When there's a forest fire in New Jersey's Pine Barrens, the air smells of hot pitch, and a sense of tranquillity pervades everything. When there isn't, the Barrens -- the biggest open space between Boston and Washington, D.C. -- offer plenty of equally relaxing alternatives: scouring the woods for wildflowers, visiting Batsto Village, where Revolutionary War cannonballs were made from iron bogs, and walking through the Pygmy Pine forest near Route 72, where five-foot-tall trees make the forest line shorter than the average person. For the more active, the Pine Barrens also have the pristine Mullica River basin, hiking trails in Wharton State Forest, and dozens of places to rent canoes. Then take a culinary tour around the neighboring towns: Warren Grove (the pies at Lucille's), New Gretna (the French-fried lobster tail at Allen's Clam Bar), and Chatsworth (the Blueberry Hill pancakes at Janet's Main Street Cafe in the recently reopened Buzby's General Store, where John McPhee reportedly made his home base while writing The Pine Barrens). Saturday nights, the Pines offer sounds as well as sights and smells at Albert Music Hall in Waretown, where local acts like the Horner brothers and the Bennetts keep the raw, fiddle-heavy "Piney" folk-music tradition alive.
DETAILS Albert Music Hall, 609-971-1593; Lucille's Country Cooking, 609-698-4474; Buzby's General Store, 609-894-0300; Mick's Canoe, 609-726-1380, and Adams Canoe Rental, 609-268-0189 ($30 to $38 per canoe); for lodging, call the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce at 800-292-6372.