New York's Best Kept Secret: What to Do in Rockaway Beach
Just after Superstorm Sandy busted up New York City, a commercial fisherman who goes by the name of Frankie the Fish invited me to come out to the Rockaway Peninsula. Frankie picked me up at the dock and drove me through a scene from the zombie apocalypse. The ocean had hooked up with the bay during Sandy's long night and hurled giant drifts of sand into the streets. FEMA trucks hurried about, emphasizing the fact that this place was officially a federal disaster area. "Get a load a this," he told me as we pulled up to his house. His boat had been lifted up by the 12-foot king tide and smashed through his living room window.
But the devastation wasn't what stayed with me as my returning ferry passed under the Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge and tacked back toward Manhattan. Instead, I was struck by the sweep of dun-colored beach, the Cape Cod-like dunes and the clean ocean breeze blowing in from the Atlantic. "There's a beach, here. A quick $2.75 ferry ride from Wall Street?" I remember saying to myself. Why had I, summer after summer, slogged through hours of insufferable traffic to get to Fire Island or Montauk when a beachy oasis was right next door?
Our first stop was to check into the new Rockaway Hotel & Spa, perhaps the greatest symbol of Rockaway's revival. "From our point of view, this is not a building," the hotel's managing partner Terence Tubridy told me. "This is a community effort." We were sitting poolside at the hotel as a group gathered to lounge in the morning heat, some of them tucking into an early hair-of-the-dog cocktail.
Once a 19th-century playground of the rich that housed the largest hotel in the world, the peninsula was leveled by the developer Robert Moses, who used the view-laden landscapes to relocate New York's nursing homes and public housing projects. With the Rockaway Hotel and the ferry that now connects it to Manhattan, all that is rapidly changing. Now a multigenerational crowd of families and hipsters pours off the ferry daily. The hotel is usually booked solid, and the overflow walks the new storm-surge-resilient boardwalk all summer long.
Surfers head east from the ferry with their boards and hit the waves in the Beach 70s. Afterward they kick back for inventive mushroom-pepita vegan tacos and pineapple-piloncillo-ginger iced tea at the totally tubular Tacoway Beach restaurant. Or they might head to Bar Marseilles at Beach 69th for a Pernod followed by a dozen oysters and whole catch of the day. Meanwhile parents with kids tend to hop the free shuttle from the ferry and head west to family-friendly Jacob Riis Beach. There they can bodysurf or play a round of pitch and putt golf in the dunes behind the beach. And when the sun sets, parents and singletons alike might converge at Whit's End at Beach 97th for a piece of just-caught fish grilled expertly on a massive Argentine pampa while local bands play in Whit's pavilion under the steamy air and sparkling stars, the surf or the bay just a couple of blocks in either direction.
"We turned our backs on the water all these decades," Tubridy of the the Rockaway Hotel told me before hustling out to attend to his panoramic roof-deck bar. "Our water was polluted. We put all our industry along the ports. But we're sitting in a nature preserve here. That's the true secret of Rockaway. It's not just the beach. It's the bay. It's 16,000 acres. That's nearly 20 times the size of Central Park."
And with that bit of information, I turned the next part of our vacation to open water.
If the new ferry, the flood-protecting boardwalk and the Rockaway Hotel have laid a foundation for a revival of things on land, it is the resurgence of the bunker that set the stage for a massive comeback of life on the seas. These silvery, filter-feeding fish are the very base of the marine food web. Though they were once heavily exploited for fertilizer and dietary supplements, conservation measures have been put in place in the last 10 years. While it's possible the industry could reverse all that positive change, for the moment, bunkers are everywhere.
Walking along the Rockaway boardwalk, it's not uncommon to see humpback whales and dolphins bursting through the bunker schools just a few hundred feet off shore. But the thing that bunkers bring that gets Vinnie excited are the striped bass. Vinnie is a specialist at "live-lining" bunker, so with our bait-well filled we set out looking for stripers. Within a few minutes the live bunker at the end of my line started to tremble. Then "ga-thunk": the choo-choo train of a striped bass peeling off line put a smile on my face. "Hit 'em!" Vinnie shouted out. Rearing back into a solid fish, I thought, "Wow, why did I ever fly out of here to somewhere else to go fishing?"
