Garden gems


While South Philadelphians normally flock to tried-and-true South Jersey, the areas north are a cornucopia of quaint towns, rich history, vibrant nightlife and savory restaurants blended with theater, arts and a little bit of big-town appeal.

Grab a map and venture through Morris County’s scenic backroads, where small towns, dotted with large estates and picturesque homes, are surrounded by acres of farms and trees. In the winter, deer sit atop snow-capped hills keeping a watchful eye.

The first stop in this getaway should be the historic borough of Chester and its Village Square. Amid Main Street’s authentic street signs, locals and travelers alike can find shoppes, antique stores, eateries and artistic havens. According to Carolyn Tepper, owner of Blu-Violet at 35 Perry St., a boutique that fills shoppers body and soul and also is known for selling local artwork and running seasonal craft shows, a many out-of-towners visit the area. "It’s an outdoor, quaint walking town that draws people from all over," she said.

The former horse-and-buggy village also is the 57 Main St. home of J. Emanuel Chocolatier. The premier chocolate manufacturer in the state, according to New Jersey Life Magazine, also just happens to be a wine truffle innovator. A rich combination of two decadent flavors, the wine truffle is a dark chocolate ganache blended with vintages and coated in a crisp chocolate shell. To up the unique quotient, custom creations can be made with a private bottle or a personal selection. The locally handmade Chester Crunch also is one delicacy visitors shouldn’t miss. Made with toffee, almonds and pecans, shop worker Paula Lasso confirms orders for this, as well as seasonal treats, are shipped to customers all over the country. "We’re a fun, old-fashioned place," she summed up.

After satiating the sweet tooth, Morristown National Historical Park, about 12 miles west, is the best place to work it all off. Nestled between Philadelphia and New York City, George Washington’s Continental Army rested here during the American Revolution’s harsh winters. More than 10,000 soldiers and the man who would become our first president took up residence at the Ford Mansion, as well as The Wick Estate. Tours of the Wick House, Acorn Hall and Morris Museum — where kids can enjoy a full train set and exhibits — allow one to experience the splendor of Frelinghuysen Arboretum, all within a few short miles. Recreated soldier huts adorn the property and guided or self-guided tours are available.

Nearby Madison, home of Drew University, the Shakespeare Theatre Company and where parts of the 2005 movie "The Family Stone" were filmed, is a different, yet equally charming stop.

"Main Street is beautiful and has many excellent restaurants and cute shops," Drew University alumna Jennifer Dolores said. "Madison has all of the conveniences of a larger city, but the beauty of a small town."

As a coastal state, an eclectic mix of North Jersey Shore towns, such as Ocean Grove, Sea Bright and Sandy Hook, provide beachfronts akin to their southern neighbors. To many North Jerseyans, Ocean Grove, a tourist attraction with Victorian cottages lining Main Street and the surrounding area, is similar to Cape May. The beach doesn’t open until noon Sundays, but the boardwalk offers a relaxing tranquility with views of the rolling surf.

Walkable Sea Bright about 11 miles north has the chicest of hot spots, from casual to upscale. According to Staten Island resident and frequent Jersey visitor Carole Brandi, Elements Lounge, 1072 Ocean Ave. — owned by Jon Bon Jovi’s brother, Matthew Bongiovi — is a place to dress to impress with its Asian-influenced steakhouse and lounge and members-only options, but she also recommends town staple The Madhatter, 10 E. Ocean Ave.

"The Madhatter is very popular — they are known for their thin-crust pizza, but they also have a lot of entertainment, bands and karaoke," the 40-year-old said.

Once solely for navigating New York Harbor, the dual lighthouses at Sandy Hook in Highlands, known as the Twin Lights of Navesink, are the oldest operating ones of their kind in the country. The castle-like towers were built facing each other, yet are not identical. According to Park Ranger Tom Hoffman, more than 20,000 people visit on a single weekend during peak season, which is spring into the beginning of summer. For safety reasons, only those over 4 foot are permitted to scale the 95 spiraling steps and ladder up to the lookout, but the heart-stopping trek is worth it.

"When you get to the top, if you step outside on the correct side, you can actually see New York City and Hoboken, which is definitely a really neat thing," Jennifer Harland, of nearby Neptune, N.J., said. "It’s like contrasting lifestyles within inches."

North Jersey’s state parks are ideal for those who want to lose themselves in natural scenery. Verona Park in Essex County features ice skating, play areas and walking paths, while the beauty of three states — New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York — is a sight to behold from atop High Point Mountain in Sussex’s High Point State Park. Hopatcong State Park’s lake allows for water sports and activities, and the nearby Pine Barrens fulfills every wilderness explorers’ needs. Hiking and camping the Appalachian Trail are two of many events at The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.

A tour of the upper part of Jersey isn’t complete without stops in two of its largest locales — Newark and Jersey City — along with neighboring Weehawken. Art and music lovers can frequent exhibits at the Newark Museum and Ballantine House or take in a concert at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, which stages productions from rock to opera. Sports and entertainment fans can catch minor league baseball’s Newark Bears or head to the Meadowlands Entertainment Complex for a glimpse of this year’s Super Bowl champs, the New York Giants.

As a burgeoning cultural enclave, Jersey City’s Newport and Hamilton Park mark revitalized neighborhoods. While taking in the sights and colors of Liberty State Park, grab a bite at Liberty House Restaurant, 82 Audrey Zapp Drive, and soak up one of the best views of Lower Manhattan this side of the Hudson. The Liberty Science Center not only boasts the country’s largest IMAX screen, but makes science and technology fun for all ages. With beautiful, picturesque skylines of New York City in the background, the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island Immigration Museum are two of the country’s most highly visited and significant landmarks. (Reservations are necessary for touring the base of Lady Liberty.)

According to Darren Atlee, who lived in Weehawken for the past six years and Jersey City for a little more than a year, Hoboken has exploded. The bustling area has bars and restaurants and the entire town — even lively Washington Street — shuts down for numerous festivals. After savoring tasty delicacies, breathtaking views, chic nightspots and American history, its obvious Jersey’s northern counties are the Garden State’s best-kept secret.