Tuesday, April 7, 2015

30 Days in NYC (Day 7) - Rockaway Beach

  There are cities all over the world known for their beaches. Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, Honolulu, Barcelona, Miami, Los Angeles, and others are cities where the beach is to focus of life and culture. But do you ever think of the beach when you think of New York City? Almost certainly you don't. And you're wrong. New York may not be a world class beach town, but we have long stretches of sand that makes for a great day on the ocean by anyone's standards. And I don't mean a tiny little pebbly cove with beach chairs. New York City actually has about 20 miles of sandy beach to enjoy along the coastal edges of the city. But the biggest by far is a 14-mile long barrier peninsula in Queens, the longest urban beach in the USA: Rockaway Beach. So Day 7 is a day to ditch the summer heat of Manhattan, and get some sand between your toes.

Day 7 - The Rockaways

Morning: Rockaway Beach is one of New York's favorite summer playgrounds and has been for more almost 200 years. This prime shoreline was once a beachside destination of great fame. The first resort and spa opened in 1833, and all through the 19th century well-to-do New Yorkers took summers and weekends at the dozens of resorts along the beach, reached by new turnpikes, railroads, and ferries. Rockaway Beach even got into the amusement game rivaling Coney Island's attractions with the construction of Rockaway Playland in 1902. The beaches attracted more summer visitors with the construction of tidy bungalows in the 1920s for working class vacationers. The heyday wouldn't last though, and by the time The Ramones write their hit "Rockaway Beach" in 1977, much of The Rockaways had devolved into gritty, forgotten shoreline. Rockaway never went away though, and many more people are re-discovering Queens' shoreline these days and joining longtime fans of the long sandy shore. The past few years have been hard, however, particularly the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy in October, 2012. The storm destroyed more than a hundred homes and flooded almost every structure on the peninsula. The boardwalk was destroyed, businesses lost, and seven lives were lost on The Rockaways. The area is recovering, and is back to welcoming visitors every summer who still help provide the bulk of the economic activity in The Rockaways. So despite the damage, a visit is one where most of the amenities and businesses have returned.

Hurricane Sandy at Rockaway Beach
   One of the great things about Rockaway Beach is that is accessible by the subway. It's a long ride but because New York's transit doesn't have a zone fare structure, a ride all the way to Rockaway Beach only costs the $2.75 base fare. The route to the Rockaways is via the A train, which has connections from different lines all through Manhattan and Brooklyn. One thing to note about the A train is that it's the only NYC subway line where one line splits and terminates in two different places. So some A trains terminate in Ozone Park, Queens and others in Far Rockaway. In order to get to the beach you have to take a Far Rockaway-bound A train. Once in Rockaway, it's pretty easy to navigate as the streets are all numbered with the prefix "Beach," i.e "Beach 116th Street." The numbers go up as you west. While the A will get you to the beach, I prefer the stretch of beach between Beach 120th and Beach 90th Street, which will require one more subway transfer. When the A gets to Broad Channel, switch to the Rockaway Park shuttle line (the S train) which will pull in on the same track as the A and bring you to one of four stops on the prime piece of beach. The whole journey takes close to 75 minutes, though the final 15 minutes are a scenic one as the A and the S trundle over the causeways crossing Jamaica Bay. There's some cool views of the runway at JFK airport too.
   Once you arrive at the beach, there's a lot of great spots to lay down your towel. The boardwalk is still being rebuilt and some construction will continue through 2015 and 2016. Though the boardwalk is expected to be completed between Beach 87th and Beach 107th by July 4th, 2015. The whole boardwalk should reopen by summer 2016. Assuming everything is as it was before, there are concessions along the beach at Beach 97th, Beach 106th, and Beach 116th. The amenities include snacks, drinks, and bicycle rentals. The streets around the beach at Beach 116th and Beach 96th also include new shops and eateries. Rockway Taco is the most famous on Beach 96th. Some of the most surprising shops are the surf shops on Beach 116th and Beach 92nd. It's hard to imagine but Rockaway Beach actually puts NYC on the map of global surfing spots. The beach is along open ocean and big storms mean big waves (by East Coast standards). If the surf is up, the areas between Beach 87th-92nd and Beach 67th-69th are the surf beaches. You can even snag board rentals and lessons if you like from the surf shops.
   But if surfing or cycling isn't your thing, just snag a spot on the sand and enjoy the sun. And keep in mind, the beach is really long and people tend to cluster around concessions, parking, and subway stops. So if it's too crowded, like in the photo below from July 4th, just walk a little ways and you'll find a sandy spot.
A busy holiday on Rockaway Beach

Lunch: Grab some food from the vendors along the boardwalk like Caracas Arepas Bar at B. 106th, Rippers on B. 86th, or the multitude of vendors at B. 97th. If you feel like leaving the beach for lunch, there's places to eat and drink like Rockaway Taco at B. 96th or a jumble of new bar/restaurants on Rockaway Beach Blvd, a block from the beach, between B. 94th and 90th streets. Though I'm mostly likely to take my lunch on my beach towel.

