James Ruggia | November 13, 2015 3:24 PM ET
Friday Flashback: Greetings from Asbury Park
Editor’s note: TravelPulse features an editorial column from one of our editors on a rotating daily basis. Destinations Editor James Ruggia has traditionally held the Friday spot, making it his own and sharing his views as someone who has seen nearly every point on the globe and has a story to tell about them all. With our friend Jim being under the weather, we wanted to keep his Friday spot warm for him by bringing you this Jan. 16, 2015 column on his beloved Jersey Shore. We wish our friend the best for a speedy recovery and can’t wait to hear the next story from his travels.
Though Hurricane Sandy devastated the Jersey Shore it made a lot of us native New Jerseyans reconsider the role that the shore has played in so many of our lives. The different stages of my life are partially colored by what my favorite beach town was in any given period.
One spinning wheel on Keanesburg’s Boardwalk paid winners in their choice of Rock and Roll albums. I won several LPs by the Young Rascals that way and in 1969 I got to see them live at the Asbury Park Convention Center, still one of the highlights of my life.
Sandy got me to thinking that the Jersey Shore met the requirements of my personal UNESCO World Heritage List. While those beach towns may not constitute a cultural legacy or natural endowment “of outstanding value to humanity,” it was all of that, and more, for me.
It’s a region with its own cultural and historic integrity. As Brighton Beach is for London, the Jersey Shore is for New York and Philadelphia. And like Brighton, the historical pageant spans from Victorian promenaders to Rock and Roll legends. Along the shore, each town has a distinct flavor: serene Ocean Grove, rugged Barnegat Light, stately Cape May, raucous Seaside Heights and my favorite Asbury Park.
Ten years ago, the Asbury Park Boardwalk was a place where the sad skeletal ruins of abandoned amusement park rides exuded a Dante-esque feeling of “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” It’s not that way now. Today, an art and music scene is driving a surging restaurant and bar scene in the downtown area, a few blocks from the beach. The diversity and sophistication of the scene is reflected in new restaurants like Talula’s where craft beers and crafted pizza and other dishes using locally sourced organic ingredients are attracting a hip, but older crowd.
“Right now we’re a more well-rounded destination than we have ever been in our history,” said Jackie Pappas of the Asbury Park Chamber of Commerce. “We don’t do amusements anymore or games, but we do have a Pinball Museum and that represents exactly what we are trying to do, to distill all of those memories of the old Asbury Park into something beyond that. We seem to be one region with many identities, but some complement each other. Red Bank, Long Branch and Asbury Park, for instance, combine very well in a visit.”
The operators who sell Fall Foliage tours of New England, Grand Canyon and Red Rocks tours and others should consider the Jersey Shore as a solid pre- or post- add-on component to Philadelphia or New York. With its Beaux Art maritime architecture and its Rock and Roll legacy, Asbury is worth a visit even if you don’t go in the water.
The memories are long for a beach resort that began in the 19th century and hit a zenith in the 1920s. “Once there were 50 hotels, now there are less than 500 rooms taken altogether. We have a few historic recently renovated properties such as the Berkeley Hotel, the Empress and the Hotel Tides as well as several fine B&Bs. The history of these properties spans from the Jazz Age to the 1960s when stars like Judy Garland stayed at the Empress and Johnny Cash actually lived at the Berkeley.
“People are rediscovering this town,” said Pappas. “We are getting lots of Canadians and Europeans. It’s about a 90-minute train ride from New York’s Penn Station and so many tourists spending four or five days in Manhattan will spend a day here as part of that.” In the meantime, the beach and boardwalk still thrive with families and flirting teenagers in the summertime. On the first Saturday in June, New Jersey Pride has an annual get together. The Empress Hotel is an LGBT favorite.
“He created a real mystique that instilled a real passion for this city among his fans,” said Pappas. “That musical legacy has a long history. Up and down the Boardwalk you’ll see plaques dedicated to the Asbury Angels. These are people from Asbury Park who were connected to music. The plaques commemorate musicians in general: opera singers, Rock and Rollers and D.J.s. We induct several new Angels a year and hold celebratory concerts. Though he’s never announced, Springsteen often shows up to play.”
I can still remember reaching for brass rings as we rode the old carousel, now long gone, off the Boardwalk at Asbury. When I asked after that “Merry-Go-Round,” Pappas corrected me, “It’s a carousel,” she said. “And what’s the difference?” I asked. “A Carousel goes in one direction, a Merry-Go-Round in the other.”
That Carousel went counter clock wise or “anti-clock wise” as they might say on the boardwalk at Brighton Beach.
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