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The List: Exploring the Inhabited Islands of the Garden State

Most of New Jersey's vacation isles are well-known summer tourism destinations, but a few of them may be less familiar to Jersey Shore travelers

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New Jersey isn’t exactly a tropical place, yet many residents enjoy living the “island life.”

From popular barrier islands that draw thousands of tourists each summer, to private islands with no more than a single house, living near the water is extremely popular, as evidenced by the fact that the population of the Jersey Shore has more than tripled over the past half-century.

Given the threats of climate change and sea-level rise, environmentalists and planning experts warn that that growth and increased development could make the state more vulnerable to future storms like Sandy. For the time being, though people’s desire to build near the water’s edge shows few signs of waning.

For those who want the full experience, here are 10 popular places to choose from, listed north to south along the coast:

1. Barnegat Bay Island

Sometimes called “Barnegat Bay Peninsula,” “Island Beach Peninsula,” or simply “the barrier island,” this 20-mile-long stretch of land became separated from the mainland when the Point Pleasant Canal was built in 1925 to connect the Manasquan Inlet to the Barnegat Bay. The island reaches from Point Pleasant Beach in the north to Island Beach State Park in the south, and it includes the municipalities of Bay Head, Mantoloking, Lavallette, Ortley Beach, Seaside Heights, Seaside Park and the South Seaside Park section of Berkeley Township. Route 35 is the main thoroughfare, with Point Pleasant Beach and Bayhead also serviced by New Jersey Transit’s North Jersey Coast rail line.

2. Long Beach Island

With 18 miles of sand and surf, LBI has been such a popular destination for generations of Jersey Shore-goers that it doesn’t even need a name. Many people just refer to it as “the island.” Without the excitement of Seaside Heights, it’s quieter and more laid back than Barnegat Bay Island and mostly contains summer homes, with a year-round population of about 10,000 that swells more than tenfold during the warmer months of the year. It’s connected to the mainland by a single causeway between Stafford Township and Ship Bottom. Other municipalities on the island include Surf City, Long Beach Township, Harvey Cedars, Barnegat Light, and Beach Haven.

3. Bonnet Island

Blink and you’ll miss them, but you can’t get to LBI without driving over Stafford Township’s Cedar Bonnet Islands along the way. Clear Bonnet -- the larger of the two populated islands -- has a boat marina and banquet hall (and prior to Sandy, a much-beloved roadside shack, while the 166-acre Bonnet Island is home to about 75 families, as well as the Dutchman’s Brauhaus, a landmark German and seafood restaurant / watering hole.

The island is bisected by Route 72; its southern half sustained massive damage during Sandy. Prior to storms in the 1920s and 1930s, it was also traversed by a rail line connecting LBI to the mainland.

4. Brigantine Island

The City of Brigantine consists of one 6-mile-long island containing 4,300 homes. It’s connected to Atlantic City by a single bridge. There are also several uninhabited islands that are part of the Absecon Wildlife Management Area and the North Brigantine State Natural Area. The island received a direct hit from Superstorm Sandy, and President Obama famously toured the damage a few days later, meeting with residents, first responders and a marina owner to pledge federal support for the recovery.

5. Absecon Island

Just to the south of Brigantine, the next barrier island along New Jersey’s coast is Absecon Island, home to Atlantic City, Ventnor, Margate, and Longport (parts of Atlantic City and Ventnor are also located on several smaller, adjacent islands).

First settled in the 1700s as a site for clamming and oystering, tourism has been the biggest industry ever since the construction of the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1870. Visitors to the island can also tour Lucy the Elephant, Margate’s beloved, century-old tourist trap and National Historic Landmark.

6. Peck’s Beach Island

Like people who live in Brigantine, residents of Ocean City have an island all to themselves. Their municipality is Cape May County’s largest in terms of land area, and -- as a dry community -- it bills itself as a family friendly resort.

The island has had several unique chapters in its history: In 1700, whaler John Peck used it as a storage place for freshly caught whales. Later it was used as a cattle-grazing area and a Methodist retreat camp. Nowadays, the island’s 2½-mile boardwalk is one of the state’s most famous.

