I'm a freelance writer/photographer living in the East Village neighborhood of New York City.
Published November 15th 2010
Nestled on the Jersey Shore directly between Asbury Park and Bradley Beach is the tiny square-mile hamlet of Ocean Grove. Settled in the 1800s by Methodists as a spiritual ocean-side retreat, the town has grown into a lovely—albeit largely unknown—vacation destination. Part of the charm is its friendly people, small scale, and relaxed attitude. Ocean Grove is easily reachable by car or train (to adjacent Asbury Park) from New York City.
Today a mere 4,000 folks call Ocean Grove home year around, but the summer months find many Methodists returning to set up temporary "camp" sites on elevated lots surrounding the auditorium that have been passed down over generations. Don't let the religious history of the town fool you. There is plenty of year-around secular entertainment and most of its permanent residents share a diverse mix of cultures and backgrounds, including a sizable LGBT population.
Gorgeous Victorian homes still dot Ocean Grove's landscape, which is completely surrounded on three sides by water. Everything in town, including its massive 6,000 seat auditorium, museum, abundant inns, hotels, quaint shops, art galleries, restaurants, markets, and bakery are reachable by foot. Stroll down Ocean Grove's main street through the center of town and note the absence of chain stores. Every business is family-owned with many dating as far back as the early 1900s. Stop by the historical society, enjoy lunch by the sea, join one of the town's many community events, or take in a show at the Great Auditorium, home to one of the country's largest pipe organs. Ocean Pathway, leading from the auditorium, opens to the Great Lawn with dramatic ocean views and was once called one of the most beautiful streets in the United States. Ocean Grove, listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its carefully preserved Victorian architecture, was also the location for the classic Woody Allen film, Stardust Memories.
Often enjoyed best during the summer months for those in search of a beach resort, Ocean Grove is highly pleasant during the off-season when it is clear of tourists and essentially settles down for the winter. Those seeking great deals on extended stays can enjoy off-season rates at some of New Jersey's best bed and breakfast hotels, many with amazing ocean views. Unlike typical beach towns, nothing closes during the fall and winter. In fact, events are scheduled throughout the year with November and December offering tastings at area restaurants, a Victorian house tour, a holiday tree-lighting festival, museum exhibits, and moonlit horse-drawn carriage rides. The public beach is always clean and free of charge during the off season with plenty of benches along a wide stretch of boardwalk that is great for walking and biking. Most unusual is the fact that there is no commercial activity along the boardwalk, a welcomed tradition that dates back to Ocean Grove's religious roots and its history as a "dry" town. Until the 1970s, in fact, no cars were permitted there on Sundays.
By spring and summer, Ocean Grove is back in full swing with numerous Great Auditorium performances, a twice-yearly flea market that is among the state's largest, craft and book fairs, a film festival (in nearby Asbury Park's historic Convention Hall) fishing tournaments, vintage car shows, and an annual chocolate-lovers weekend. No matter when you decide to plan your trip, know that a delightful and surprising sanctuary awaits to cure whatever ails you.