PERFECT PINE BARRENS
Still too chilly for the beach? There’s plenty of sand inland ... and so much more.
Still too chilly for the beach? There’s plenty of sand inland ... and so much more.
As you hike along sugar-sand paths through a forest of pines, the lines between past and present, legend and reality, begin to blur. You become acquainted with a centuries-old culture you may not have known existed. During your travels, you discover a local winemaker who is happy to share the secrets of his craft as you sample vintages made from local grapes and European and California techniques. And as the sun sets, you stroll through a garden of roses and art to dine in a chateau in Monet’s beloved village of Giverny.
So you think you know South Jersey. For years, you’ve followed the beaten path along the not-always-so-scenic highways on your way to the Shore points. But, if you stray just a few miles from the main road, you’ll discover that just across the Delaware are a wide variety of weekend getaway destinations and experiences.
Take, for example, the Pinelands National Reserve, 1.1 million acres of open and forested land that includes portions of seven New Jersey counties and covers approximately 20 percent of the state’s total land mass. Created by Congress in 1978, the area, also known simply as the Pinelands or Pine Barrens (a reference to its fine, acidic, nutrient-poor soil affectionately called sugar sand by the natives) was America’s first National Reserve and is the largest one east of the Mississippi River.
A good place to orient yourself to the area is the Pinelands Visitors Center (Bishop Farmstead, 17 Pemberton Road, Southampton, Burlington County; 609-859-8860), which is operated by the Pinelands Preservation Alliance (PPA). Located in a 1753 farmhouse, it offers maps, interpretative displays, an interactive virtual “eco-tour” and information about PPA programs and activities.
Hikers and campers are attracted to the Pinelands for its dramatic landscape, which ranges from colorful to otherworldly. It’s home to 27 varieties of wild orchids and crowds of pink springtime cranberry bog blossoms (pictured above) that resemble the graceful heads of birds and gave the plant its original name of “craneberry.” New Jersey is the nation’s fourth largest producer of this tart and tangy fruit. You’ll also find several kinds of carnivorous plants and forests of pitch pine trees—including the five- to six-foot pygmy variety—that require fire to open up their seeds for reproduction.
If you’re looking for opportunities for more serious exploration of the area, PPA sponsors a number of naturalist-led Pinelands Adventures, day-long and overnight hiking and canoe trips ($35-$55; $115 overnight canoe excursion includes boat rental and one parent free with child).
Always on the must-visit list in the South Jersey Pinelands is Wharton State Forest (4110 Nesco Road, Hammonton; stateparks.com/wharton.html), which offers close to 115,000 acres of protected land that spans Burlington, Camden and Atlantic counties and includes 40 miles of hiking trails and four rivers that get their distinctive tea color from high iron content. Throughout the year, Wharton presents an impressive calendar of free family events—particularly at Batsto Village (4110 Nesco Road, about eight miles east of Hammonton; 609-561-0024), site of a mid-18th through mid-19th-century iron and glass works, where 33 preserved buildings—some open for touring—stand as reminders of the Pinelands’ industrial era. The nature center offers choice spots for picnicking and an easygoing one-mile trail for flora and fauna spotting.
Free eco-oriented events at Batsto and Wharton State Forest include guided nature hikes in March, April and May. Events in May include the Wharton State Forest Fishing Derby for kids ages 8-13 and the Batsto Quilt Festival (609-561-0024, both events).
If you’d prefer to do some exploring on your own, do it by water. At Pine Barren Canoe Rental (3260 Route 563, Chatsworth; 800-732-0793), a one-day rate for a canoe is $45-$53; kayak, $35-$40. For exploring by land, try the Batona (Back to Nature) Trail, a well-marked 49-mile route known as the “spine of the Pinelands.” The mostly flat, well-marked trail wanders through three of South Jersey’s most scenic protected areas—Wharton, Bass River and Brendan T. Byrne (formerly Lebanon) state forests. Stands of trees cover the once industry-devastated land. You’ll pass the remnants of “ghost” towns that flourished and foundered along with local mining and manufacturing endeavors.
For a truly spectacular view of the Pinelands, take the Batona Trail to Apple Pie Hill in Wharton State Forest. At 209 feet above sea level, the hill is one of the area’s highest points. Climb to the top of its 60-foot fire tower for an over-the-treetops view that stretches all the way from nearby cranberry bogs to the tops of the Atlantic City and Philadelphia skylines.
Vineyards may not come to mind when you think of Camden County, but at Amalthea Cellars Farm Winery in Atco (209 Vineyard Road, 856-768-8585), Louis Caracciolo combines South Jersey-grown grapes with the traditional techniques of Bordeaux and Napa Valley to create distinctive single-grape reserve editions and meritage blends. Burlington County’s Valenzano Winery (1320 Old Indian Mills Road, Shamong; 1-888-559-WINE) captures the flavor of the Pinelands in its semi-dry cranberry wine made from locally grown fruit.
