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Don't trash Jersey until you've traveled it

By Cindy Y. Rodriguez, CNN
updated 1:05 AM EST, Tue January 21, 2014
Loew's Jersey Theatre, a not-for-profit historic landmark built in 1929, has hosted Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Jean Harlow and more recently, the American rock band Neutral Milk Hotel. It also shows movies and hosts other events. Loew's Jersey Theatre, a not-for-profit historic landmark built in 1929, has hosted Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Jean Harlow and more recently, the American rock band Neutral Milk Hotel. It also shows movies and hosts other events.
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Jersey City
Bergenline Avenue
Princeton
Frenchtown
Asbury Park
Cape May
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • New Jersey is the butt of jokes once again, thanks to its governor
  • But from Princeton to Asbury Park, New Jersey is for travelers
  • Try ethnic food in Jersey City; explore nature in Frenchtown

(CNN) -- It's been quite some time since someone made fun of me for being from New Jersey. But the Gov. Chris Christie bridge scandal is bringing the old Joisey stereotypes back into play.

"New Jersey smells bad," "New Jersey drivers are the worst!" and, quite possibly the most inaccurate accusation, "Jersey made Snooki and J-Woww!" (Not ours! They're both from New York.) We're not a boorish population living in an industrial wasteland.

The same old disparaging remarks have made Garden Staters thick-skinned underdogs.

I'm convinced the New Jersey Turnpike was built to keep outsiders out, because the concrete blight along many stretches shows no evidence of why Jersey is called the Garden State. Once you get off on any exit, you will see Jersey is so much more than what most saw in the "Sopranos" introduction.

I'm here to clear the air: New Jersey is one of the most underestimated states in the country.

Don't knock it until you've traveled it.

Want to give it a try? Here are six spots to check out from north to south.

Jersey City

Go on a food tour of diverse Jersey City. You'll find authentic and affordable Mexican food at Taqueria, a savory crepe at French restaurant Madame Claude's, new American food using seasonal, local ingredients at Thirty Acres, and don't miss Marco and Pepe's for brunch (three words: croissant French toast).

Once you've sufficiently indulged, catch a movie at the Loew's Jersey Theatre, a not-for-profit historic landmark built in 1929 that has hosted the likes of Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Jean Harlow, Bob Hope and, more recently, the American rock band Neutral Milk Hotel. Cool, right?

If you want to get in touch with mother nature in this densely populated area, head north for a hike or bike ride in beautiful Palisades Interstate Park, a historic national landmark, and one of my favorite places in the world.

West New York, New Jersey

Hungry after the hiking and biking? Luckily you're minutes away from some of the best Hispanic food in the tri-state area in West New York.

Head over to Bergenline Avenue, the longest commercial avenue in New Jersey, and go for a nice long urban stroll with ample people-watching, shopping and eats from El Salvadorean to Mexican to Peruvian or Cuban.

So many choices. Having trouble deciding? Start stretching your stomach at Dulce de Leche, an Argentine cafe and bakery where magical dulce de leche pastries and beef, chicken, ham, cheese or spinach empanadas are made with mucho amor.

Princeton

If you're looking for a mix of history, an art scene and tree-lined streets, then you're hankering for Princeton. Fancy.

Take a walking tour of Princeton University's Ivy League campus, which dates to 1754. It's well worth it.

As for art, you'll want to head over to the Princeton University Art Museum, which houses more than 72,000 works of art.

After soaking in all that art and culture, stop for a treat.

Now, while I've heard the Bent Spoon is where "the party is at" for their gelatos, I can only vouch for Thomas Sweet Ice Cream on Nassau Street. They're famous for their blend-ins, way before a chain ice cream shop became popular for it.

Since you're already on Nassau Street, you might as well shop. It only makes sense. Bookstores, dining spots and gift shops, oh my!

Frenchtown

Now that you're an unofficial Garden Stater, you'll want to get in your car and drive (it's what we do) to Frenchtown, along the banks of the Delaware River. Rolling hills, green fields and scenic views support the state's lush moniker.

If you're there anywhere from May to September, slap on some sunscreen and go for a gentle tube ride or some rafting.

For those looking for some imported furniture or home decor from Southeast Asia, go to Two Buttons, owned by the author of "Eat, Pray, Love," Elizabeth Gilbert, and her husband.

Asbury Park

Now, as the locals say, we're "going down the shore."

Out-of-towners have a stale notion of caked layers of fake tanning spray and so-called guidos galore along the Jersey Shore, thanks to the MTV show. The state's coast is actually defined by its historic boardwalks, arcades and amusement parks thick with nostalgia.

When I want to stay close to the tri-state area but still want to feel like I went on a mini-getaway, I go to Asbury Park.

I love it's old-timey charm, boardwalk, lounges and restaurants, and, of course, beaches. It never gets completely packed with people, so you'll find some peace and quiet.

If you're a Bruce Springsteen fan (of course you are, who isn't!?), you should make it a point to go to the historic Stone Pony, where he got his start. Not far is Asbury Lanes, another no-frills but fun music venue and vintage bowling alley.

Cape May

Finally, for a real getaway, keep driving south until you reach the southern tip of Jersey and charming and quaint Cape May, which stakes a claim as the nation's oldest seaside resort.

A National Historic Landmark, Cape May is filled with lovely Victorian homes.

You can stroll on the boardwalk, visit the historic Cape May lighthouse, go whale or dolphin watching or go wine tasting at the Cape May Winery.

Embrace your inner Jersey girl and enjoy some of the Garden State's finer things before the rest of the out-of-towners catch on.

But if you don't, it's no skin off our back. More for us.

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