No room at the inn. That was the answer I received from every hotel I called when I tried to book last-minute weekend rooms at the Jersey Shore. I had tickets for a Steely Dan/Elvis Costello concert at the PNC Bank Arts Center for Saturday night and, with American Pharoah running in the Haskell on Sunday at Monmouth Park, I thought a weekend at the Shore was a good idea.
So did everyone else on the East Coast.
By Thursday, I was desperate and ready to abandon my plans. After striking out with the hotels, I tried Airbnb and FlipKey; no luck there either but one of the owners I’d contacted suggested trying the b&bs in Ocean Grove. I didn’t even know where Ocean Grove was, but I started cold-emailing and was excited to get a “yes” to the question: “Do you have a room?”
Turns out it was twin beds, on the third floor, with a shared bath in a historic (1894) boarding house. That’s right. Shared bath. Think dorm. But at $135 a night, how could I go wrong?
I love spending lazy days at Belmar or Long Branch. And whoofing down fried Oreos in Wildwood before hopping on a coaster is a summer must. But as I pulled into Ocean Grove, I channeled the Talking Heads, thinking “This is not my Jersey Shore.” There was no calliope clang, neon assault, people parade. The town, founded as a Methodist resort community in the late 1800’s, bills itself as “God’s Square Mile”. Unloading the car, I felt like I was standing inside a church.
Instead of a ferris wheel, the dominant structure is the Great Auditorium, a 6,000 seat hall with regularly scheduled worship services and entertainment. Bracketing the auditorium are adorable canvas tents. Over 100 of them are erected each summer and serve as seasonal residences for the lucky campers who apply and are accepted. The rest of the streets are lined with meticulously maintained Victorian homes. Waterfalls of blooms spill from lush window boxes, the grass is so thick that you trip over it, and every bit of gingerbread trim looks freshly painted.
Naturally, I was suspicious.
Was this some type of Stepford town, where the residents turn into vampires at dusk? Or do they gather up the tourists and stone them to death on the beach?
Um. No. They’re just really nice people who don’t sell booze.
Ocean Grove’s a dry town. Bill, the owner of The Albatross informed me when I checked in and asked about a good dinner spot. He recommended the SeaGrass, stating “You can bring your own, if you want, or walk over to Asbury.”
As in Park. A short walk north on the boardwalk takes you to the mouth of the derelict Asbury Park Casino. Once a grand amusement arcade, the structure is a rehab work in progress. This was a much more likely site for a vampire attack, but I boldly strode on. I smelled garlic so I figured I was safe.
Emerging from the mouth of the casino, I found the source of the garlic: a terrific stretch of restaurants right along the boardwalk. I chose Cubacan because it had the shortest wait; the food was good, the drinks cold, and the service? What you’d expect at a busy seaside restaurant on a Friday night in August.
Before returning to heaven, I decided to look for some trouble in Sin City. I couldn’t resist popping into the Stone Pony, the city’s famous bar and music club (you may know it as the place where a guy named Springsteen has played fairly regularly since 1974). Autographed guitars line the walls and there’s a large dance space in front of the band to get some steps on your Fitbit.
Despite Asbury’s reputation as a high crime area, I felt safe wandering around the streets thanks to a highly visible police presence. And the next morning, I was happy to find the noisy, crowded beach that I expect at the Shore. It truly was a blessing. Because the Ocean Grove beach is closed until noon on Sundays.
Sometimes naughty beats nice.
Stay: The Albatross Hotel is a 40-room boarding house located steps from the beach in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. A variety of room types with shared or private baths are available. Room rates include a continental breakfast and the large porch is a great spot to enjoy the breeze and a book.
Eat: If you prefer a hot breakfast, the Starving Artist is an excellent choice in Ocean Grove. Try a side of pork roll, if you’ve never had it. It’s like fried bologna. Next to the cafe is Days Ice Cream; I recommend skipping lunch and having a sundae at this popular joint. Restaurants in Ocean Grove, like SeaGrass are BYOB. On the Asbury boardwalk, you can’t go wrong with Stella Marina (Italian) or Cubacan.
Do: Both towns have lifeguard patrolled beaches. Day passes are $7 on the weekend in Asbury; Ocean Grove’s is $8 (but The Albatross sells them for $5). The PNC Arts Center is 1/2 hour drive from the beach and features headliners in an open-air amphitheater. The Stone Pony is a must-see institution. But check the website before you go to see if a performance is scheduled that requires advance tickets. You can buy them through Ticketmaster or sweet talk the bouncer. Your call. For wholesome entertainment, you can’t beat Ocean Grove. They have a full calendar of concerts, classes, contests, and more, that are open to the public.