We tend to forget about it, but New York is a beach town. Coney Island is hardly the only beach New Yorkers can easily get to without a car.

Ocean Grove is one of my favorite day trips from New York City, although I’m a little biased. It’s where my parents met. It’s also incredibly charming. And weird.

On the surface, Ocean Grove is a lovely town with sandy beaches, quaint cafes, and beautifully restored Victorian houses — all within a 15-minute walk from the New Jersey Transit train station in Asbury Park. That hardly captures how unique a place this is.

At the end of the American Civil War, religious retreats became incredibly popular. Camp meetings brought together groups of the devout with traveling ministers, freeing them from normal life to focus entirely on worship. When the camp was located too far to walk from home, followers would camp for the duration.

Families rent tents in Ocean Grove season after season. Weekly or nightly rentals are strictly against the rules.

Families rent tents in Ocean Grove season after season. Weekly or nightly rentals are strictly against the rules.

Methodist ministers decided this spot on the Jersey Shore was to their liking and bought the land to create a camp meeting of their own. Soon there was train service from New York City and a trolley connecting it to surrounding towns. First there were canvas tents. Then, worshipers built small seasonal cottages and chapels. Eventually, homes, hotels, stores, offices, and church buildings were built. The New York Times called it the Queen of Religious Resorts.

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Ocean Grove was originally one in a trio of Methodist communities. It’s hard to tell now, but Asbury Park and Bradley Beach both sprang from the same seeds as Ocean Grove. While the surrounding towns have changed dramatically in character, Ocean Grove is still owned by the Camp Meeting Association and is the longest-active camp meeting site in the US.

Tourists standing in the verandah of the hotel, Ocean Grove, from Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views. Via Wikimedia.

Tourists standing in the verandah of the hotel, Ocean Grove, from Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views. Via Wikimedia.

One advantage to owning a town is the ability to establish and encourage a way of life. It was illegal to have a car on the streets of Ocean Grove on Sundays until 1981. Or to run, play ball, or even go to the beach. They had their own police force to enforce the rules, even if they weren’t officially a town. They make the rules, since the town essentially operates like one big co-op. Families are responsible for their homes, but the Camp Meeting Association owns the land. This is God’s Square Mile at the Jersey Shore.

My dad’s first ticket was for running on a Sunday.

Ocean Grove got far fewer tourists than surrounding towns, but the ones that did come were there every year. It’s a tight-knit community, even now, long after the laws have loosened up. You don’t even have to be Methodist anymore, but it takes a certain way of life for people to decide to stay.

A snack shack on the Ocean Grove beach has a daily Bible verse.

A snack shack on the Ocean Grove beach has a daily Bible verse.

The most noteworthy architectural wonder is the abundance of Victorian and early 20th century architecture. During my childhood, the only approved paint colors were muted blues and grays. Now the Camp Meeting Association has loosened up and allows a wide range of bright hues and no longer appears to care what flowers you plant in your tiny yards. The houses are practically on top of one another, often separated by just enough space to walk through. Not all the homes have insulation, so you can have conversations through the walls. That’s doubly true if you’re lucky enough to spend your summers in one of the original tents.

ocean-grove-tents

There are a number of religious prominent buildings:

  • The Great Auditorium originally seated 10,000 people — and would fill up for weekly services. Completed in 1894, it has an ingenious cooling system and is famous for its acoustics and its pipe organ. It continues to host events during the warm months.
  • There are still 114 tents surrounding the Great Auditorium that are home to families every summer. Each tent has a large canvas front room connected to a wooden structure housing a bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom. The tents have electricity and some even have air conditioning units. Tents can only be rented by the season and there’s generally a years-long waiting list. Subletting is strictly prohibited.
  • Beersheba Well, named after the ancient well in Palestine, was dug by the founders to provide fresh water to the new camp in the summer of 1870.
  • The Boardwalk Pavilion hosts beachfront services in the summer. In 2007 there was a controversy over whether or not a lesbian couple could get married in the pavilion, an active religious structure for a religion that doesn’t approve of gay marriage. Ocean Grove simply stopped allowing anyone to use their property for weddings.
Ocean Grove's Great Auditorium is the largest and most prominent building in town.