With an 8-pound keeper striper in the well, Vinnie drove us up to his friend PJ Connelly's restaurant Vetro. A columned, palatial Italian-American fantasy with a seemingly endless wine cellar and a roof-deck lounge, the restaurant sits cozied up to a canal built to dock WWII submarines. The bass was quickly whisked off into the kitchen. In the meantime, while skiffs and sailboats of all kinds cruised up and down before us, PJ's crew riffed delightfully off classics like arancini and baked clams. The bass came back transformed in three delicious ways—oreganato, al limone and Livornese.
As the week of our staycation drifted along, we fell into a pleasant summer rhythm that could have been found in Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard or the Hamptons, albeit with a heavy dose of urban spice. One day we cycled the length of the boardwalk, pulled up at Uma's for Uzbek yogurty labneh salad and manti, a kind of oversized dumpling stuffed with sumptuous butternut squash or beef, depending on your preference.
Another day, we explored the beaches south of 100th Street and then circled back to Thai Rock for waterside kui chai scallion pancakes, som tam papaya salad and a spicy pad prik khing curry seasoned with kaffir lime leaf—all while fellow vacationers on Jet Skis romped and skipped over the waves. Still another day we biked to the rewilded Fort Tilden—a onetime military territory now part of a daisy chain of protected land called Gateway National Recreation Area, one of the largest urban national parks in the country. After that we headed to Kennedy's in the cop-and-firefighter community of Breezy Point, taking in a breathtaking sun setting over a pleasantly distant Manhattan skyline, and had one of the better steamed Maine lobsters I've ever eaten.
Don't get me wrong. Rockaway is not the complete escape from the city that the East Coast's most famous resorts promise. But I think as all of us confront the rising environmental and financial cost of a vacation, there's something just-right in the truce between city and sea that Rockaway represents. I would bet that many readers, were they to give Rockaway a shot, might react like the Connecticut couple I met in the lobby of the Rockaway Hotel, dressed in Topsiders and pastels. "Honey, I got us another night!" the husband exclaimed happily after a successful negotiation with the front desk clerk.
What to Eat, Where to Stay & What to Do When You Visit Rockaway Beach
By Danielle DeAngelis
Nestled in a strip of restaurants and shops on Rockaway Beach Boulevard, Uma's (below) serves up Central Asian dishes and cocktails. Manti, filled with ground beef or butternut squash and topped with onion sauce, dill, cilantro and yogurt sauce, are a standout dish.
The menu at Whit's End changes daily to feature the catch of the day (below right), such as shrimp-crusted bass, stuffed fluke and bluefin sashimi, along with wood-fired pizza (below left). The restaurant is BYOB.
Vetro Restaurant & Lounge serves up Italian cuisine and locally caught fish on Jamaica Bay. Enjoy the ocean breezes on the waterfront patio while you tuck into a bottle from the restaurant's extensive wine cellar—bottles are half-off on Wine Wednesday.
The Rockaway Hotel & Spa (below) offers a contemporary, calming aura by the beach. Amenities include a hotel bar, heated pool, coffee shop, fishing, spa and more. Summertime rates start at $320.
Captain Vinnie Calabro offers charter boat experiences for both beginners and experts alike. Catch black sea bass, striped bass, bluefish and tuna, if you're lucky! Gear, food and drink is included, and the crew will clean and fillet the fish that you catch.
Rent paddleboards and surfboards—or even take a lesson—from Boarders.
Enjoy live music and waterfront views at the Bungalow Bar (below). Their extensive menu includes everything from an avocado quinoa bowl and zucchini "pasta" with shrimp, to mac-and-cheese balls with marinara. Grab a burger or lobster roll or weekend brunch too.