| Emily Wax-Thibodeaux |
THIS winter, when I needed a weekend escape with my two high-energy five-year-olds, I did something few parents would do – I headed for an old college haunt. Back in the day, it was the last place I would have pictured myself vacationing with my children. But now it fit the bill. I was looking for an authentic, old-school getaway – a place that was affordable and family-friendly but with enough edge to keep me engaged, too.
So we packed up the car and drove to Asbury Park, New Jersey. In November, no less.
The city’s glistening beach, flanked by a wide, mile-and-a-quarter-long boardwalk, is its main draw in nice weather. But a host of new kid-friendly attractions – in combination with some now-iconic favourites – have made it a popular all-season playground for families.
When I went to Rutgers in the early ‘90s, Asbury was the place to go to hear live music. My college photo albums are filled with friends hanging around the legendary rock club the Stone Pony and posing in front of Madam Marie’s fortunetelling booth, the Temple of Knowledge – immortalised in song by Bruce Springsteen, who famously got his start here. In other pictures, we’re outside the majestic circa-1928 Convention Hall and Paramount Theatre, seagulls perched atop its sculptures of mermaids and sailors.
A decade or two later, the seaside city with the storied music scene has undergone a major renaissance, marked by a surge in development and an influx of millennial creatives and entrepreneurs. There is now a slew of year-round boardwalk restaurants such as Pop’s Garage, a taco joint that serves standout dishes like sweet corn rolled in cotija, alongside older favourites such as Wonder Bar, which doubles as a pulsing live music venue. Retail has followed suit, with new arrivals like the midcentury modern furniture store Flux Modern, whose clients reportedly include the set designers for “The Deuce” and “The Marvelous Mrs Maisel.” In the same vein, the city now has an eclectic calendar of year-round public events that include Catsbury, which bills itself as the biggest cat convention on the East Coast, and an Irish Viking parade through downtown.
Other changes are cultural. The city has a relatively new street-art scene, with towering murals my kids loved to look for – when they found one, they’d jump up and down and cheer. Their favourite was the 20-foot mermaid, painted by local artist Mike “Porkchop” LaVallee, on the side of the Sunset Pavilion. In it, a mermaid looks at the Atlantic through a telescope as a seal frolics near her fin.
At the centre of it all is the Asbury, the boutique hotel where my kids and I began our wintertime visit. When it opened in 2016, housed in a once-derelict Salvation Army building, it was the city’s first new hotel in 50 years. With its affordable offseason rates, it has become a road-trip go-to after visits to my mother in neighbouring Freehold or sister in New York City. (It’s an easy hour-and-change train ride to Manhattan, with a station that’s walkable from the beach.) The first time my family checked in, the front desk was welcoming to my then-toddlers, assembling fabric playhouses for our room on the spot.
It’s also a destination unto itself. When the weather permits, the Asbury shows movies, complete with lawn chairs and a popcorn machine. On one visit, a screening of “Frozen” on the hotel roof, with a sweeping view of the Atlantic and a well-stocked bar, made both the kids and me happy. In the winter months, guests can skate at the hotel’s outdoor rink and relax beside a fire pit – or roast marshmallows from the s’mores kits sold from a food truck parked nearby.
Inside, a hallway leads to the newly refurbished Asbury Lanes – in my day, the grungy and faded Fast Lanes bowling alley. When we wandered in on Sunday morning, it was hosting the Little Rockers Band, who dress in “Wizard of Oz” costumes and often perform at noon instead of midnight. My kids didn’t want to leave. Luckily, the Asbury Lanes Diner – with miraculously good chicken fingers on the kids’ menu – was on-site. (On Memorial Day, iStar, the developer behind the Asbury, will open the Asbury Ocean Club Surfside Resort and Residences, a 17-story boardwalk hotel and condo complex.)
During our trip, it was often warm enough to let the kids run free on the boardwalk. It felt serene without the summer crowds, and it was fun to watch as brave surfers in wet suits launched their boards into the foamy winter waves.
A short distance from the boardwalk is Asbury Park’s artsy downtown, where we found Hot Sand, a kid-centred glass-blowing studio. Young visitors can make glass replicas of their hands or feet, which both my kids did, and found hilarious, while I made a sun catcher out of glass tiles. They also loved going to the Asbury Park Bazaar, which runs annually from November until Christmas and is styled after a German Christmas market, and Roller Hall, a pop-up roller-skating rink in the convention centre that played all Jersey artistes – and David Bowie, of course.