Ocean Grove’s Great Auditorium is the largest and most prominent building in town.

It’s hard to imagine it, but Ocean Grove did attract celebrities. Perhaps simply because it had the best auditorium space to host a crowd. Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield, William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Richard Nixon all spoke there.

abandoned-victorianBy the end of the 1920s, religious fervor waned and the Great Depression quashed any hope of continued growth. Summer homes were turned into year-round residences, or even cut up into apartments and boarding houses. By the 1960s, the boarding houses were full of the poor and mentally ill, while the houses were occupied by the elderly. Everyone called it Ocean Grave. Things were pretty shabby.

And then New York’s gay community discovered Asbury Park. Slowly, burnt out and deserted Cookman Avenue, the former main drag just off the lake separating the lands of purity and vice, started to come back to life. One by one, houses were restored, or at least cleaned up a little. Some families returned after long periods of absence. Newcomers learned to live with the rules of a community that’s very conservative and also very accepting.

Most of the Camp Meeting Association’s rules are gone, but it’s still a dry town. The gates lock at midnight, closing the town off from Asbury Park, and the beach is closed on Sunday morning during services. There are still a lot of old timers who seem to know everyone and everything. It’s easy, since walls are thin. In the winter it’s a ghost town, with many shops and homes closed for most of the year.

The gates on Fletcher Lake are open during the day, but lock at midnight.

The gates on Fletcher Lake are open during the day, but lock at midnight.

As people rediscover Ocean Grove as a summer beach destination, I’m glad to see the shops thriving and Asbury Park picking up. But I find myself shocked to see people drinking beers openly on their porches. Locals have the common decency to pour it into glasses or drink indoors. The rules are weird, but flexible, and part of what makes Ocean Grove what it is. Drinking openly is for any other town on the Jersey Shore, not here.

If you’re there to visit the beach during the summer, be prepared to pay. Bradley Beach was the first town in the US to issue beach badges and charge for the use of the beaches.

How to get there

Take the NJ Transit’s North Jersey Coast Line from Penn Station. Some trains require a transfer across the platform at Asbury Park.

Postcard of Asbury Park and Ocean Grove Railroad Station in 1908. Courtesy of Roundhere44 via Wikimedia.

Postcard of Asbury Park and Ocean Grove Railroad Station in 1908. This is not what the train station looks like today. Courtesy of Roundhere44 via Wikimedia.

I’ve heard rumors of bus service from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, but that’s too complicated. Just take the train.

Nagles Apothecary Cafe

This diner somehow manages to be authentic (it’s really old) and fake (it’s restored) simultaneously. Service is hit or miss. The food is…diner food. Sit inside or you’ll miss the hodgepodge of memorabilia. Get your ice cream from the window.

Days Ice Cream

Don’t tell the guys at Nagles, but Days has the best ice cream in town. It’s also the oldest continually operating business in Ocean Grove.

The Starving Artist

The cafe attached to Days Ice Cream. The food is pretty good and some of it is even healthy.

bradley-beach-bowlJohnny Mac House of Spirits

Not in Ocean Grove, but it’s across from the Asbury Park/Ocean Grove train station. You’ll need a drink at some point. The decor is terrifying, but there’s candy and the drinks are cheap. Plus you get a free small pizza with every beer!

Cafe Volan

They’re surly because they’re sad they live in New Jersey and not Brooklyn. It’s still the best coffee option nearby.

Bradley Beach Bowl

I’m not entirely sure why, but I end up here a lot. They’ve got a bar.

Silverball Pinball Museum

This is worth a few hours of your time. I don’t even like games, but I love this place. You pay by the hour instead of by the game, which means you can just walk away from a boring game and try another one instead.

The beach is empty on a Sunday morning.

The beach is empty on a Sunday morning.

Postcards are from my dad’s collection unless otherwise noted.

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