Spring Lake, NJ, Offers Solitude, History

There are no traffic lights, no parking meters, and no need to wear watches.

Time stands still in Spring Lake, a New Jersey shore town 65 miles from New York to the north, 65 miles from Philadelphia to the west, and light years from the frenetic pace of the 21st century urban landscape.

Even during the off-season, Spring Lake is an idyllic place to escape.

The Sandpiper Inn

It has a two-mile boardwalk, uncluttered by the honky-tonk of seashore spots to the south; a wide expanse of beach where smart shell collectors can convert a red bandana into a knapsack; a history museum housed in an 1897 structure that started as a school; and 11 Victorian inns featuring architecture, amenities, and service more typical of a bygone era.

The town even has a lake -- explaining its name -- that covers 16 acres, has a maximum depth of 8 feet, and thrives on a constant diet of fresh water from underground springs. Fish, birds, plants, trees, and woodland animals abound.

So do pedestrians, who stroll over arched wooden bridges in search of the great blue heron, an occasional Spring Lake visitor.

Although the town has only 3,000 permanent residents, it won national publicity earlier this year when Kerry Close won the National Spelling Bee. Another local resident with national recognition is Craig Biggio, star second baseman of the Houston Astros.

Spring Lake is also a familiar name to historians who remember the Morro Castle, a cruise ship that caught fire off the Jersey coast on Sept. 8, 1934. Although 250 people lost their lives, lifeguards from Spring Lake brought survivors ashore. Three years later, Spring Lake sprang to the rescue when the Hindenburg zeppelin exploded and burned in nearby Lakehurst.

History lives in Spring Lake, the only town in the United States with two complete structures that stood at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia: the Missouri State Building, at 441 Ocean Road, and the Portugese Government Pavilion, at 205 Atlantic Avenue.

Founded from the four seashore developments of Villa Park, Spring Lake Beach, Brighton-North Brighton, and Como, its original configuration was dictated by the boundaries of individual farms. The erection of grand hotels on the oceanfront brought summer tourists, many of whom came by train, but competition from other communities plus the cost of running such gargantuan properties prompted a gradual evolution from colossal resorts to creative inns.

Today, Ocean House B&B has its own library, lots of automobile memorabilia, Hollywood collectibles, and furnishings from the Roaring '20s. Sandpiper Inn has a heated indoor pool surrounded by chaise lounges. The Breakers Hotel has an oceanfront verandah.

There's a view of Constitution Gazebo in the park from the front porch of Chateau Inn & Suites, a player piano at Villa Park Inn, three recliners facing a rustic stone fireplace at the Evergreen Inn, a rocking chair on the wraparound porch at Beacon House B&B, and rent-free bicycles at SeaCrest by the Sea.

Some SeaCrest by the Sea rooms have balconies, Jacuzzis, fireplaces, ocean views, and flat television screens so well hidden that they look like artwork hanging on the wall.

SeaCrest guests will also find edible surprises, including stocked mini-refrigerators, Godiva chocolates, and access to an assortment of snacks 24 hours a day. Guests are also pampered with featherbeds that feel like sleeping on a cloud and a wide variety of breakfast choices.

They can even have a boat ride: co-owner Fred Vogel is a retired U.S. Navy captain whose eight-and-a-half foot dinghy - painted battleship gray - provides a different way to enjoy the lake. Barb Vogel, his wife, serves as vice president of the Historic Inns of Spring Lake. Nancy Kaloostian, owner of the Ocean House and current vice president of Preferred Inns of New Jersey, is the association's first president. The other officer, treasurer Barbara Garcia Seaman, was general manager of New York's Barbizon Hotel before buying the Spring Lake Inn.

If experience is the best teacher, Spring Lake innkeepers qualify as professors. All of them know the history of the town and the region as well as the background of their own properties.

The Historic Inns of Spring Lake sprouted as private homes that were mere cottages when matched against the backdrop of the town's imposing resorts. Built from 1870-1888, their architecture and upkeep combine to create an appealing appearance that has promoted considerable interest from Hollywood. It's no surprise that movies have been filmed there.

In addition to the inns, one of the most photogenic places in town is the Sea Girt lighthouse, opened on Dec. 10, 1896 after nearly 100 vessels foundered off the New Jersey coast over a 10-year span. Electricity replaced kerosene in 1915 and the nation's first radio fog beacon was added six years later. The nation's last live-in lighthouse is now a museum filled with rare maritime artifacts -- some of them from the Morro Castle.

Not far from the lighthouse are Pier Village, a collection of shops and restaurants, and Allenwood General Store, where local memorabilia mixes with dusty antiques at the intersection of four county roads. In warmer weather, Avon Pavilion is worth a stop too: it's the best place to find seafood fare on the boardwalk.

During the off-season, the best bets for food range from Klein's, a combination restaurant and seafood market where patrons can find steamers, lobster rolls, and sushi on the Shark River inlet; La Dolce Vita, an Italian restaurant where the 30-year-old owner provides personalized service; and Brennan's Steakhouse, where style, sound, and steak suggest Sinatra.

Spring Lake's landmark oceanfront restaurant, The Breakers, blends Italian and sea fare.

After dinner on a crisp autumn night, many guests retreat to their inns for a game of Scrabble, a quiet interval with a good book, or the lost art of conversation. Tidbits about things-to-do tomorrow are often on the tip of a neighbor's tongue.

Local secrets include the existence of the Spring Lake Theater Company, performing in the same 350-seat community center for the last 80 years, and a half-dozen spas, including Spring Lake Therapeutic Massage, The Pampered Soul, Hand and Stone, Milagro, Shaves, and Art of Skin Care.

Although summer has come and gone, Spring Lake is no longer a seasonal community.

In fact, the Historic Inns of Spring Lake will host a holiday candlelight tour on Saturday, Dec. 2. The 17th annual Spring Lake Candlelight Christmas Tour, which runs from 3:30-7 p.m., allows inns to showcase their Christmas finery while church bells provide a background chorus.

Tickets cost $30 and can be purchased at various Spring Lake locations, including all participating inns. For further information, call Spring Lake Chamber of Commerce (Tel. 732-449-0577) or Sea Crest by the Sea (Tel. 732-449-9031) or see www.HistoricInnsofSpringLake.com.

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