Sandy was here?
From way up high, 65 feet above Long Beach Island, the superstorm that had ravaged the Jersey Shore in late October was AWOL.
With each spin of the Ferris wheel, I searched for the cruel souvenirs the hurricane reportedly had left behind: toppled houses, shredded roads, tousled beaches.
Yet I saw only pristine coastline, shimmering ocean and the Sharpie black line of the main drag.
Sandy had come to Jersey and crushed, but her monster footprint is shrinking.
The second-costliest hurricane in US history, after Katrina, punched its way up the Northeast coast in late October of last year, causing nearly US$37 billion ($46.8 billion) worth of damage in New Jersey, according to a November report from the governor's office.
The hurricane resulted in 117 total deaths, based on American Red Cross figures; destroyed or damaged 346,000 housing units; and affected 75 percent of the shore's small businesses.
About 2.5 million cubic yards of sand and debris choked roads and waterways. Hundreds of residents had to wait weeks before they could return home to assess the wreckage and their personal losses.
The shore's tourism industry is crucial, despite its short season of a few sunny months.
In 2012, it earned US$19 billion ($24 billion) in revenue, but this year's forecast is less rosy: A January report by Rutgers University's Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy estimates a US$950 million loss during the peak beachgoing period of July through September.
"Tourism pays for everything," said Ron Bernknopf, who runs the Colony Motel in Seaside Heights with his wife, adding that occupancy is down 20 percent.
But time, plus money, heals. Eight months (and US$6.8 billion in federal aid) later, New Jersey's beach towns are wriggling back to life.
Over Memorial Day weekend, the psychological start of summer, Gov. Chris Christie heralded the triumphant return of the oceanside destination.
Someone pressed play on the sunbaked anthem "Stronger Than the Storm," then left it on a continuous loop.
This summer, we're not surfing with the Beach Boys, "we're resilient, we're Jersey-tough, we are stronger than the storm."
Catchy ditty, for sure, but sunbathers can't cop a tan on perseverance, resolve and good intentions.
We want silky strands and restored boardwalks, hot funnel cakes and frozen cocktails. We need the Jersey Shore to be operational and functional, and back in full-on beach party mode.
We'll take that song, but mix it with Pitbull, please.
To determine the Garden State's state of readiness, I retracted the top on the convertible and followed the salty scent of sea to the Jersey Shore.
I started on Long Beach Island, slightly north of the hurricane's landfall, and drove along the coast until I hit the long toe of Sandy Hook's Gateway National Recreation Area.
Along the route, I looked for vestiges of the hurricane, but in many places, Sandy was a nobody.
Sandy was a fickle beast
In New Jersey, the storm unleashed its greatest wrath upon Monmouth and Ocean counties, in the central coastal region. Although the hurricane clawed some areas, it barely nipped at others.
For instance, Long Branch lost its boardwalk (on the docket for expansion anyway) and 50 yards of beachfront, significant damage yet minor when compared with the devastation its northern neighbour, Sea Bright, suffered.
Long Beach Island exemplifies the storm's mercurial nature; the 18-mile-long barrier island endured a patchwork of casualties: nothing serious on the north, but painful in the south.
"If you drove down the boulevard and didn't know about Superstorm Sandy," said Joe Jones, a resident and real estate agent on LBI, "you'd never know anything happened..."
"Unless you go to Holgate," interrupted Mike Lisiewski, who owns Brighton Beach Surf Shop, a few communities north of Holgate.
At the tippity-top of the island, Barnegat Lighthouse State Park reopened less than a month after the storm hit. Rangers led the season's first full moon night climb on Memorial Day weekend (next one: July 22). The lighthouse did not lose a fleck of red paint.
I strolled the jetty with Dave, who owns a vacation home in the nearby township of Loveladies. We were chatting about the storm (he lost a few shingles) when he stopped and pointed: "That was probably caused by Sandy."
I bent down to inspect a gap between the concrete squares, which was highlighted in cautionary pink spray paint. It was a hazard - to hermit crabs and small toes.
Farther south, I noted a few boarded-up stores and restaurants, as well as an abandoned 7-Eleven. In different circumstances, I could have easily interpreted the damage as the inevitable wear-and-tear of salt spray and strong ocean breezes, or blamed the weakened economy.
At Brighton Beach Surf Shop, which I last visited in 2007 for a surf lesson, the front yard and porch looked unchanged. I was greeted by the same jumble of jellybean-coloured beach chairs, inflatable rafts, surfboards and umbrellas. And once again, I found Mike fussing around in the garage bursting with surfboards.
Sandy is a sensitive topic for many residents, but I had to ask Mike a vital question: "Did you surf the storm?"
