Just one hour from Philadelphia or New York City, there is a seaside haven of rocking chairs on porches and a boardwalk bandstand, old-time penny candy and homemade ice cream, free parking and quiet streets, and more Victorian houses than the famed Cape May. Ocean Grove, New Jersey’s best-kept secret for more than a hundred years, is quickly becoming the hippest getaway for urban professionals, artists, families, and those in search of refuge, rest, and renewal.
The area sustained some beach and boardwalk damage from Superstorm Sandy, but Ocean Grove is now open and ready for business, just as beautiful and tranquil as ever.
A Shangri-la of seagulls and a non-commercialized boardwalk, Ocean Grove boasts a dignified row of eateries and shops on the tree-lined Main Avenue. There are no tacky T-shirt joints in sight. No arcades. No water slides or rides. Visitors rent bicycles (the old-fashioned kind: no gears or handlebar brakes) at Ocean Grove Hardware, a wooden-floored establishment with antiques upstairs. The hungry have ten restaurants from which to choose, including Nagle s Apothecary Cafe with its collection of old pharmaceutical bottles and the best selection of ice cream this side of the moon.
Ocean Grove is the town that time forgot. A National Historic district, the community was founded by Dr. William Osborn, a Methodist minister. The location was just what the doctor ordered: a high beach, thick groves of pine, cedar, and hickory trees, and no mosquitoes. Natural boundaries were made by two lakes and the ocean, with gates across the remaining side. Until 1980, the town gates were closed with chains from midnight Saturday through midnight Sunday. No cars were allowed on the Sabbath.
Dr. Osborn and a group of other religious-minded folks joined together in 1869 to form the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association. The association continues to this day. The town is dry, with no alcohol served within the one-mile radius of Ocean Grove.
The center of activity in the town is the Great Auditorium, an impressive structure that s almost football-field size. Featuring speakers and statesmen, opera stars and orchestras, the Auditorium has been visited by Presidents and personalities from Ulysses S. Grant to Guy Lombardo. Boasting a huge pipe organ, the Great Auditorium offers free organ concerts on summer Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Nestled around the Auditorium are 114 tent structures, with fireproof canvas in the front and cabin/cottages built onto the back. Many of those who own the tents are fourth and fifth generation families: relatives of the original Camp Meeting Methodists. Some say that there s a 30-year waiting period to buy a tent.
The beach, named by USA Today as one of the best in the world, is clean and thong-free. The beach badge, at $7.00 per day and $35.00 per week, is well-worth the cost. Lifeguards are on duty from 9:00 a.m. – 5:30 on Mondays through Saturdays; 12:30 – 5:30 on Sundays.
A perfect example of a 19th century planned urban community, the town is laid out so that the buildings nearest the ocean were built farther back from the street. This created a funnel to capture the sea breezes and channel them westward. This clever plan also allowed most porches along the street to enjoy the ocean view. Savvy innkeepers have lined their porches and balconies with rocking chairs.
Even a loud car radio seems out of place here, where most of the bed and breakfast establishments lock the doors at 11 p.m. Claiming the country s largest collection of Victoriana, Ocean Grove offers many lovingly-preserved guest houses and B&Bs.
One block from the ocean and 1/2 block from the Auditorium, reigns Ocean Pathway’s Albatross Inn, a family-friendly establishment circa 1894, as well as sister properties Ocean Plaza and the Ocean View Inn. All three of these Ocean Pathway jewels are now open and ready for business.
In the southern part of Ocean Grove is the Sea Spray Inn, previously known as the Love Letter Inn. A sensuous French Victorian Inn, the Sea Spray faces Fletcher Lake and is a short block from the ocean. Recently restored after the storm, the Sea Spray welcomed its first guests in April.
In the middle of town, one block from the beach, the stately Majestic Hotel’s grand doors are also open to guests. A short walk away, the charming Melrose B&B is open, offering quiet respites to visitors.
For families in search of an informal and comfortable hotel, the Ocean Vista fits the bill. One of the few boardwalk properties, the Ocean Vista offers the requisite porch with rockers, a continental breakfast and morning coffee, and affordable prices. The family dog greets guests, and the mood is upbeat. The rooms are clean and cozy.
Travelers craving night life have only a 5-minute walk to historic Asbury Park, where the famed Stone Pony, legendary Wonder Bar and The Saint, and the newer Langosta Lounge rock late into the evening hours. If you prefer to sleep in Asbury Park, Mikell’s Big House Bed and Breakfast is the place to stay.
Ocean Grove has something for everyone, and the crown jewel of the Jersey shore has proven itself to be stronger than the storm: still a seagull Shangri-la with charm to spare.