We are driving on a sliver of land – a sand bar really – with the Atlantic Ocean and Sandy Hook Bay visible to our right and left. It’s a beautiful October day, breezy, bright sunshine, kite surfers in wetsuits and even one man swimming in a low 60 degree ocean. The beach is autumn empty, no crowds. The dune grasses glint golden in the sun. The leaves of low lying shrub plants are painting the seashore hues of red/purples and yellow/greens. Off in the distance, through a light haze the skyline of lower Manhattan, Staten Island, the Verrazano Bridge, Brooklyn and Rockaway Beach are all visible. Yet there are no “Mc Mansions”, or any beach house in sight for this is the protected land of Gateway National Recreation Area on the Sandy Hook.
Less than an hour drive from New York or a 40-minute high speed ferry ride from Wall Street, Sandy Hook has long been a playground for New Yorkers and Northern Jersyites. Yet only two-hours from Philadelphia, it remains a virtual unknown area for many Pennsylvanians (isn’t New Jersey from Atlantic City to Cape May?). The North Jersey coast is thick with forests, colonial villages, craggy cliffs and wide beaches.
Towards the end of the seven miles, Fort Hancock comes into view. From 1898 through the 1970’s the Hook was not always sparsely populated. During the Second World War, this end of the sand bar held a population of 20,000. Named in honor of civil war General Winfield Scott Hancock, construction on the Fort started the same year as the Spanish-American War (1898) and America’s acquisition of an overseas empire. The fort is a sprawling complex of handsome Colonial Revival buildings constructed from distinctive, local pale yellow bricks. It was a small town from the beginning with a theater, recreation facilities, clubs, church and, of course, housing. Enlisted men lived in large barracks, but married officers enjoyed spacious houses.
Officers Row consists of 18 waterfront houses ranging in size from 5,000 to 6,500 square feet. They were built at a cost of over $8,500 each in 1898 ($250,000 in 2010 dollars) with all the modern and decorative features of the day including fireplaces faced with tiles from Portugal. One – History House – is fully restored and furnished to reflect the life of an officer’s family during the Second World War years of the 1940’s. Excellent weekend tours are conducted by volunteers from 1:00 – 5:00 PM.
Naturally I found the kitchen interesting. An original Frigidaire refrigerator and Kelvinator stove are in working order allowing History House to host receptions utilizing this spacious kitchen. A walk through pantry connected the kitchen to the dining room. A unique item is the dining room’s steam radiator that was constructed with a food warmer top section! A servant’s staircase just off the hallway outside the kitchen attests to an era when the middle/upper middle class could afford hired help.
Unfortunately, due to lack of funding, most of the remaining houses have fallen into disrepair and face an uncertain future. It’s ironic that these solid yet graceful structures with their stunning views of Sandy Hook Bay would be worth millions anywhere else on the Jersey shore.
Many structures within the Fort serve the National Park’s work in administering the Sandy Hook seashore, historic lighthouses, some staff housing, as well as offices for NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration). Fort Hancock is also home to the Marine Academy of Science and Technology, a four year high school operated by Monmouth County Vocational School District.
Yet walking the grounds past abandoned houses in the quiet of an autumn day is a melancholy experience. I have no idea if ghosts exist, but I can imagine they might, given the colorful history of Sandy Hook. Its lighthouses protected New York harbor from its earliest days in the 18th century both in war and peace. The Hook and protective cliffs of the Highlands harbored both busy commercial and fishing fleets as well as pirates and smugglers right through the Prohibition years of the 1920’s and 30’s. High up on the Highlands stands a unique 1862 “castle”, the Twin Lights of Navesink, a national historic site under the state park system. The lights no longer function but provide a commanding view. There is a nice museum, picnic tables and it’s possible to climb to the top of the north lighthouse. An 18th century cannon, found on the grounds, attests to the hill’s use by pirates as well as during the American Revolution – although that time it was loyalists protecting the British occupation of New York City.
The town of Highlands is an affluent community with a bustling harbor front still devoted to fishing, although today the fleet is more pleasure craft than commercial. It’s not all gentrified either with the harbor lined by a jumble of businesses, restaurants of different types and modest houses.
Two of the dozen or so restaurants stand out. Doris & Ed’s serves elegant seafood dishes in a relaxed atmosphere with beautiful bay views in a renovated 19th century former hotel. It is well established after over 30 years, but its preparations, presentations and quality remain high and have not gone stale by success. Prices are high, but fair, with lunch/dinner for two with wine/drinks easily in the $125 – $150 range. The Windansea is an equally good choice with great bay views and an even more relaxed environment. It has a dock right in front allowing boaters to tie up and walk right to the restaurant. In the summer there’s a lively outdoor bar/dining area. Preparations, presentations and quality are nearly as high as Doris and Ed’s but the prices are less expensive. Lunch/dinner for two with wine/drinks will run in the $50 – $85 range. For lunch we had Fish Tacos topped with a good salsa and Tilapia Francaise that was lightly battered with a flavorful lemon wine sauce. Both entrees came with a nicely seasoned rice pilaf. A salad of spring greens, walnuts, dried cranberries and crumbled blue cheese was generous and dressed with good balsamic vinaigrette. Both establishments serve only fresh fish and seafood – never frozen – and do offer meat dishes as well.
Unlike the beach towns of South Jersey, North Jersey doesn’t close up during the off-season. Its proximity to New York has ensured year round life and a permanent population the southern towns don’t enjoy. So, Philadelphians, get out and discover beautiful, vibrant, peaceful destinations a mere 1- ½ to 2 hours from your driveway.