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Hidden jewels in Jersey

Across the Delaware from Philadelphia, historic sites beckon

CAMDEN, N.J. -- If your idea of a weekend in New Jersey is a trip to the shore, you're missing the boat.

There is a trove of family attractions, historic sites, great restaurants, and scenic beauty along the Delaware River across from Philadelphia, heading north toward Trenton. This section of the Garden State, relatively undiscovered by tourists, is home to quaint towns, rolling farmland, and picturesque back roads. No longer just a cut-through on the way to the beach, South Jersey is worth investigating as a destination in its own right.

Start your visit at the Camden waterfront, which boasts the best view you'll ever see of the Philadelphia skyline. The area's pioneering attraction, the New Jersey State Aquarium, has just closed for a nine-month, $57-million renovation, but there is still plenty to do along the river. (The aquarium will reopen in May, with double the exhibit space.)

Across the Delaware, development plans for Philadelphia's Penn's Landing seem perpetually stalled, but Camden's one square mile of real estate adjacent to the river includes the Tweeter Center at the Waterfront, the Camden Children's Garden, Campbell's Field and minor league baseball, Wiggins Park Marina, the South Jersey Performing Arts Center, and the Battleship New Jersey, now a floating museum. All offer entertainment value. If time is limited, the Battleship New Jersey is the must-see. Nearly three football fields long and more than 11 stories high, this most decorated battleship in US naval history sailed in World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, and the crisis in Lebanon in 1983 and 1984. You can see missile launchers up close on your tour -- guns that could launch a 1,900-pound shell 23 miles -- and climb the ship's narrow stairs for a look into the navigation room. There's an engaging video about the ship's history, and, for an extra $6.50, you can "fly" a Seahawk over Iwo Jima, engage in an enemy dogfight, and land on the water next to the battleship with the help of a flight simulator. In the next few years, an Imax theater and at least two restaurants are set to open nearby.

For now, there is a neighborhood pub a few blocks from the river, the newly opened 20 Horse Tavern, in the former stable house of a long-closed local lumber company. Also in the works is a $46 million aerial tram that will shuttle passengers from the aquarium to Penn's Landing. The newly opened Victor Building, housing luxury loft apartments and a casual restaurant in the former RCA Victor headquarters, is the latest sign that Camden's stars are finally in alignment.

Another is the opening of the River LINE, a train along the Delaware that links Camden to Trenton. The train also connects some of South Jersey's historic sites. For just $1.10 each way, you can go from the Battleship New Jersey to the historic town of Burlington to Beverly National Cemetery, the final resting place for 45,000 Civil War soldiers, all the way to the New Jersey State House in Trenton.

Step off the train in Burlington, and you're stopping at the station used by President Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War. Burlington was home to Grant's family during the war, and he and the president often conferred there.

Start your tour of this quaint historic district at a carriage house built in 1876, now the starting point for guided tours by costumed docents. Visit the birthplace of James Fenimore Cooper, author of "The Last of the Mohicans," and of Navy Captain James Lawrence, a hero of the War of 1812 whose dying words were "Don't give up the ship." An important industrial town in the 17th and 18th centuries, Burlington is now a page out of small-town America, with architecture dating to 1696 and several tie-ins to history: There's a mention in Benjamin Franklin's memoirs, the address of a Benedict Arnold sweetheart, and a position on the Underground Railroad.

There are some 40 designated historical sites in all, more than enough for this downtown to have been declared a federally protected historic district. Visit the oldest pharmacy in New Jersey, once a center of antislavery activity; the circa-1758 library, whose first patron was Franklin's son William; and the Surveyor General's Office, home to an original copy of the Concession and Agreements, a document signed by William Penn in 1677 that framed the government of West New Jersey, incorporated principles of civil and religious liberty and freedom of speech, and was an inspiration for the Constitution.

Although Burlington's retail center along High Street is a work in progress, a handful of antiques shops, craft and art galleries, restaurants, and cafes are livening up this picturesque area. Stop for ice cream at Ummms, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor with such flavors as caramel banana hazelnut and chocolate fudge.

Take a short walk to the river promenade, enjoy the view, take a seat on a bench, and relax. You'll find yourself thinking about the benefits of small-town living.

Continue your South Jersey experience with a visit to Haddonfield, another small town that's worth a walkabout. Settled more than 300 years ago, Haddonfield is across the river from Philadelphia, and was a thriving tavern stop on the route between Philadelphia and New York. This affluent, sophisticated burg houses charming Victorian homes, upscale shopping, and historic attractions.

History buffs will want to stop at Indian King Tavern, New Jersey's oldest, and now a state landmark. Visit rooms once inhabited by the forefathers of our nation and the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Stop by Greenfield Hall, home of the Haddonfield Historical Society, where a costumed docent will take you on a journey back to Colonial America. There's just a plaque to mark the spot, but it was here in 1858 that paleontologist Joseph Leidy discovered the fossil of Hadrosaurus foulkii, a duck-billed, plant-eating dinosaur that lived millions of years ago. In case anyone asks, the Hadrosaurus remains are the state fossil.

Stroll Kings Highway, dotted with cafes, tony shops, bakeries, florists, and the like. There are 10 consignment shops alone, most offering barely worn designer duds for decent prices. Home furnishings, yoga studio, day spas, jewelry, antiques, toys -- they're all here.

The next time you're thinking about going to Philly, stop before you cross the Delaware and take in a few attractions. You might never even cross the river.

Beth D'Addono is a freelance writer who lives in Belmont Hills, Pa.

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