You never fully appreciate a place until you leave. That’s how I feel about my hometown, Point Pleasant, New Jersey. Growing up on the Jersey Shore, just 90 minutes south of New York City, I took for granted simple summer pleasures like weekly fireworks displays, sunset surfing, messy crab dinners at waterfront seafood shacks, and mini golf and boardwalk arcade games. After years in Manhattan, I viewed the Shore as the ugly stepsister to the Hamptons. We had great beaches but lacked an infusion of New York City cool and creativity. After Hurricane Sandy walloped the Jersey coast, in 2012, something changed. Shore towns didn’t just recover, they reinvented themselves. Five years later, coastal communities stretching from Asbury Park (Bruce Springsteen’s favorite haunt) down to the artsy town of Bay Head have come into their own with the opening of art galleries, indie boutiques, craft breweries, and farm-to-table restaurants. Just a train ride away from the city, or a drive down the Garden State Parkway, these Shore towns make me proud to be a Jersey Girl.
Of all the Shore towns, Asbury Park has been the biggest comeback kid post–Hurricane Sandy. Made famous by Springsteen and his 1973 debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, this funky seaside town has ebbed and flowed through periods of revival but finally hit its renaissance moment thanks to an infusion of creativity (and cash). The beautiful old convention hall where Springsteen used to practice has been renovated, the boardwalk is lined with artsy boutiques and cool bars, and the town’s music scene is more vibrant than ever.
Where to Stay
The 2016 opening of The Asbury, a boutique property from David Bowd of Salt Hotels, has been a game changer for the Shore. Just two blocks from the beach, the 110-room hotel has a mix of king, queen, and bunk rooms, and a boardwalk-inspired lobby features pinball machines and ping-pong tables. Guests can lounge by the pool, which hosts DJs on weekends. At night, the rooftop transforms into a drive-in-style movie theater, projecting cult films on a 20-foot wall. Bowd is planning to open a second hotel next year.
Where to Eat
“Peace, Love and Pancakes” is the mantra at Toast, a favorite breakfast spot that serves decadent flapjacks (try the carrot cake variety) as well as savory dishes such as crab hash and huevos rancheros. Newcomer Cardinal has an all-day breakfast menu of chicken and waffles and eggs and greens, and it offers lunch dishes like fish tacos and quinoa veggie bowls. It also makes the best nitro cold brew in town. Bring a group to Pascal & Sabine, so you can share the large-format punch bowls that pair excellently with the French-brasserie-style menu of coq au vin and steak frites. Moonstruck is the ultimate date spot. The seasonal menu of dishes like honey-roasted fig bruschetta with ricotta and grilled peach salad is always solid. The setting—in an old, Victorian-style home overlooking Wesley Lake, with live piano music—makes this venue romantic in all the right ways.
Where to Drink
Inspired by the beer halls of Europe, the Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten serves more than 60 local and hard-to-find imported beers alongside a Bavarian-influenced menu of beer-steamed mussels and Wiener schnitzel. On the boardwalk, the Asbury Park Yacht Club has a Brooklyn-meets-beach vibe and free live music. The back of the bar features a hybrid surf shop–art gallery, Lightly Salted Surf Mercado.
Where to Shop
Hunt for vinyl treasures at Hold Fast Records. The Market, housed within Convention Hall, and its sister shop, Storehouse, located in the Fourth Avenue Pavilion, are both collectives of local artists and designers where you can find beach photos by Claudia Chloe, waxed canvas totes by Peg and Awl, and beachy rompers from Interwoven.
What to Do
The Asbury Park beach is great for people watching. Badges cost $5 during the week and $7 on weekends. Wax nostalgic for your favorite childhood video games at the Silverball Museum Arcade, which features classics such as Pac-Man and old-school Skee-Ball. Shuffleboard, a favorite pastime of Florida retirees, has been hipsterfied at Upper Deck Shuffleboard Club, where awesome cocktails like the Smoked Pear and snacks like beet sliders fuel players. Visit downtown galleries like Exhibit No. 9 and Parlor Gallery. Seeing a live show is part of the Asbury experience. Check the lineups at Wonder Bar, the House of Independents, the Paramount Theater, Convention Hall, and the legendary rock club the Stone Pony.
