks was the biggest building in Trenton, housing 300 soldiers. During the Revolutionary War it housed 1400 Hessian troops until the Americans won the Battle of Trenton and turned the barracks into a hospital. After the war the Barracks was subdivided and sold as private homes. The Officer's House was made into a school for young ladies. In 1902 the Old Barracks Association bought the structure and began restoration to turn the site into a museum. A second restoration in 1985 emphasized its military nature. Today visitors can see the soldiers' barracks, the officer's house as they would have operated before the Revolutionary War. Audio narrations and costumed interpreters are available in the various room which also contain artifacts, period furniture and replicas of furniture that would have been used by the British.

Check it out . . . the Barracks shares the same backyard with the State Capitol, an interesting juxtaposition of two 18th century buildings and the changes that took place in so short a time.

Tip: Don't miss the "history of history" exhibit in the History Lab which details the different interpretations of historical artifacts.

Trent House, Trenton (609) 989-3027
The area now known as Trenton was originally called "The Falls." It was settled in 1680 with the construction of a mill at the falls of the Delaware River. Scottish born William Trent, seeing the area's potential for industrialization purchased the mill in 1714 and developed the area into a thriving mercantile village. In 1719 the townspeople decided to change the name to Trent's Town, (now Trenton) in honor of this merchant-visionary. Trent's house, built in 1719, is now owned by the city and open to the public seven days a week. It contains a collection of significant period furniture, including curtains and fabric from colonial times and exemplifies how a wealthy merchant, his servants and slaves lived in the pre-Revolutionary days.

Washington Crossing State Park, Titusville (609) 737-0623
Opened in 1976 in honor of the nation's Bicentennial celebration, Washington Crossing State Park is an 800-acre open air park dedicated to the "Ten Critical Days" that changed the course of the Revolutionary War from one of a series of American retreats to one of strategic planning and bold attacks that began on that fateful Christmas night when General Washington and his men crossed the frigid Delaware River for a surprise attack on the British troops stationed in Trenton. The resounding victory is what just what the doctor ordered for the infant nation that had fallen ill, weakened from a steady diet of bitter defeat. Washington's successful attack fortified the patriots to continue the fight for freedom. The Visitor Center contains a small museum consisting of 900 artifacts used by both the British and American troops during the Revolutionary War. A marker shows where Washington's troops landed and a walking trail, the Historic Continental Lane, shows the path where his infantry marched to Trenton. Also on the grounds are two historic houses: The Johnson Ferry House, occupied by Washington and his staff while finalizing the strategy for the attack on Trenton; and the Nelson House on the banks of the Delaware River, believed to be the a surviving section of the 18th century ferry house.

Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area, Highlands (732) 872-5970
New Jersey shore first meets the Atlantic ocean on this narrow barrier peninsula shaped like a fishing hook that extends to the mouth of New York Harbor and appears about to snag New York City. Nature lovers will enjoy seven miles of beaches, salt marshes, and wooded hiking trails in an area that attracts more than 300 species of birds. Sandy Hook offers surprisingly varied landscapes for such a small area: a forest of holly trees, sand dunes, salt marshes and mudflats. At the end of the peninsula sprawls Fort Hancock, an 1895 fort on the tip of the Hook. Here remains a ghost town military community of old barracks, public buildings and officer's homes as well as the 1764 Sandy Hook Lighthouse, one of the oldest in the nation.

Tip: The free Fort Hancock Museum, open weekends afternoons only, features original jail cells, photographs and dioramas of the Fort's historical significance.

Twin Lights of Navesink Historic Site, Highlands (732) 872-1814
The present lighthouse, built in 1862, consists of two identical light towers connected by storage galleries and a keeper's quarters in a quaint 19th century brownstone. You can see these twin towers for miles as they rise high up on a hill in the highlands of the New Jersey coast. A narrow road curling up and up and up leads to the top of the hill which opens into the parking lot of this old brick building flanked on either side by tall towers capped with beacons. Two small garages, one on the side of each tower contains different pieces of lighthouse history. The garage on the right contains the history of the lighthouse lenses up to the Fresnel lens -- exhibiting an actual Fresnel lens that you can see up close -- and a description of how it was developed and how it works. The garage on the left exhibits old rescue boats used by life-saving stations, the precursor to today's Coast Guard. Inside the brick building are: a fascinating lighthouse museum, a gift shop and spiral stairs that lead to the top of the lighthouse tower where spectators gain a stunning view of Sandy Hook, showing a clear example of how it got its name. (Speaking of names, in old literature and photos throughout the museum the Navesink Lighthouse is referred to as "Neversink Lighthouse.")

Tip: The spiral staircase is very steep and narrow -- not for people who are afraid of heights or experience vertigo.

Asbury Park
Had to come here to see if there are any traces of Bruce Springsteen scattered about. No signs of "The Boss." No distinct signs of anything, actually. It's a very weird place. One corner is commanded by a plush hotel filled with expensive cars in the parking lot and well-heeled guests mingling about, but across the street is a broken down "fun house" with wild drawings of colorful cartoon clown faces and screaming words beckoning thrill seekers. But the Fun House is all shuttered up -- so sad in its empty promises. A few streets farther down is a deserted town center with most of the storefront windows empty, abandoned, hollow in their lack of contents and confession of commercial failure. Tattoo parlors and skating rinks remain open as do some junk stores. A huge construction site that seems to be the beginnings of a large hotel is halted --mid-construction -- a pending condition of promise and despair.

Point Pleasant Beach
Point Pleasant Beach has an active, fun-filled boardwalk even in this off-season time of year. This is what we expected of Asbury Park: a boardwalk with fast food, arcades, coffee shops, bars and restaurants. On this winter day, people are flying kites, jogging and walking their dogs along the beach while others are enjoying the many candy stores, arcades and fried food establishments. Many elderly people bound up in kerchiefs and scarfs sit on park benches reading and chatting with others. Parents push baby carriages and teens embrace along this windswept, oceanside boardwalk. It's odd to hear the notes of an occasional Christmas carol coming out of the arcades, yet somehow fitting. A great place for family fun and mixing all layers of society and a wide scope of interests.

Pine Cone Campground, Freehold, NJ (732) 683-0840
We were surprised to find this campground in such rural and remote surroundings just off a residential street. Horses are corralled on the premises and groups of deer dart out from the woods occasionally. As far as amenities go, it's difficult to evaluate a campground during its off-season. As it is, everything was locked up tight while were were here. No office. No bathrooms. No rec rooms. One can only walk the grounds and imagine all the facilities in a functioning state, and fully populated with happy campers. It seems like it would be nice here in summer. They have a modem hook-up, but they charge 25 cents per minute to use it, so we opted for a phone booth down the road and used our trusty acoustic coupler.

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