Other than a tiring subway ride to Riis Park or Coney Island or the long ride by train or an auto trip to the Hamptons or even traveling further on to Provincetown, Massachusetts, the quickest escape by far from New York City to a white-sand beach and the Atlantic Ocean by car, bus, or rail would be to head straight to Ocean Grove, New Jersey – a glorious one-mile square Victorian town-by-the-sea.
Ocean Grove is a real back-in-time capsule. Similar to Greenwich Village and other neighborhoods that are designated as ‘historic’, it must be seen and experienced first hand to be savored and enjoyed with a sense of the wonder of what was and is that is still pertinent to today. The wonder of this magical seashore resort is to be found in its turn-of-the-century Victorian architecture that includes quaint and charming bric-a-brac houses (many are summer rentals) and weekend or by-the-week-rentals at amazing bed and breakfast hotels.
It was founded by Methodists in 1869 as a summer camp-meeting resort. An advertising brochure of the era promised spiritual salvation and even salt-air cures for the sickly and infirm. Today many New York upwardly mobile types have taken up residence or own summer homes there. This unique seaside destination is an easy day-trip getaway; but if you want to stay the night, weekend or longer there are some quaint, charming hotels and B&B’s to check into.
At the north end of the boardwalk a visitor will find an array of interesting shops while at the south end is a fishing pier. Adjacent to the pier are rooms for changing into bathing attire and showers; open-air showers are also on the beach itself. There are rental beach umbrellas but you must bring along your own towels and a blanket. Main Avenue which runs through the center of town has many boutique and gift shops selling souvenirs, postcards and novelty items specializing in fancy imported soaps as well as best-seller novels and bios and Jersey seashore history and travel books.
The centerpiece of the town is Nagles Apothecary Café at 43 Main Avenue (732 776-9797). Previously an old drugstore and soda fountain (originally established in 1901), it was recently refurbished by new owners who have put on display the vintage advertising signs, drugstore products like toothpaste and sunburn lotion, old medicine bottles, remedy boxes and incorporated many of the original fixtures from years gone by that they found in the cellar covered with dust. Home cooked American style or egg-platter/sandwich lunches are reasonable in price. Try tasty grilled hamburger served with French fries with a malted milk. There are two fine bakeries on Main Street, an outdoor-indoor pizza parlor and a seafood restaurant. A block away on Pitman Avenue is another ice-cream parlor called Day’s with an open air garden and charming table set-ups all across from a shady park.
Ocean Grove was designated landmark status by the New Jersey Registry of Historic Places and is also a National Historic Monument. The focal point of the town in summer is the Great Auditorium on Pilgrim Pathway, over 100 years old. It is a huge 6,000 seat wooden structure with wide open-air doorways, the largest pipe organ on the Eastern seaboard and perfect natural acoustics. There are top acts throughout the summer, like Michael Feinstein, Tony Bennett, K. T. Sullivan, Johnny Mathis and the popular Doo Wop concerts and the Glenn Miller or Sammy Kaye traveling orchestras playing the songs of World War II. All of this at reasonably low ticket prices. There are patriotic bands and religious rock ‘n’ roll groups at the end of which a giant American flag lights up with folks singing “God Bless America” or “America the Beautiful.” There are Sunday services at the Auditorium and in past years, special speakers such as Bishop Fulton J. Sheen or Dale Evans were invited to preach the gospel. Summer events include silent film screenings accompanied by the grand organ and special concerts as part of the season, many of them offered free to the public. The Auditorium was given a large white neonized cross by Woody Allen after he filmed “Stardust Memories” in the Grove. One of the highlights in town, especially when lit from within at night is the 114 summer tent-houses that surround the Auditorium.
A favorite vacation spot is the old-fashioned House By The Sea, a hotel that faces the ocean at 14 Ocean Avenue. Owned and operated by Sally and Alyn Heim, it is filled with original Victorian objects d’art, antique music machines and a striking grandfather clock. The lobby sitting room is decorated with beautiful Tiffany style lamps, some with nautical themes, and the downstairs breakfast and television room has a full set of Art Deco bamboo lounge furniture. Bedrooms are sparkling clean with overhead ceiling fans and there are three open air porches which provide sea breezes as you sit in a wicker rocking chair looking out to sea or perhaps reading a favorite book. Call House By The Sea at (732) 774-4771 or email email@example.com
Another B&B is The Melrose at 34 Seaview Avenue which is two blocks from the ocean and next to a park that overlooks Wesley Lake and Asbury Park. Randy Bishop who owns and runs the hotel is also the Town Mayor. The place is open year-round and you can bring along your small dog. Excellent breakfasts are served here and like the rest of the Inns in the ‘The Grove’, the place is ‘gay friendly’! Call (800) 378-9004 for rates and reservations. Some prefer the Quaker Inn which is in the busiest section of town at 39 Main Street or you can check out the Lillagaard B&B, 5 Abbott Avenue, or The Shawmont at 17 Ocean Avenue. All are highly recommended. For more information contact the Ocean Grove Chamber of Commerce which will send you a full package of brochures and a calendar of summer events. (732) 774-1391.
For a change of pace you may want to stroll up the Boardwalk or across one of the bridges to Asbury Park especially for some nightlife adventures. Asbury Park is having a major comeback with the main drag – Cookman Avenue – filled with new restaurants, bars and interesting shops, including a major antique center. The Stone Pony is where Bruce Springsteen began his “Born To Run” Jersey boy rock ‘n’ roll career and he still performs there. A hot spot in honky tonk Asbury for gays is the Paradise Disco and swimming pool complex which includes The Empress Hotel if you want to spend the night – (732) 774-0100 or www.asburyempress.com. The Empress was the place Judy Garland stayed after singing at the Garden State Art Center; it is rumored she neglected to pay the bill. A top-of-the-line dining experience in Asbury Park in an old time mansion on Wesley Lake is Moonstruck at 517 Lake Avenue – (732) 988-0123. The place to stay in Asbury is the Art Deco Berkeley Carteret Hotel, a spacious landmark constructed in 1925 at 1401 Ocean Avenue (732) 776-6700.
For a day trip or a longer stay take the North Jersey Coast rail line at Penn Station (New Jersey Transit info call (973) 275-5555 or www.njtransit.com.) The trip takes about one hour and fifteen minutes and you can easily walk into town from the station where there are also inexpensive taxis. For a day trip you can stay on late – the last train returning to New York from Asbury Park/Ocean Grove (they share the train stop) is at 12:01 AM weekends and weekdays. To travel by auto from Greenwich Village take the Holland Tunnel to the N. J. Turnpike and enter the Garden State Parkway at Woodbridge just before the Raritan River crossing. Continue down the Parkway to exit 100A to route 33 and into Ocean Grove. If scenic backroad travel is your thing, check a New Jersey highway map. For bus info call Port Authority Bus Terminal – 8th Ave between 40th and 42nd – (212) 564-8484. A quick getaway Jersey Jaunt to unwind at the Jersey Shore in July or August may be just the thing to cure the Big City Blues.
Robert Heide (originally from New Jersey) and John Gilman (originally from Honolulu) have co-authored three books on New Jersey. They are: “O’ New Jersey – Eateries, Daytripping, Back Roads, Funky Adventures” (published by St. Martin’s Griffin, New York and edited by Jim Fitzgerald), “Backroads of New Jersey” (MBI Publishing, Minneapolis), and “New Jersey – Art of the State” (Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, New York).