Summer rentals in Manasquan can look more like fraternity houses, with beer-pong and corn-hole setups littering front yards. But once you drive inland a few blocks from the beach, you can escape the post-college crowd and find a year-round Shore community with family operated shops and restaurants, bike trails, and a performing arts theater.
Where to Stay
The Inn on Main has 12 residential-style rooms and a prime location downtown. All of the rooms, except No. 202, have fireplaces (necessary come fall) and guests are one floor above Blend, a locavore-minded restaurant that serves three meals a day.
Where to Eat
There are some mornings when an avocado juice just won’t do. That’s when you head to the Committed Pig, a “burger and pancake house” that serves brunch daily until 5 p.m. Find comfort in carbs with an order of Nutella-stuffed French toast and experience Jersey’s signature meat (pork roll) on a sandwich filled with a fried egg, jalapeños, and three types of cheese. Coffee snobs can get their discerning caffeine fix at August & Scout. Grab gourmet salads, sandwiches, and beach snacks at Center Food Market or satisfy your Cali-Mexican cravings at Surf Taco. For Sopranos-worthy Jersey Italian, hit Squan Tavern.
Where to Shop
Rare Cargo and its sister boutique, Rare Cargo West, carry summer fashion staples, such as bikinis, beach bags, and breezy summer sundresses, from brands like Lani and Zacasha. Waterlily Shop has a well-curated selection of women’s clothing and accessories, including bikinis from Maui brand Acacia and fringe sandals from Cocobelle for L*Space. A day at the beach requires a good book, which can be found at BookTowne. The tiny bookstore features opinionated staff picks and hosts author readings.
What to Do
Daily beach badges cost $9. Paddle Out rents stand-up paddleboards and kayaks and also leads tours of the Glimmer Glass, a tidal inlet of the Manasquan River. The Manasquan Inlet produces great surf, especially come end of summer. Cure your blue crush at Inlet Outlet, an indie surf shop that rents boards and offers surf lessons. Check your culture box with a performance at the Algonquin Arts Theater. Originally opened in 1938 as a first-run movie house, the 500-seat theater now puts on Broadway hits like Guys and Dolls and West Side Story as well as concerts.
Point Pleasant Beach
A mile-long boardwalk—lined with arcades, mini golf, old-school fudge shops, batting cages, and rides—draws summer crowds to Point Pleasant Beach. But head inward, and you’ll discover an inlet of commercial fishing boats that supply the area’s restaurants and a vibrant downtown that supports a year-round community.
Where to Eat
For just-off-the-boat seafood, head to Spike’s Fish Market or Shore Fresh Seafood Market & Restaurant, located on one of the few remaining fishermen’s co-ops in New Jersey. Both are no frills and BYOB. At Red’s Lobster Pot, you can dine dockside and watch the fishing boats unload the daily catch while noshing on simple dishes like Jersey steamers and peel-’n-eat shrimp. Inside, a more refined menu featuring crabmeat-stuffed lobster tails and Lobster Fra Diavolo is served at 12 cozy tables. A post-beach dish of Hoffman’s Ice Cream is a must and worth the unavoidable wait. The ice cream institution has been making 40-odd flavors like Coconut Joy and Coffee Oreo onsite since 1976.
Where to Drink
This summer, downtown Point Pleasant Beach has welcomed Last Wave Brewing Co., a nano-brewery from two local surfers. The tap room showcases around 10 beers, ranging from a Right Coast Coconut Porter to the A-Frame Hazy Wheat IPA. Food isn’t served, but can be brought in, and growlers of your favorite brew can be ordered to go. Last Wave is also served up the road at Amendment 21, a speakeasy-inspired craft cocktail and beer bar with 40 brews on tap and a menu of comfort foods like German bierhaus pretzels and pork carnitas nachos. The North Inlet Bar at Jenkinson’s Boardwalk is still largely a local secret. Head here to sip cocktails with your toes in the sand.
Where to Shop
Skip the boardwalk souvenir shops and drive five minutes inland to Arnold Avenue, home to dozens of independent boutiques. You’ll want to buy your own beach cottage just so you can furnish it with stylish, Shore-inspired homewares from Stella e Luna. The store also stocks clothing, such as Debbie Katz tunics, and jewelry, like beach-sand bangles from Dune. Don’t miss the upstairs gallery, featuring seascapes by artist Jim Inzero. Sunshine Daydream specializes in affordable, handmade jewelry and two-year-old House and Closet carries ethical fashions and sustainable furnishings. Family-run Gordon’s Surf Shop can take care of all your surf needs, from ding repairs to bikinis, while Brave New World offers one of the area’s largest selections of surfboards.