As you drive South Jersey’s highways, you see just about every chain hotel, motel and inn you can name. But the area also has more interesting accommodations conveniently located just down the road. In Wharton State Forest, you’ll find a wide range of camping options, from wilderness tent sites ($20) to furnished cabins (from $45). Or sleep in original sailors’ quarters and chow down on breakfast and dinner in the mess when you bunk aboard the Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial ($49.95; 62 Battleship Place, Camden waterfront; 856-966-1652).
For something a little more sumptuous, head for the Haddonfield Inn (44 West End Ave., 800-269-0014), a luxury-loaded Victorian B&B offering fireplaces in every room, whirlpool baths, soft terry robes and even softer (600 thread-count) sheets and concierge services ($199-$299). For cute and cozy, there’s the Iris Inn B&B in Medford (45 S. Main St., 609-654-7528), a turn-of-the-20th-century former physician’s home with nine guestrooms ($95).
Look to South Jersey’s tiny towns for a wide range of non-chain dining experiences. Haddonfield’s The Little Tuna (141 Kings Hwy. East, 856-795-0888) specializes in seafood, including innovative glazed, crusted and seasoned sushi-grade tuna preparations; almond- and panko-crusted mahi flet and pistachio- and basil butter-crusted salmon filet (most entrées range from $19 to just under $30).
Up-and-coming downtown Collings-wood in Burlington County is home to the Pop Shop Café & Creamery (729 Haddon Ave., 856-869-0111), a lively comfort-food-centric, retro-style soda fountain/restaurant/ice-cream parlor where you can get 12 varieties of “Bettys” (pancakes), six kinds of eggs Benedict, 30 types of grilled cheese sandwiches and 10 different flavors of fries all day (everything is less than $10; many under $7). Saturday mornings, kids who come in their jammies get a free breakfast when accompanied by a dining adult.
A very different kind of outdoor experience awaits in the town of Hamilton in Mercer County, where more than 200 examples of contemporary sculpture by American and international artists are on display in the lush arboretum setting of Grounds for Sculpture (18 Fairgrounds Road, 609-586-0616). Tucked among roses and rhododendrons in the 35-acre park are the works of George Segal, Magdalena Abakanowicz and Grounds for Sculpture founder J. Seward Johnson, an American artist best known for his life-size figures of everyday people and three-dimensional interpretations of Impressionist masterpieces. Admission ($5/adults Tuesday-Thursday, $8 Friday and Saturday, $12 Sunday) also includes access to exhibits in two 10,000-square-foot indoor galleries.
With a name like Rat’s (pictured above), a restaurant had better be pretty special. And this Grounds for Sculpture dining spot is just that—from its chateau setting in the midst of a re-creation of French Impressionist Claude Monet’s much-painted town of Giverny to its fanciful décor, which ranges from the gypsy caravan casual of Café Kabul to the French elegance of its five dining rooms. Named for “Ratty,” a character in Kenneth Grahme’s children’s classic, The Wind In the Willows, the restaurant features unique views of Monet’s water garden and Giverny bridge, along with an imaginative seasonal menu (monkfish “saltimbocca“ with horseradish gnocchi; orange- and juniper-crusted venison with spiced cranberry jus; fruity desserts flambéed tableside) and extensive wine list. The prix fixe appetizer-to-dessert Sunday lunch and the Sunday brunch (each $49) are particularly popular (609-584-7800).
“Piney” culture is a close-to-nature way of life that has existed in this area for generations. Traditionally, Pineys made their living by farming, hunting, fishing and “working the cycle,” engaging in seasonal activities such as harvesting sphagnum moss (used by florists), cranberries and blueberries, and gathering pine cones (known as “pineballing”) for sale as Christmas decorations. Some still consider “working the cycle” as their primary—or, at least, secondary—occupation.
Speak of the Devil
The Pine Barrens are fertile ground for tall tales. Orson Welles chose the Pinelands as the site of the battle between the U.S. National Guard and Martian invaders in his 1938 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. And, for centuries, the nocturnal naughtiness of the Jersey Devil has been the subject of local lore. Since the first “sighting” occurred in 1735, hunting for the Jersey Devil—a winged, horned, hoofed, half-human, half-who-knows-what creature with red eyes that glow in the dark—has been a favorite South Jersey sport. If you’d like to try your luck, bring your imagination, sense of humor and comfortable sneakers to Wharton State Forest for an experience that’s more campy than creepy as PPA naturalist Russell Juelg takes you on a moonlight trek along sandy trails through the Devil’s favorite stomping grounds.
Prior to the “hunt,” you’ll gather around a campfire (bring your own hot dogs and marshmallows) where, to the soothing strum of the banjos, guitars and dulcimers of local musical group the Sugar Sand Ramblers, Juelg fills you in on the Devil’s origins and antics ($10, 609-859-8860).