Las Vegas gets a lot of love as an outdoor destination, but you never hear anything about its East Coast counterpart. That's too bad. Beyond the casinos, garish shows, saltwater taffy, hip mobster kitsch, and Monopoly street names, paddlers can win big with AC's surrounding wild forest, decent surf, and big fish.
The waters of the Jersey Shore are home to big, strong schools of migratory fish. The star species is the silvery striped bass. If you hook one over 20 inches, it feels like a nuclear-powered submarine on the end of your line. There are almost always vicious blitzes of bluefish in the spring and fall and easy-to-catch summer fluke when the striper bite is slow. And in the fall there's the chance to hook into bullet-fast false albacore. The sheltered estuaries along the Shore are ideal for stalking these ocean-running beasts from a kayak. Closest to the casinos is Barnegat Bay, sheltered by the 18-mile strip of Long Beach Island. Closer to New York City and about 80 miles up the Parkway from AC, the Navesink and Shrewsbury Rivers can harbor feisty runs of stripers and blues chasing baitfish along with the tides. For a list of launch sites up and down the shore go to the home page of the Jersey Shore Sea Kayaking Association (jsska.org).
New Jersey wilderness? Most people think of the stretch of oil refineries and tollbooths in the opening credits of The Sopranos, but that's a stereotype a flatwater river trip through the Pine Barrens stretching between Atlantic City and Philly will quickly dispel. This is wild country, a million acres haunted by a mythical dragon-tailed, flesh-eating creature called the Jersey Devil. Designated a United Nations Biosphere Reserve, the sandy woods are far from barren, supporting a diverse ecosystem stocked with everything from meat-eating pitcher plants to delicate orchids. Adding to the strangeness of the place, the water here is a distinctive rust color--not from pollution, but from iron and tannic acid (the same stuff that's in tea and red wine). Try the Batsto River for a seven- to nine-hour paddle ending at the historic town of Batsto, a preserved colonial village and 19th-century iron works. Bel Haven Paddlesports in Green Bank, New Jersey, runs trips on the Batsto and other local rivers, including the Oswego and Wading. (800-445-0953; belhavencanoe.com).
Garden State surfers are about the only people who celebrate the hurricanes and tropical storms that whip up the waves on the Jersey Shore in the fall. There are a few breaks sprinkled along the boardwalks and private beaches that make for ideal kayak wave riding. At Manasquan Inlet, about 70 miles from AC, a jetty creates one of the best waves in the East Coast, especially during a southeast swell. It's a popular break, so have the skills and practice surfer's etiquette if you are going to ride alongside the locals. For less aggression, try the breaks at Surf City, on Long Beach Island just north of AC, or in Ocean City, just south of downtown. You can also find waves on the undeveloped beaches of Island Beach State Park (state.nj.us/). The Jersey Paddler in Brick (888-22-KAYAK; jerseypaddler.com) has the gear and info; the shop also runs one of the biggest paddlesports shows in the country every spring (March 28-30, 2008, at the Garden State Exhibit Center in Somerset, NJ).
It's the square you always wanted to own in Monopoly, so make sure you cruise Atlantic City's boardwalk (the first in the world). Take in the classic muscle shirts and big hair and snack on saltwater taffy and cotton candy. Any of the casinos is a spectacle, but Donald Trump's Steel Pier is the main attraction. Here, you get the full Jersey Shore experience--ride a rollercoaster, score big at skee ball to win a stuffed animal for your sweetie, and race Go-Karts (steelpier.com). For a pint of Guinness away from the slot-machine racket, head to The Irish Pub (164 St. James Place; 609-344-9063; theirishpub.com)-you can even rent a room here for $20 if you enjoy too many of those Black and Tans.