What to Do
Jenkinson’s Boardwalk has the most amenities of nearly any beach on the Shore. Badges cost $9 during the week and $10 on weekends. Chairs and umbrellas are available to rent, and use of the changing rooms and showers in the Pavilion Bathhouse costs $4. Friday through Monday mornings, Carrie Godesky, owner of Twisted Guru beach yoga mats, holds a popular, donation-based yoga class at Inlet Beach at the north end of Jenkinson’s. If you crave a night out, Jenk’s Club hosts some of the area’s top tribute bands, including a Shore favorite, Bon wannabes Slippery When Wet. And every Thursday night throughout the summer, Jenkinson’s puts on a fireworks show.
The tiny town of Bay Head embodies summer from a simpler time. Cruiser bikes are the vehicle of choice to get from beach to barbecue, kids still set up lemonade stands on street corners (though they charge a fair amount more than 25 cents) and families spend lazy afternoons crabbing on the bay with chicken-baited lines. Post-Sandy, the town has shed its exclusive, buttoned-up, yacht club vibe thanks to an influx of creatives who’ve returned home to open galleries, boutiques, and buzzy restaurants.
Where to Eat
Locals and vacationers have a tradition of lining up at 6:30 a.m. on weekends to score thick squares of Mueller’s famous crumb cake. The bakery has been turning out homemade doughnuts, Danishes, breads, and cookies since 1890. But it’s the crumb cake—equal parts moist cake and icing-drizzled streusel—that sells out within hours. Playa Bowls serves beachgoers healthy, superfood-packed smoothies, bowls, and juices (try the Mermaid Fuel, a refreshing combo of kale, pineapple, apple, and mint), as well as locally roasted coffee from Coffee Surf Co. The owners go beyond the classic acai bowl and also offer bases made from dragon fruit (pitaya), raw coconut, chia pudding, and kale. Follow @nettuno_truck on Instagram to catch this mobile, Amalfi Coast–inspired restaurant serving lobster rolls, fresh-off-the-boat seared scallops, and other sea-to-street eats. For years, cocktails were relegated to backyard barbecues in Bay Head. But the recent opening of Charlie’s finally gives the town a restaurant with a liquor license. Instantly the hub of Bay Head nightlife, Charlie’s bar features 20 craft beers on tap, while the more formal dining room serves a seafood-centric menu of drunken clams, ahi poke, fresh flounder, and Alaskan king crab legs punctuated by hearty meat dishes like bone-in ribeye and herb marinated double-cut lamb chops. Time your reservation to sunset and request a table on the outdoor deck overlooking Twilight Lake.
Where to Shop
In 2015, clothing designer Wendy Dinneen opened Del Mar East, a Bohemian boutique with a tightly edited selection of her favorite global finds, such as tassel earrings from Rhode Island jeweler Heidi Brueggeman, open-weave baskets crafted in Rwanda and Ghana, and Soludos espadrilles. This summer, Dinneen opened Del Mar Norte, a dollhouse-size shop located just behind her flagship that’s dedicated to beach necessities, good reads, international newspapers, and a menswear selection that she describes as “anti-Vineyard Vines,” featuring brands like Tom & Teddy, the Normal Brand, and Sol Angeles. Jersey Shore native and Rhode Island School of Design grad Maie Vaga returned home to open Noon Design Shop, a showcase of American jewelry, home goods, letterpress cards, and artwork. She recently added an organic espresso bar to the shop. Next door, Maie’s sister, ceramicist Alexandra Vaga Fallon, can be seen firing up one of three kilns in her gallery and production shop, Source and Tradition.
What to Do
Pedestrian-friendly East Avenue is a local favorite for morning jogs and bikes rides. Daily beach badges cost $8 and must be purchased at the Bay Head Improvement Association’s office at 532 Lake Avenue. Beaches are minimalist, free of food vendors, showers, and restroom facilities. The Vaga sisters collaborate to throw free monthly exhibitions featuring local artists like Scott Szegeski, who specializes in gyotaku, a Japanese form of fish printing. Live music, Dark n’ Stormys, and bites including mini lobster rolls and wood-fired pizzas guarantee a crowd.