Afternoon: If you want to continue to lounge on the beach for the rest of the afternoon, go for it! That's my usual plan when I'm at Rockaway. But if you're the type who can't sit still all day, why not head west to the abandoned military installation of Fort Tilden. As you go west on Rockaway peninsula, you eventually leave NYC-run beaches and enter land run by the National Park Service as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. The houses end and the land becomes entirely beach, dunes, and beach facilities. The Jacob Riis Park Beach and it's enormous beach house and parking lot takes up the whole width of the peninsula. It's a great beach spot, but without the amenities and transit along Rockaway Beach. Just to the west past Riis beach is Fort Tilden. There are two primary ways to reach the old fort. You can take a city bus. Use your metrocard and take the Q22 bus from Rockaway Beach Blvd all the way to the most western stop at B. 169th Street. You can also rent a bicycle along the boardwalk or along some of the main commercial streets. Once the boardwalk is fully reopened in 2016, you'll be able to bike it all the way to B. 126th and then along Rockaway Beach Blvd, through the stately residential streets of the Belle Harbor neighborhood, and ultimately through Riis Beach to the same B. 169th Street entrance. The bike ride is about 4 miles and it should take about a half hour.
   Fort Tilden was commissioned in 1917 at the beginning of World War I as a coastal defense post. The installation of large artillery and anti-aircraft gun was to protect NYC from a sea attack. As the 20th century wore on, bigger 16 inch guns were placed at Fort Tilden. During World War II more than 1,000 troops were stationed at the big guns of Fort Tilden and barracks and service buildings were built. In the Cold War, the station housed Nike SAM anti-aircraft missiles. But eventually, the base was closed in 1974 and became part of the National Park Service. Some of the old buildings are used by arts, community, and sports groups from the nearby neighborhoods. But as you leave the open ground of the barracks, the landscape becomes a surreal mix of nature reclaiming the old defenses.
A photo posted by Shawn (@nytourguy) on
   Along the beach are some of the old community buildings that have been overrun by the sand. For a few blocks, there is the remnants of buildings, streets, hydrants, and more all covered by the sand. As you make your way into the dunes and scrub, you'll find the central dirt path that runs along the gun batteries. The two massive casements were built to protect the 16 inch guns during WWII. You can walk into the casements and see the graffiti and old storage rooms. There's even a walkway up to the top of one of the casements where the view one way is the open ocean and the other is the bay with the Manhattan skyline way in the distance. Further along the path is the abandoned sheds where the one ton rounds were held in storage. Today, they are covered in impressive graffiti works on the remaining walls.
A photo posted by Shawn (@nytourguy) on
   It's a spooky and beautiful place to explore, where often the only sounds are the waves and shorebirds. It's one of the most unexpected and unique locations in the city, and a striking example of history gradually being covered by the layers of time. After spending an hour or two, head back on the bus or bicycle to Rockaway Beach. There's a growing crowd of bars opening up to grab a drink in a garden area, like Sarya's and The Rock on Rockaway Beach Blvd and B. 92nd Street. But my favorite is old-school Irish pub Connolly's on Cross Bay Blvd, just off the beach. It's a remarkable hybrid of a NYC Irish pub and a beachside Caribbean bar. It's down in a townhouse basement, but decked out with surfboards and other beachy decor. And best of all, the pina coladas are made in a soft serve ice cream machine and some of the best tasting tropical drinks anywhere, including the tropics.

Dinner: It's time to leave the peninsula and head up to some of Southern Queens' neighborhoods. You can catch the Q53 bus on B. 96th Street or the Q52 on B. 91st and head across the Cross Bay Bridge to the north. You'll pass through one of the most distinctive neighborhood in NYC, Broad Channel, which is entirely located on a marshy island in Jamaica Bay and features many houses built on stilts in the bay. After another bridge you'll be in Howard Beach, one of the most suburban and Italian neighborhoods in the city. The neighborhood's defining feature is the Shellbank Basin, a boat channel running behind the main street, Cross Bay Blvd. The houses lined up against it have private docks and boats, giving Howard Beach the look of coastal Florida and not New York City.
A photo posted by Shawn (@nytourguy) on
   Take the bus to 163rd Ave--the first stop after the bridge from Broad Channel--and then walk two blocks north on Cross Bay Blvd to Lenny's Clam Bar. Lenny's has become a tradition of my beach trips. Lenny's has bee open more than 40 years and it's a great example of what is called "red sauce" Italian food. Pastas and sauces dominate the menu, the flavors are bright, the seafood is fresh, the portions are huge, the service is friendly, and the prices are reasonable. The crowd is mostly local Italian-Americans from the neighborhood and the New York accents heard at other tables are thick. There's just something great about getting a bottle of house red for $18, tucking into some fantastic baked clams, and having enough pasta to take home for tomorrow's meal too. You don't come here to get elegant Italian, you come to experience the charms of the neighborhood red sauce joint at its best. The calamari, baked clams, and lobster tail fra diavolo are all delicious.

Evening: Truthfully, there's almost no nightlife in the sleepy suburban streets of Howard Beach. And it's a long way back to Manhattan. So linger over your wine at Lenny's and head home. If you fancy a 25-minute walk, you can head to the Howard Beach A train station. It's located on the other side of Shellbank Basin so you have to walk to the north end of the neighborhood and then double back to 159th Ave to find the shiny new station at the eastern end of the street. The other option is to walk back to 163rd and wait for the buses there to take you 10 minutes up the road to the A train station at Rockaway Blvd. It's a little more than an hour back to Manhattan.

1 comment:

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