I absolutely love New York City. This city is definitely be a place I could see myself settling down in (Brooklyn in particular), giving the nomad inside of me a break. However, spending so much time in a big, fast-paced city like New York drains also a lot of energy out of me. Coming to think about it – I haven’t spent that much time in a city since leaving London in April 2010! No wonder that even this city girl has some readjustment issues 🙂
Rushing to and from meetings again, to networking events, visiting friends in other parts of town – somehow I always find myself on the go in New York. And while I was running to catch a subway the other day, traversing thick traffic on Broadway, making my way through the crowds on the sidewalk, I realized that I was in urgent need for a break from the city. One thing that I love about living in New York though is how close it is to nature – beaches and mountain getaways are only a stone’s throw away.
My list of places I’d love to visit around New York is already longer than the list of places I’d like to see in all of Europe (okay, I might be exaggerating here) and there’s no way I’ll get to see even just a handful of them before I leave, but one place that was high up on my list was the Jersey Shore.
I had heard tales of beautiful sandy beaches from Jerseyans and New Yorkers alike, and was curious to see if they really lived up to the glowing picture people painted of them. After all, everything I had known about the shores of Jersey was what I had seen on a certain TV show, and that place didn’t look very idyllic and enticing.
When I was invited to a beach day by some friends, including a Jersey girl with a car and four bikes, I didn’t have to think about it but started right away to throw my sarong, my bikini and some other things in my bag. Her suggestion was to visit Sandy Hook, a super thin peninsula that juts up into the Lower New York Bay and borders the Atlantic Ocean on the far northwestern end of New Jersey.
We sped off towards the coast, and as soon as the ocean came into sight I couldn’t believe that this was the Jersey Shore. Little white sailboats were softly swaying in the bright blue water, and rolling sand dunes were separating the lush green holly forests from the golden sand beaches.
We parked the car at the northern tip of the peninsula, where you still find remnants of the old army base of Fort Hancock and the oldest continuously operating lighthouse in the U.S., dating back to 1764. Fort Hancock used to be a significant army base because it was in charge of protecting the New York harbor from 1895 to 1919. The military structures, most of which are still intact, include gun batteries and army barracks, and later even Nike Missiles as well as missile bunkers which were installed during Project Nike, a line-of-sight anti-aircraft missile system developed during the Cold War, to protect the Greater New York area.
While the missiles feel strangely out of place in what has become a popular getaway for beach bums like me, but also for bird watchers (there are over 300 species of birds on this tiny headland!) and nature enthusiasts, they played an important part in the history of Sandy Hook and are now included in the National Register Of Historic Places.
After a quick ride around the army barracks, we set off on the five-mile bike/roller blade/walking path that is trailing through the forests and the salt marshes along the beaches and the long golden stretches of pristine beaches. You can basically cycle almost the entire length of the Sandy Hook barrier spit, which is only 6 miles (9.7 km) long and at a width of 0.1 to 1 mile (0.16 to 1.61 km), you’re always close to the beaches on both sides.
Sandy Hook is not only popular with beach goers, but also with fishermen. We saw dozens of them sitting relaxed in their foldable chairs, their fishing rod sticking in the sand in front of them, waiting for something to bite.
If you are more active, you can also spend the day hiking through the dunes and forests – there are several hiking paths beginning at Area M near Nine Gun Battery, the Spermaceti Cove Lifesaving Station and at the entrance to the Recreational Area – pick up a brochure that details the trails when you enter the park.
Water sports fans will of course find everything they could possibly wish for, from canoeing and kayaking to wind surfing and kite surfing. You could also just park your car at the far northern end of the peninsula and have a picnic at North Beach, from where you’ll see New York City’s skyline glimmering in the distance.
For me, the beach day could not have been better. Having laughs with good friends and combining a workout (the cycling) with tanning was exactly my kind of day. We cycled, stopped at various beaches, tanned, watched the nudists at Gunnison Beach (just kidding – they are a little bit further down from the normal beach; but Gunnison Beach is in fact the only optional clothing beach in all of New Jersey!), cycled further, stopped for a picnic, watched the fishermen, and finally decided to turn around so that we’d make it back up north in time for the sunset.
How to get there
From New York City, you can take the Seastreak Ferry and it brings you to Sandy Hook in only 40 minutes! The ferry leaves from Pier 11/Wall Street or East 35th St./FDR and is $45 for a round-trip ticket (kids go free on weekdays, $17 on weekends). You can look up the ferry schedules here.
For cars, check the directions on the National Parks website.
Where to stay
There are a few B&Bs in the nearby town of Highlands, and you can camp in Sandy Hook. You can camp in the summer near the H parking lot.
Where to eat
During the summer months, there are some food trucks, but you’re better off bringing your own food and drinks. There are no restaurants inside the park, the closest ones are in Highland. If you bring a picnic, there is a great picnic area with tables on the North Beach Observation Deck – you have excellent views over the New York City skyline from here. If you’d like to have a barbeque, grilling is only allowed in Guardian Park in Fort Hancock.
What to bring
Make sure to bring cash, since there are no ATMs in Sandy Hook, and don’t forget your bathing suit, a towel, sun screen, water and your camera! If you are planning to camp here or stay for the sunset, bring mosquito repellent – the bugs attacked us like crazy once the sun started setting.
Tip: You can rent bikes right at the ferry pier at Ray’s Bike Rentals.