Maritime, crab festival provide plenty of seashore fun in Wildwoods

The Maritime Festival returns to Hereford Inlet this weekend.

Two festivals in the Wildwoods will be celebrating all aspects of maritime history this weekend, from the delicious seafood caught right off the South Jersey coast to the lighthouses that have guided fishermen for centuries.

The Fourth Annual Maritime Festival will be held at the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse on Saturday, July 20 and Sunday, July 21. The lighthouse is located at 111 N. Central Avenue in North Wildwood.

Over by Otten's Harbor in Wildwood, the 3rd Annual New Jersey State Crab Festival will be held Saturday, July 20, at the Ice House Restaurant on Park Boulevard.

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The Maritime Festival will take place 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is free.

For years, the lighthouse - at one time in its history the lone beacon on a then-uninhabited Wildwoods barrier island - held several successful craft shows each season, says Steve Murray, chairman of Friends of the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse. He saw the potential to do more.

"It seemed logical to have a big festival celebrating our maritime heritage," Murray says. "We're telling people to come celebrate the sea in Anglesea. Everything we have here has something to do with the sea. It's kind of a loose grouping of themes that include 100 crafters and artisans, most of them with a maritime or nautical theme. We will have museums from all over the state, outreach tables from other lighthouses and lifesaving stations."

Historical displays are planned. Roving bands of "pirates" will wander the grounds giving history lessons, live blacksmithing demonstrations will take place both days, and the lighthouse and gardens will be open for tours.

There will also be live music throughout the weekend, including "New Jersey's Troubadour" Valerie Vaughn and local folk favorite Bob Wright.

"Everything started here," says Murray, also the author of "Guardians of the Hereford Inlet," the first published history of the Hereford Lighthouse. "That was the beginning of all the Jersey Shore. Lighthouses and lifesaving stations were the first buildings on these barrier islands. Before there was tourism, it was the fishing industry and everything sprung from that. So that's why we feel this (festival) is a perfect fit for us."

The festival has expanded to now cover about three blocks along North Central Avenue, with live music, crafters, vendors, food, exhibits and children's games and activities. Last year's estimated crowd was about 8,000 people, Murray says - and this year, he hopes to see even more.

"There's something for everybody," Murray says. "There's the history, there's the gardens, there's things to buy. We even have a strolling band of pirates giving the local history. People can hang here all weekend and find something different every day."

The Crab Festival, taking place 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., will feature a block party atmosphere with live entertainment, vendors, children's activities - and of course, all the blue crabs one can eat.

The event is also popular for its Crabby Bloody Mary - a drink featuring a "colossal" lump of crab meat, olive, lemons and lime in a glass rimmed with Old Bay seasoning.

"We wanted something on this side of town - something on the bay side," says Chuck Burns, who owns the Ice House Restaurant along with his wife Jeanette. "I said, 'Well, crabs are the way to go. Everyone loves crabs.' We wanted to promote Jersey products, so we went with the blue claw (crabs)."

Despite a hot day for the inaugural crab fest - temperatures, Burns recalls, hovered around 100 degrees in 2011 - the day was a success and the buzz began to build. Attendance grew last year to nearly 2,000 people, he says.

Burns, his wife and staff have worked hard to prepare for the festival, doing everything from tracking down the best and biggest blue claw crabs - the Ice House went through an impressive 50 bushels last year - to building their own special platform for the children's crab races.

Other events include face painting and balloon design for children. Live entertainment will be featured throughout the day, including a special performance by the Jimmy Buffett tribute band Parrotbeach at 7 p.m.

"We do it ourselves," Burns says of the planning behind the event. "We didn't go to the city for anything. The city closed off the street, which is big for us. That was the big hurdle. I got the beer companies involved, brought the beer wagon in. The main problem is getting the crabs. I'm out there now trying to line it all up. We use the big ones, and they're hard to get. It's paid off so far. It's a great event."

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