By Tim Kelly
It’s not always about funnel cake, roller coasters and surfing.
Ocean City has a smaller, but loyal segment of the visitors’ market devoted to eco-tourism. And for these folks, the Bayside Center at 520 Bay Avenue is an Ocean City treasure.
“Bayside Center is the secret ready to be told,” says Sue Forrest, a city employee whose job it is to tell it.
The name of the town might be Ocean City, but Great Egg Harbor Bay offers lesser known but equally fascinating mysteries and delights, she said.
“The Bay has its own sights and sounds,” she said. For visitors, there is much to discover, and that is the mission of one of the town’s underrated destinations.
“People come here and tell me ‘I drive past here all the time’ but years passed” before they finally checked out all the environmental, recreational and historical attractions, Forrest said.
The Bayside Center is open seasonally, from 10 am to 4 p.m. daily.
A retired art teacher who spent 37 years working in the Ocean City Public School system, Forrest grew up near the bay in the Chelsea Heights section of Atlantic City. For the last four years she’s utilized her teaching skills and love of the bay to impart knowledge to interested visitors.
On a recent day she was leading a group of about 10 people through the first floor of the Center, located in an historic former private mansion built on 1.35 acres in 1916.
On the first floor, there are exhibits and environmental displays, salt water tanks providing an up-close and personal view of live indigenous fish and aquatic animals, artwork depicting scenes and creatures of the bay, and of course, panoramic views of the bay itself.
The building is a museum in its own right. Built by the Diesel family, known for the invention of the Diesel engine, the building was sold in 1958 to the Wheaton family, famous as well for Wheaton Village and the glass factory bearing the family name, in Millville.
A terra cotta art piece on one of the walls depicts St. Justine, overlooking a waterway in Venice. Over the years it had been painted over numerous times. Forrest has lovingly restored the piece, removing decades of paint, which revealed new details in the original art.
An interesting coincidence is that St. Justine’s visage seems to gaze out at the bay, where Ocean City’s own Night in Venice takes place, and where the Bayside Center hosts a viewing party annually.
The second floor of the building, formerly the main living quarters for the Diesels and later the Wheatons, houses the Ocean City Beach Patrol’s Hall of Fame plaques and a large cache of memorabilia. There are two full-sized lifeboats, cases jam-packed with historic Beach Patrol trophies, group photos of the beach patrols dating back decades, and much more.
Elsewhere on the second floor is one of the original fireplaces, adorned with intricate art tiles.
Another room houses a collection of scale models of iconic Ocean City buildings past and present. Among them are City Hall and the Music Pier, and long-gone structures such as the old Ocean City High School and the old Tabernacle.
The building has a third floor, the former living quarters of the maids, is closed off to the public.
The Bayside Center is operated by the recreation department, and its offerings in this area are certainly a highlight of the facility.
The Ocean City Sailing Foundation offers sailing lessons for all ages and experience levels. Learn-to-sail classes for the novice are offered along with intermediate lessons for those who wish to sharpen their skills, and racing lessons for the would-be sailing competitor.
For more information, visit www.ocsailingfoundation.org or stop by the facility.
Kids summer camps led by certified teachers are also offered.
Bayside Center also has a public launch ramp for kayaks and standup paddle boards.
Fishermen/women, crabbers and birders also have programs available at the Bayside Center.
In addition, Bayside Center rents out meeting rooms for unique business functions and parties.
“If it has to do with the bay, we have something to offer pretty much everyone,” Forrest said.