I’ve lived in Manhattan for 30 years, and I’ve tried all the great escapes, from Fire Island (my original favorite beach), to the Hamptons (too snooty and too much traffic), to the North Shore (still too much traffic), and eventually upstate to Woodstock, which became the favorite summer destination for many years (so much so I bought a house there). But over the years I grew weary of the 90-minute drive to Woodstock, so for the last decade, I’ve been going to Long Branch, ever since I learned how to transport myself from Manhattan to this palm-tree studded five-star oasis, where I can stay for $330 a night, and my total travel expenses are $70, and that includes the cost of transporting me and two kids. And the best part is getting there without setting foot near a single car-choked highway.
I might be ruining my little secret, but if you’re looking for a quick and easy escape from the steamy streets of New York City this summer, I highly recommend jumping on the Seastreak Ferry at 35th Street and the East River (or South Street Seaport). The ride alone is worth the price of admission, as you’ll pass under four bridges on your way to the Jersey Shore 30 minutes away. If you don’t want to spend the night in a five-star hotel, just get off at the first stop (Sandy Hook), where you can walk, bicycle or ride a free bus to one of five immaculate beaches, and the northern-most one has amazing views of New York. It’s the least populated of all the Sandy Hook beaches, so you never run into the sort of crowds you find at Coney Island. And you don’t have to sit in a subway train for an hour.
Sandy Hook was a hideout for pirates when this country was founded, and it has numerous sheltered sandy coves perfect for stashing treasure. There’s even a dog beach on the southwestern side walking distance from the ferry. (You’ll need a carrier to bring a pet on board the boat.) If you get off at Sandy Hook, be sure and return around 4 PM to catch the last ferry back to New York City. Amazingly, the ferry is free for children from Monday to Friday. This has to be one of the last great freebies left in New York.
But if one afternoon at a spectacular beach isn’t enough, I recommend staying on board until the ferry docks at Highlands, the closest town to Sandy Hook, and located directly beneath the highest point on the North American eastern seaboard (see photo left), a strategic lookout for ships moving in and out of New York harbor for a century or more, and no doubt once an important site for Native American vision questing. An enormous condo complex now squats on the highest point.
You can bring a bicycle on the ferry for an extra $10 round-trip and ride along the boardwalk all the way down to Ocean Place Resort, a distance of eight miles. But you can also call a local cab service as you board the ferry, and they’ll have a cab meet you at the dock when you land. The short cab ride is $13, with an additional dollar for each additional rider, making a total round-trip travel expense $66.
If you want to spend $360 a night, the photo at left shows the view from your private balcony (ask for southern exposure if you want a sun-drenched view of the outdoor pool or northern exposure if you just want to see some spectacular sunsets from your balcony). This is about as crowded as the massive outdoor pool gets on a week-day. The hotel also has its own private beach and one of the best local surf breaks. If you book a lower floor with limited view, you can get the week-day price for a room down to $330 a night plus tax. Note the Tiki bar surrounded by palm trees and below that, red canopies that shelter the outdoor restaurant. There’s also an indoor pool and hot tub located inside the spa (the building in the upper right of the photo). The hotel basically replicates a Miami Beach experience without having to get on a plane. The edge of Pier Village can be seen in the upper right, a popular Jersey Shore tourist destination for high-end shops. There’s a decent restaurant called Avenue right on the boardwalk, and a great homemade chocolate shop that sells caramel apples and frozen chocolate bananas, among many other treats. The chocolate shop is the most popular place in Pier Village.
Room service at Ocean Place is decent, and the resort has a variety of restaurants and bars sprinkled throughout the property. I like to get my coffee and bagels at the local bakery in Pier Village, because it costs a fraction of room service, and I typically buy cheap lunches at the Mexican supermarket three blocks away in downtown Long Branch, where Mexican cokes go for $1.50. As soon as you leave the hotel and walk west, you realize you’re in a ghetto and many houses and storefronts along the route are empty and abandoned. I imagine someday this area will rebound because it’s so close to New York City and has such an amazing beach. Bob Dylan was picked up wandering around this area looking into windows of long abandoned properties, perhaps seeking inspiration from faded memories lingering inside. Someone called the local cops to report his “suspicious behavior.” The cops didn’t believe his story and since he wasn’t carrying any money or ID, they brought him back to Ocean Place, where the staff identified him as The Bob Dylan.
If you want to maximize your money and experience, depart on Monday and return on Thursday. You’ll be traveling against the rush hour tides, and never have to deal with crowds, either on the ferry or at the hotel. But if you want to party, things do pick up considerably during the weekends.