"With Irene, I went the day after, but I didn't really surf this one," he said. "It just didn't feel right. I didn't go back out till around Christmas."
The storm flooded the shop with about four feet of water (see the watermark on the door), blew off the gutters and trampled the roof.
His staff removed the merchandise piled on the floor, but it did not anticipate the water rising and carrying off higher-shelved items like corks on a creek. He set a date to reopen by Easter and met his goal.
"This is a make-or-break-it season for a lot of people," he said. "In August, you might see a lot of stuff go on sale." (Some businesses, such as Tucker's, the Frosted Mug and the Black Dog Cafe, are indefinitely closed.)
Mike, who admitted that tourist numbers are down so far this year, politely answered my questions. But I sensed that he was tiring of this topic and ready to switch to more important matters, such as when could he get me out on the waves again. My answer: When the water warms up; see you in September.
The biggest concern at Fantasy Island Amusement Park in Beach Haven is not freezer burn on the toes but losing your funnel cake. The family-fun centre has been making kids dizzy for more than three decades with theme park rides and sugar highs.
Swamped by nine feet of water, the entertainment venue had to gut every building, including the arcade. However, the rides escaped structural harm, and every evening (at least through August), the park flips the switch, setting the thrill-mobiles in motion.
Fantasy Island operates 18 rides; many move at blurring speeds or feature tot-size seats that require adults to slip into a pair of Spanx. The Giant Wheel, by comparison, provides roomy cars and a lost balloon's view of Long Beach Island.
Before I could board the wheel, I had to draft a partner to go around with me. Yes, I am taller than 54 inches, but after the 2011 death of a young girl in Wildwood, the state recommends that amusement parks pair up at least two people per car. Victoria, an employee, stepped in as my chaperone.
As we slowly churned, I rotated my body counter clockwise, taking in the long and wide spread of the island. I saw Barnegat Bay and the Atlantic on opposite sides, and the Monopoly-size homes wedged in between.
Sandy was nowhere to be seen.
To find her, I had to travel to the bottom of the island, to Holgate. The community, a vulnerable target near the rendezvous point of the bay and the ocean, received quite a bruising. Today, the laid-back community is a humming hive of activity, with contractors fixing windows, porches, doors and driveways. I could barely hear the cackles of gulls through the din of bulldozers, hammers and drills.
"Take pictures of the nice things," Eileen Bowker told me when I stopped by her deli for a soda, "the beaches, and the restaurants that are open."
A few minutes before meeting Eileen, I had snapped a picture of the rah-rah sign - "LBI is Alive" - hanging from the store's second floor. Before driving off, I took a photo of Holgate's beach and its new fence, which smelled of fresh pine.
Seaside Heights rebounds
If you want to support the restoration and revitalization of the Jersey Shore, be hedonistic and self-indulgent. Follow the T-shirt gospel, "Jersey go hard or go home."
Here are some suggestions for Seaside Heights: Take a long, REM-deep nap on the beach (remember to buy your US$5 badge).
Fill your chipmunk cheeks with thin-crust pizza, Hershey's ice cream and fried Oreos on the boardwalk. Chug US$2 pints of Budweiser or US$10 shakers of shots at EJ's bar. Pass out in a local hotel (I suggest the comfortable Colony Motel). Rouse yourself for a henna tattoo or a Monroe piercing.
Or, for less bodily intrusion and mutilation, spring for a "Restore the Shore" magnet or sticker; all proceeds go to recovery efforts, according to the accompanying sign. And if there are any javelin throwers in the house, toss a sharp object at an inflated orb that never meant you any harm.
"Wanna play the darts? We're trying to restore the shore," an arcade vendor shouted at a family of four walking past the game. "Help us."
The dad, who was toting his daughter on his shoulders, abruptly stopped. The little girl tightened her grip on the two stuffed mermaids in her hands.
"We were here twice to restore the shore," Papa Bear retorted. "Second time in three months. Stop acting crazy. We're doing what we can."
Indeed, restoring the shore can turn ugly. But without passion, muscle and loud voices, Seaside Heights might not have risen again - or, at least, recovered so swiftly.
"Seaside Heights was the hardest to come back so far," said Bob Hilton, executive director of the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau. "There wasn't a board on the boardwalk."
But that was then. Since Memorial Day weekend, visitors have been stepping on nearly a mile of new planks stretching from Kearney Avenue to the border with Seaside Park. (About three blocks were still under repair during my visit.)
New benches look out toward the ocean or inward at the boardwalk scene, depending on your viewing preference. The arcades on Casino and Funtown piers are once again tinny-loud and tacky-fun.
