Winter or Summer, Ride to the North Jersey Shore

Text: Charles Peterson • Photography: Charles Peterson

Exiting Garden State Parkway's #114, south of the reeds and grasses of the tranquil Cheesequake estuary, a trip on Harley's Road King to New Jersey's north shore can be more rewarding than just another day at the beach. Panoramic vistas, educational exhibits, hiking trails, occasional wildlife sightings, musical rock groups, and good food may be enjoyed along the way. At Red Hill Road, just beyond the toll, start with a unique mix of suburban and pastoral riding. Drive east to Bamm Hollow Road, which becomes Oak Hill Road, turn south at Sleepy Hollow Road, and travel east on Cooper Road.

At the "Pavement Ends" sign, suppress the impulsive thought to turn around. Roll on one must to savor the sleepy town of Navesink and sites beyond in pursuit of signs pointing the way to the Mt. Mitchill Scenic Overlook. On a clear day, Mt. Mitchill provides a panoramic view of Raritan Bay, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the lower-Manhattan skyline, Sandy Hook and the Atlantic Ocean.

Next, consider doubling-back from Mt. Mitchill and turning east on Route 36; or taking the longer Ocean Boulevard coastal tour west to Atlantic Highlands Municipal Harbor, turning south on 1st Avenue and east on Route 36. After selecting from the aforementioned options follow the signs to Navesink Twin Lights.

Don't let the abrupt gradient on the last ascent to the historical Twin Lights landmark deter you. The South Tower's nine-foot diameter Fresnel electric-arc bivalve lens, built in 1898, projected a 22-mile beacon to aid distant mariners. Also on this site, in 1899, Guglielmo Marconi used his new-fangled "Wireless Telegraph" to report the America's Cup yacht races off the tip of Sandy Hook.

Continue east to the Highlands Route 36 bridge and north to Sandy Hook. In addition to beautiful pristine beaches, nature trails and a working 1764 lighthouse, Sandy Hook has an active United States Coast Guard station. In the past, the peninsula was a military base with gun batteries, mortar batteries and Nike missiles. Remnants of structures and artifacts from those periods still remain, including one of two 1869 Rodman guns that lobbed 1,000-pound cannon balls almost five miles.

The cedar-shake sided United States Life-Saving Station, built in 1894, is currently the Visitors' Center and tourists are surprised to discover prickly pear cacti thriving in the dunes. To avoid encounters with pedestrians, wildlife and wind-blown grit on asphalt and turnouts, drive conservatively at Sandy Hook. If weather and time allow, swim at one of the finest parks on the eastern seaboard.

Drive Route 36 barrier reef south to Donovan's Reef Bar & Grill, located on the beach in Sea Bright. Every year the optimistic owner plants a half-a-dozen or so, 20-foot tall, live palms in the sand. Some argue they're palmetto trees. Palm trees or palmettos - they haven't yet survived winters at this latitude.

From the eight-foot seawall, on a good day, the Coney Island's 1939 World's Fair parachute-jump can be seen 30 miles to the north. On warm weekends, a rock band beneath the swaying palm fronds commences sets in the mid-afternoon and bikini clad beauties strut the strand flaunting their assets. Environmentalists theorize the strand will lie beneath 30 feet of water by 2100 due to global warming.

Is there anything more to be said of this beach bar? Ah, yes. Think about all the sand tracked by bare feet and swept from the floor several times a day, the wriggling two-and-a-half feet of striped bass caught in the surf only 50 yards away, Bon Jovi making a surprise entrance, or Bruce Springsteen occasionally stopping by.

This is the place to go for a cold beer, or a non-alcoholic concoction, and cool it in offshore breezes on a hot summer weekend. And it's mainly motorcycles, usually Harleys that occupy preferred parking spots. If the party scene is not to your liking, sit on the beach, smear on sunscreen, and read Outlaw Machine.

Brock Yates, the talented automotive journalist and author of Outlaw Machine, claims that Harleys serve " an entrée into a special, uniquely American tribalism." To fully appreciate the philosophical tidbits Yates propounds requires some time for meditation and seeking the wisdom of other 'tribal' members out for a ride.

For reasonably priced, good food, served in a quaint, nautical setting, ease over to Barnacle Bill's in Rumson - 10 minutes from Donovan's. The restaurant is located on the south shore of the Navesink River on First Street, one block off River Road (Rte. 10) and two gunkholes west of the Route 8A Bingham Avenue Bridge.

At Barnacle Bill's, look for the cache of complimentary peanuts in the antique roaster they've tucked away between the bar and the front door. Late in the day, a trip to the restroom can be an iffy passage through a Sargasso Sea of discarded peanut shells. Several tables for two and the bar face a wall of windows overlooking the river. Larger tables, without a river view, are placed within a décor of buoys, portholes, cargo hatches, binnacles and navigation aids.

An order of steamed, soft-shell clams with drawn butter on the side and the ten-ounce burger served on a hard roll is a nice combination for two to share. On request, the staff will demonstrate the technique for removing the outer skin from one of the clams before dining on the succulent morsels. The Zagat Survey of New Jersey Restaurants favorably mentions Bill's, citing "...good seafood and generous drinks" along with the peak-hours "mob scene."

Drive north over the Bingham Avenue Bridge to Route 12A (Navesink River Road) and west past the multi-million dollar estates along the Navesink River. (Rumor has it Geraldo resides in the area.) Turn north on Route 12 (Dwight Road) and then west at Red Hill Road to return to Exit 114 of the Garden State Parkway. For out-of-town "naturalists," Cheesequake State Park, six miles to the north, borders the beautiful estuary mentioned earlier and offers salt-water marsh hiking trails plus camping in the woods. Where else but in the beautiful Garden State of New Jersey is there such variety for a day's outing to the beach?

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the Fall 2002 back issue.