7. Ludlam Island

Originally used as fishing grounds by the Leni Lenape Indians, Ludlam Island was later used as a stopover point for pirates sailing up the Jersey Coast. In the late 1800s, it was turned into a resort community, attracting tourists from Philadelphia, who streamed in by train during the warmer summer months. Today it’s the site of Sea Isle City and the Strathmere section of Upper Township.

8. Seven Mile Island

Seven-and-a-half miles long -- to be precise -- yet just four blocks deep at its widest point, this island is home to the boroughs of Avalon and Stone Harbor, two of the most affluent communities along the coast. Ed McMahon, Taylor Swift, and former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno are among those who’ve spent their summers here, and the two towns have been ranked as some of the most expensive and exclusive ZIP codes in the country.

9. Wildwoods Island

Sometimes called “Five Mile Island,” this is where you’ll find North Wildwood, the City of Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest, all of which are among the NJ Sea Grant Consortium’s 2015 list of the top 10 beaches and family destinations at the Jersey Shore. A popular getaway for generations of Philadelphia area shore-goers, the island is also famous for its plethora of 1950s and 1960s-era motels sporting neon signs and mid-century architecture, as well as a Doo Wop museum. About 600 people also live on an adjacent island in the tiny, neighboring borough of West Wildwood.

10. Cape May Island

Separated from the mainland by a narrow channel, Cape May Island comprises Cape May City, West Cape May, Cape May Point, and a portion of Lower Township to form the southernmost part of New Jersey. A fire in 1878 that engulfed some 40 acres of homes and hotels in Cape May City led to buildings being rebuilt in the Victorian style -- which has contributed to the area’s present-day charm. In 1976, it was declared a National Historic Landmark City.

BONUS LIST: Smaller and lesser-known inhabited islands

Barley Point Island:- Located in the mouth of the Navesink River, just west of Sea Bright. Some 60 homeowners have humble cottages in this tight-knit, private community located on a 38-acre island off the coast of Rumson.

Shark River Island: Sandwiched between Belmar and Avon-by-the-Sea, this section of Neptune Township contains 200 townhouses. The Seaview at Shark River Island Homeowners’ Association, which manages the development, describes it as having “quaint, quiet streets lit by old-time lamp posts” and a “layout of interconnected private roads and cul-de-sacs.”

Chadwick Beach Island: Administratively part of Toms River, this small island in the Barnegat Bay has several hundred homes and a marina.

Pelican Island: Visitors to Seaside Heights pass over this island when they cross the Route 37 bridge from the mainland. Part of the island is in Toms River, and part is considered Berkeley Township.

Halsey and Raccoon islands: The only entries on this list that aren’t along New Jersey’s coast, these two inhabited islands are located inland, in the middle of Lake Hopatcong, the state’s largest lake. Only accessible by private boat, Halsey Island is shared by just 15 families, while Raccoon Island is connected by seasonal ferry service. Both are located in Morris County’s Jefferson Township.

Private Islands: For those with deep pockets and a desire for the utmost privacy and seclusion, it is difficult, but not impossible to purchase your own private island in New Jersey.

On Middle Sedge Island in Barnegat Bay -- just west of the Chadwick Beach section of Toms River -- there’s a $6.5 million home and adjacent guest house that collectively include five bedrooms and seven baths, a whirlpool, in-ground swimming pool, bocce court, helicopter pad and multiple docks. A real estate website advertises it as being just “20 minutes by helicopter from downtown Manhattan” and says that the home offers “spectacular views of the entire bay.”

On Lower Little Island, just west of Beach Haven, real estate developer Mark Davies and his family enjoy boating, clamming and crabbing at a weekend home they’ve owned for nearly a decade. They tried selling it a few years ago for $4 million, but took the property back off the market after being unable to find a buyer.

“You get a piece of mind when you’re out there,” said C.J. Davies, Mark’s son, who was helping him sell the house. Members of the family go there a few times a week, he said, so they’ve developed a sentimental attachment to it, but they’d still consider selling it for the right price.

If you don’t like either of those houses, you might be able to build your own -- pending state environmental approvals -- on one of two islands west of Barley Point in the Navesink River that went on the market earlier this year: 11-acre Dorn Island and 4-acre Picnic Island, which has its own, tiny sandy beach. Picnic Island apparently got its name from the hordes of picnickers who used to wade there from Barley Point at low tide.

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