OCEAN CITY, N.J. — Truth be told, Joe Falco was thinking about a few places he would rather have been on Saturday morning than sitting on a bench on a boardwalk that was so crowded by bike riders, joggers, and walkers that those on the wooden way needed to stay in their designated activity lane to avoid getting run over.
"I really hate it when it's like this here," said Falco, 74, a retired school principal from Sewell, on the dawn of the three-day Memorial Day holiday weekend, the official opening of the Jersey Shore season. He decided to sit out his family's annual sampling of beloved boardwalk treats. "Too many people, too noisy for me. I like to come on a weekday when there's practically no one here. This is way too crazy for me."
But for Falco's wife, Kathy, 75, whom he first met on a nearby beach nearly 60 years ago, there was "nothing but love, love, love," as she strolled along in search of breakfast with grandchildren Jackson and Rory Filinuk, of Mantua, Gloucester County, 14-year-old fraternal twins.
"What's there to hate? The worst thing that can happen is there's no sun," said Kathy Falco, a retired kindergarten teacher. "This is paradise to me. It's so peaceful and quiet here. I love it."
So does Kieran Shea, 51, a novelist from Annapolis, Md., who grew up in Manasquan and is visiting the Jersey Shore with his wife and some friends for the weekend.
"We wait all winter for this. … It's beautiful here," Shea said, on a day where sun was plentiful and the high reached into the mid-70s.
It may have been beautiful — and only Memorial Day weekend — but Ocean City summer resident Michelle Orris, 53, of Chester County's Chester Springs, said she was already over the "day trippers" invading the town.
"I'm tired of the people who come here and seem to have no respect for the place. When you see it this crowded, and all of a sudden you can't find a parking space, it kind of makes you wish for Labor Day," Orris said.
And so goes the love-hate relationship that people, often within the same family, have with the Jersey Shore, a 127-mile-long coastal visitor mecca that draws nearly a billion people a year. The Shore significantly helped add $40 billion in tourism revenue to the state's economy in 2016. Tourism statewide employs more than half a million people and is New Jersey's sixth-largest employer.
But in a state that has long been the butt of stand-up comedians' jokes — and two years ago garnered a minus-10 percent rating when New Jersey came in last in a State of the States Poll conducted by YouGov.org — there may be some hits to be taken.
"New Jersey, and the Shore in particular, is like a naturally occurring experiment in human stress," said Frank Farley, a Temple University behavioral psychologist. "People love it or hate it, have very different perceptions of the same place for different reasons."
"We're funneling a lot of people into a small space under a condition — like vacations and holidays — of high expectation. It can get expensive. And if those expectations aren't met, it can be stressful instead of restorative," Farley said.
Then there's the weather, which can make or break the beach experience. The holiday weekend will be a mixed bag, with more sun and high temperatures in the mid-60s expected Sunday, followed by showers and possible thunderstorms Monday, warming into the 70s.
New Jersey beaches are where trash, hypodermic needles, and other debris washed ashore in the late 1980s from a barge carting trash out of New York City. And where a few years later, large tar balls had to be removed after a freighter in the Delaware Bay leaked oil into the water as it made its way from Philadelphia.
This is the land of $10-a-day beach tags, where the fee to park Saturday at a municipal parking lot near the Ocean City boardwalk was $20, a 16-ounce bottle of water costs $4, and a takeout hamburger, soda, and fries on the boardwalk will set you back nearly $20.
And that's in a visitor-friendly town.
Some beach communities — mostly in areas along the northern part of the coast — seem to limit visitor access by charging more than double that amount for a beach tag, offering limited places to park and few basic amenities like public restrooms.
"The only way to enjoy the Shore is to have a cash register around your neck," said longtime Ocean City visitor Vince Benedict, 76, of Collegeville, Montgomery County.
Benedict said he was particularly bothered by beach-tag fees and was "pained" to see "families of modest means come to the Shore for a day trip and have to shell out large amounts of money to simply sit on the sand and walk in the water."
"Why can't the proprietors add a dime to what they overcharge for a pizza slice or a soda and do away with the beach-tag fee? Say what you will about the crazies in California, at least all the beaches are free," Benedict said.
As they are in Strathmere, which is among the reasons Bob Cordrey, 64, of Wilmington, likes going to Upper Township's hidden-in-plain-sight beachfront, where his family has owned a home for 30 years.
Regulars in Strathmere often eschew notoriety. In the 1990s, residents unsuccessfully petitioned township officials to leave the town's name off a new water tower. Souvenir T-shirts sum up the sentiment with the rhetorical question: Where the hell is Strathmere?
"No beach tags and just a quiet, laid-back atmosphere," Cordrey said. "It's really a different kind of place than the rest of the Shore, but we really don't like to talk too much about that."
That's how Melissa Nyce, 45, of Green Lane, Montgomery County, sees her favorite little patch of sand on the northern end of Sea Isle City.
"This is what we love about the Shore," said Nyce, sweeping her arms out in front of her toward the waterfront. "Everybody is down in the center of town. We like it up here where nobody is."
Love it or hate it, travel experts contend that 2017 is already shaping up to be a banner year at the Shore, said Michael Busler, a professor of business studies at Stockton University in Galloway Township.