The Shore Store, where the "Jersey Shore" cast faux-worked, is selling Snooki costume eyelashes and Pauly D bobble heads (how realistic - his hair is immobile) alongside "Restore the Shore" T-shirts. You can also tour the MTV House of Horror, with the added bonus of taking a photo with the duck phone. (Bring your baby wipes.)
"They're trying," said the Colony Motel's co-owner, Bernknopf. "We should be 100 percent by next year." (According to Bernknopf, about 30 of the 40-odd lodgings have reopened.)
No doubt, the progress is fitful, especially along the two piers, which have grown into a tertiary tourist attraction. At Casino Pier, I watched workmen array the disassembled seats of the chairlift and dust off large panels with South-western desert landscapes.
To the south, tourists congregated around the chain-link fence protecting Funtown Pier, which appears to have been chewed off by a sea monster.
At the end of the boardwalk, I settled into a picnic table at Park Seafood that overlooked the decapitated head of a giant (fake) snake and a lone T. rex staring off to sea. I can't read dinosaur emotions very well but imagine he was pretty choked up.
By next summer, one can only hope that the snake's head will be reunited with its body and that T. rex will have playmates again. That should lift his spirits, and Seaside Heights's, too.
Observations from my drive up the Jersey Shore:
Ortley Beach: Needs a lot more cleanup time.
Lavallette Beach: My, what impressive camel humps of sand you have.
Mantoloking: Shed a tear for the lost mansions.
Belmar and Point Pleasant: Looking good.
Long Branch: A bit of a tight squeeze on the beach but overall a solid comeback.
Sea Bright: A little scruffy but definitely ready for the hordes.
Sandy Hook: A giant sigh of relief.
After hours of driving in and out of towns, I finally arrived at that other Sandy, the tranquil and non-menacing Sandy Hook Unit of the Gateway National Recreation Area.
It was the last stop on my tour, so I could finally throw down a towel and surrender to summer.
I pulled into Lot C and crossed over to Sandy Hook Bay. Kitesurfers sailed across the small chop and families picnicked on the narrow strip of sand.
I returned to the Atlantic side, where the beach is wider and a low wall of boulders embraces the shore.
To reach the ocean, I had to pass by a bathing facility and a concession stand covered in plywood. My feet soon hit the sand, and the blue water drew closer.
With each step, the distance between Sandy and summer grew, until all reminders of the storm disappeared.
WHERE TO STAY
Surf City Hotel, 800 N. Long Beach Blvd., Surf City. Various accommodations, such as rooms in the historic hotel, cottage or inn, or a two-bedroom apartment. Steps from the beach. Onsite restaurant, pub, clam bar and lounge with live music.
Colony Motel, 65 Hiering Ave., Seaside Heights. Friendly, welcoming spot (nice comforters!) near the boardwalk and beach. Pool and coffee/tea served in the morning.
Bungalow Hotel, 50 Laird St., Long Branch. Boutique surfer-theme property designed by HGTV's Cortney and Robert Novogratz. Located in Pier Village, with shops, restaurants and beach steps away. Gym and beach club passes available.
WHERE TO EAT
Bowker's South Beach Grill, 5404 S. Long Beach Blvd., Holgate. Beachy party food: cheesesteaks, burgers, heros, salads and wraps, plus breakfast.
The Chicken or the Egg, 207 N. Bay Ave., Beach Haven. LBI institution open 24 hours, with all-day breakfast. Packed menu heavy on chicken (nachos, salads, wings, waffles, fried, soy, etc.) and egg (sandwiches, platters, with steak, etc.) dishes.
Shaka, 20 Centennial Dr., Long Branch. California-cool joint in Pier Village serves burritos, tacos, rice bowls, quesadillas and salads.
WHAT TO DO
Fantasy Island Amusement Park, 320 Seventh St., Beach Haven. Arcade opens daily at noon and rides at 6 p.m, except on Fridays for Pay One Price Day. Closes around 11 pm or midnight. Season runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Brighton Beach Surf Shop, 511 S. Long Beach Blvd., Brighton Beach. Learn to surf or stand-up paddle from an LBI pro. US$50 for semi-private lesson; US$75 ($95) for private. Or rent equipment, including surfboard, stand-upand skimboard.
Sandy Hook Unit, Gateway National Recreation Area, 128 S. Hartshorne Dr., Highlands. Seven miles of ocean beaches, salt marshes, hiking trails and a maritime holly forest. Also Fort Hancock, Nike Missle Radar Site and Sandy Hook Lighthouse. Open 5 am-8 pm.
- The Washington Post