Take the kids for a weekend getaway to the bohemian enclave of Asbury Park on the New Jersey Shore delivers fun music, arcade, food, boardwalk and beach time – even in autumn.
By Maria De La O
Being a West Coaster, I’m always surprised in the way that the East Coast holds so tightly to its traditions. Whereas as a typical Californian I love going to places a little off-season to avoid the crowds, this has occasionally gotten me into trouble on the East Coast, where the beaches really do open up on Memorial Day and clear out Labor Day weekend. Go off-season, I’ve found out, and you risk having no place for a pit stop, much less a place to eat a bowl of clams.
Not so for Asbury Park, a revitalizing bohemian enclave on the Jersey Shore that perhaps due to its strong music history and DIY ethos, extends its beach season just a little longer than most with art walks, music festivals and Halloween treats. Kids will love the tiny waves and tiny clams. Adults will love the food and vintage seaside spirit.
Travelers: Alice, Maria and Vivi (4)
Date: 3 days in October 2017
Itinerary: Asbury Park, New Jersey
Budget: Cheaper than staying home.
The Good Stuff
Boardwalk Stroll Despite Hurricane Sandy, the classic wooden boardwalk in Asbury Park remains. Enjoy the kiddie splash park and mini golf, carny food kiosks, and people-watching along this less than a mile-long stretch, which also features upscale dining and some of the most famous music venues in the Tri-State area. Our walk culminated in the Silverball Museum, which features an inventory of 6,000 pinball machines from the 1950s on, as well as skeeball, air hockey and ’80s classics like Pac-man and Frogger. And if your family is up for a real hike, you can walk from Asbury Park through Ocean Grove to Bradley Beach.
Clamdiggers As the early October temperature was still in the low ’70s when we visited, it felt like warm summer days to my San Francisco child, and we couldn’t wait to hit the beach. The relatively calm waves (by Northern California standards) and beds of tiny clams we found provided hours of entertainment. Apparently a sign of a healthy beach, I’d never seen so many of these colorful clams, called coquinas, in California, and we delighted in watching them burrow into the sand between wave sets.
Donuts! We happened upon Purple Glaze Donuts on the edge of downtown and it proved a must-stop opportunity. Marrying retro junk food with a distinctly artisanal vibe and a rock ’n’ roll name, this place is pretty much the essence of Asbury Park for me. Featuring a large selection of both regular and vegan donuts, the tiny storefront location spotlights local jams and honey in its tasty treats and serves Asbury Roastery coffee for sleep-deprived parents.
Foodie Surprise In general, I didn’t hold out much hope for fresh, tasty food in New Jersey, but it turns out that Asbury Park has a thriving food scene. Some of our fav places were the lively Cubacan for modern Cuban cuisine on the boardwalk, High Voltage (also on the boardwalk and a second location near the train station) for coffee and healthful, organic salads and sandwiches (including avocado toast, which my daughter could pretty much eat for every meal), and breakfast place Cardinal, which makes a mean rosewater-scented ricotta toast, vegan “brekky” bowl and organic chicken and waffles.
Art Attack For a 1.2 square mile town, there’s quite a lot of art to enjoy here. Wander into any number of galleries downtown, or just take in the scene along the street and boardwalk. If you’re downtown on the first Saturday of the month, take in First Saturday, in which tattoo places, art galleries, clothing boutiques and antique shops stay open extra late, serving hors d’oeuvres and playing music for the masses.
Music Makers Although Bruce Springsteen actually grew up in Freehold, he will forever be associated with Asbury Park, as will Patti Smith, Bon Jovi and The Ramones, who all frequently played here in their early days. (Springsteen still pops up unannounced fairly often, if only for a beer at Wonder Bar.)
The scene isn’t just about the past though, with at least 10 big music venues as well as bars and restaurants that feature music most nights of the week. The Stone Pony and The Paramount, right along the boardwalk, are the big daddy venues where you’ll find the nationally known acts, followed by The Saint, the Asbury Park Yacht Club and the recently-reopened Asbury Lanes, which welcomes all ages and doubles as a bowling alley.
Going Vintage As you’ve probably realized by now, Asbury Park takes its history seriously, and there’s no shortage of vintage clothing stores and even a couple of old-school record stores downtown. Get the best of both worlds at Backward Glances or Sweet Joey’s, which both offer a huge selection of vintage band T-shirts. Don’t hold a grudge against your kids’ grandma for donating it to the Goodwill decades ago, get your replacement here.
The Not So Good
Luxe Development When we visited in 2017, we had to navigate around a large construction site to get to the beach. Turns out this site is the home of the new Asbury Ocean Club, a 17-story luxury condo development right on the beach that will dwarf everything else in town, where much of the architecture is still dominated by two-story Victorians and brick buildings. Sure, these million-dollar-plus condos will hopefully bring much-needed tax revenue to the city – especially to the west side of town, where just a few blocks inland from the beach many of the town’s African-American residents live in poverty – but really, a 17-story glass tower?
Good for Next Time
Surf + Music Unfortunately, we visited Asbury Park the year before the first Sea.Hear.Now Fest took place over two days in late September, featuring acts that ran the gamut from Social Distortion to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Not only is Sea.Hear.Now a multistage music fest that takes over a good part of the town, the party continues with surf competitions and an immersive art component. We’re definitely tuning up for next year.
Brains, Brains, Brains! When we visited during the first week of October, Asbury Park was gearing up for Zombie Walk, which is serious business around here. So serious, in fact, that the walk has set more than one Guinness World Record for zombies, and it just keeps getting bigger.
Good to Know
Where to Rest Your Heads & Feet We stayed with friends during our stay but there are many cool spots to stay in Asbury Park. Asbury Ocean Club is set to offer a boutique hotel as part of its development complex in 2019, but until then the premier hotspot is the Asbury Hotel where people gather in the lobby for nightly live music, at the outdoor movie theater and on the rooftop for artisanal cocktails. The recently restored Hotel Tides and the Empress Hotel, reportedly the state’s only LGBT-oriented hotel, are also popular options.