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Put Cape May County on your ‘to do’ list

On a late Friday afternoon in early May, the place was like a ghost town. Most shops were closed. There were very few cars moving along the wide, well-maintained streets and there were very few people out walking.

What was this, we wondered. Here was Stone Harbor and the neighboring borough of Avalon, both in Cape May County on the southern tip of New Jersey, only a few hours from the largest populated region in eastern North America, and nobody’s home. Go figure!

But we were soon to discover when we checked into the Golden Inn in Avalon, that it was no big mystery and the town’s folk hadn’t been swallowed up by some alien. This place doesn’t come alive until the U.S. Memorial Day weekend in late May and then it pretty much hums all summer.

Avalon and Stone Harbor are on Seven Mile Island and have a combined year round population of about 2,300 people. These two spots are considered among the premier resort and residential communities on the U.S. East Coast that cater to the eastern U.S. affluent.

Avalon was a sight to behold. Street after street of million and multi-million dollar homes with manicured lawns and gardens. Some bordered on the endless beach (locally known as Seven Mile Beach) and the majority of the homes in the town were second, third or even fourth homes of the owners.

Stone Harbor, which you enter just after you cross over the bridge from the mainland, was filled with shops, boutiques, restaurants, etc. to cater to the locals and the summer residents and visitors.
It was all very interesting and very aesthetically pleasing. But I came to Cape May County to play some golf in this New Jersey playground less than an hour from the gambling mecca of Atlantic City and less that two hours from New York City, Philadelphia and a number of other big cities whose residents slip away to their summer retreats located here.

Southern New Jersey, I suspect, doesn’t show up on the radar as a top destination for golf among most Canadian golfers. I know it didn’t on mine. But I must say that I was more than pleased that I had made the trip, not just for the golf, because I played some excellent courses, but because of the whole region and the summer ambiance of the place.

The courses I played on a short three-day stay included: Shore Gate Golf Club (www.shoregategolfclub.com); Sand Barrens (www.sandbarrensgolf.com); Stone Harbor (www.stoneharborgolf.com) and a private club, Wildwood Golf and Country Club, as a guest of John Allison of the Golden Inn.

I was particularly impressed with Shore Gate, a Ronald Fream/David Dale design.

Shore Gate is a semi-private club that opened in 2002. It is open year round (weather permitting) and depending on the time of the year you play green fees range from $50 to $100. Even at $100 it’s worth the price.

General Manager Harry Bittner warned me, with a sly smile, that I might enjoy myself. He was so right.
The course was built on 240 acres which includes seven lakes. It has 88 sand traps, several which are very large, and five sets of tees at each hole. Playing yardages range from 7,227 from the tips to 5,284 yards from the most forward tees.

Shore Gate is a great combination of woods, water, traps and mature trees which feature such varieties as oak, holly and tall stately pines.

Golf Digest gave this a four and half star rating in its places to play. It was a true delight.
Sand Barrens, built in 1997, was another excellent spot. This club has 27 holes and as the name suggests, lots of sand. The design was by Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, the two architects who designed Dundarave on Prince Edward Island.

Did I say there was lots of sand? Several holes had sand bordering entire fairways and of course, traps around the greens. Positional play on this well maintained course is of the outmost importance. One of the aspects of this course that I really liked was a number of risk and reward shots it presented.
It was easy to see why Golfweek picked this course as one of the best three courses you could play in New Jersey in 2011.

And having 27 holes certainly adds to the variety. There are golf packages available with local accommodations properties and the course is open year round. Rates start at $49 and high season, July and August, up to $105.

Stone Harbor, designed by Desmond Muirhead, is a private club but there are ways to get access. Guests can play with members and the Golden Inn at Avalon, a very comfortable beach side spot to base your activities, has a corporate membership which allows the inn to host guests at the course for leisure and corporate play.

The front nine holes at Stone Harbor are tough and especially holes three through seven. With the combination of water, narrow landing areas and wind, the front side requires you’re ‘A ‘game. Consider the 6th hole, for example. From the back tees, this Par 4 plays 435 yards to an island fairway. That’s right, I said ‘island fairway.’ Then, of course, your second shot is over water to the green. There is also water on the 7th and 9th holes. If you get through the front close to your handicap, you are doing well.

The back nine holes are all solid holes and require positional play. You finish on 18 playing to an island green.

Cape May County proved to be a very interesting and enjoyable stop. With the beaches, the golf, many great restaurants, shopping and lots of variety in accommodations, it’s certainly a consideration for future vacation planning. (www.visitavalonnj.com)

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Tom Peters

Tom Peters is a freelance writer based in Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia, a suburb of Halifax. In December 2009 he retired after 41 years with The Halifax Chronicle Herald. He covered competitive golf regionally for the paper in his early days as reporter and over the years has freelanced golf travel articles to a number of major golf and business publications. He is a member and a director of the Golf Journalists Association of Canada.

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