Sink into a quiet past in Spring Lake, N.J.
Spring Lake, N.J. — Just 60 miles from the sunbaked sidewalks of New York, and only a little farther from Philadelphia, lies a quiet resort town that celebrates the pursuits of yesteryear: veranda-sitting, boardwalk-strolling, parlor-lounging. Never overcrowded in summer, Spring Lake is perhaps even more appealing after the fading of flowers and suntan lotion in the crisper weeks of September and October.
All along the Jersey shore, from Long Branch to Cape May, autumn is a prime but neglected season, a time when the beaches are untracked, the Victorian inns unbooked, and the migrating waterfowl largely unobserved. Only a few miles, in fact, from the clamor of Atlantic City, Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge draws up to 60,000 snow geese and various ducks, shore birds, and warblers, which can be viewed from nature trails, observation towers, and an eight-mile auto route.
Spring Lake likes to think of itself as one of the best-kept secrets of the Jersey Shore, and indeed it is easy to miss. Only recently did it get its name on the exit signs of the Garden State Parkway, which parallels the entire coastline. Surprising to me - when I visited on a sweltering summer weekend - was the clean and comfortable train service of New Jersey Transit's North Coast Line, less than two hours from New York's Penn Station. If deposited at the Spring Lake train station, a few blocks from the boardwalk, you can get around this compact Victorian outpost without wheels.
If the image of a boardwalk suggests cotton candy and whirling rides, then you'll puzzle at the set of planks stretched for nearly two miles on the sandy shore. Other than a quiet beach concession at each end, the boardwalk supports no commercial establishments. It's strictly sand on one side, lawn or sea grass on the other. On summer nights in this well-patrolled town, people stroll the boardwalk past midnight, and now and then a jogger appears out of the darkness.
Dominating the seafront is the Essex and Sussex Hotel, a rambling, cupola-topped pile somewhat worn at the edges but strongly evoking the ragtime era (and indeed appearing in scenes from the movie ''Ragtime''). An Irish flag flies in front, along with the New Jersey and United States standards. One sees the orange, green, and white displayed all over town, for this is the so-called Irish Riviera. Spring Lake makes much of its Irish-American heritage; green is the dominant color, and shamrocks are everywhere. The Essex and Sussex hires Irish waitresses, although the only certain brogue I heard was from a red-haired woman in the lobby of the Colonial House Hotel. When I remarked on it, she said, ''Oh, there's quite a few of us from the other side.''
No matter what their size or clientele, Spring Lake hotels all seem to have a period mood and decor. The 50-room Colonial House, a block from the beach and kitty-corner from the Essex and Sussex, has a handsome circular staircase leading up to its iron-bedded rooms. The staircase was brought to town intact from the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876.
Although many of the big and medium-size hotels pack it in after Labor Day, the season is gradually lengthening, and a holdout like the 190-room Warren stays open till Oct. 20. Timbered and turreted, the well-tended Warren has endless verandas posted with rocking chairs and vast lobby space scattered with some 200 pieces of old white-painted wicker furniture.
Just as evocative of old Spring Lake are the little Victorian inns and bed-and-breakfast establishments that keep their doors open well into the fall and beyond. Standing proudly on the oceanfront, the yellow-trim Kenilworth resembles a quiet English seaside inn, and no wonder: Its managers, Ron and Ivy Mason, are from the Warwickshire town of Kenilworth, after which they named the 25-room inn. ''OK, luv,'' Ivy addresses her guests, who pay just $32 for a double room and get a comfortable book-lined parlor and a substantial if not exactly English-style breakfast of croissants, fruit salad, bagels and cream cheese, cereal, and juice.
On the north end of town not far from the raised decibels of neighboring Belmar are a row of three attractive period inns, each with striped awnings and wide verandas: the Sea Crest, the Normandy, and the Johnson House. Surprise of surprises on that sticky weekend, the Normandy greeted me with air conditioning in its well-appointed parlor. Each of the 18 rooms has a cooling unit and at least one piece of antique furniture, collected by owners Michael and Susan Ingino, who until a few years ago were operating Dairy Queens in Toms River, N.J.
Seasoned walkers can do all of Spring Lake on foot, although one can rent a bicycle from Mark's Bike Shop or take the newly installed ''trolley'' - a bus, built to resemble a ragtime-era streetcar, that circles town every half hour, covering the high spots, for a 50-cent wooden token.
However you travel, you will see, among other sights, a town lake visited by swans and ducks and crisscrossed with delicate wooden footbridges; churches, both ancient and wood-framed and massive, and cathedrals like St. Catherine's; numerous ''witch-hatted'' houses in various stages of repair; and lawns as carefully manicured as golf greens - one in particular, at Ocean and Washington, featuring a private croquet course, frequently used by white-trousered players. So it goes in this resort town of yesteryear.