Excursions: Island Beach State Park

Island Beach State Park with Seaside Boardwalk in distance

"Where can you go to the Jersey Shore, that when you turn to your left you see two people; to your right, five. Nowhere except Island Beach State Park." Kerryl

Although Kerryl and I spend a good portion of the summer in the Warwick Valley, in July and August, we like to hit the road and head down to the Jersey Shore for an occasional day trip. Our favorite destination is Island Beach State Park, located off of exit 82 on the Garden State Parkway, just 2 miles outside the boardwalk at Seaside Heights.  

We go when we don’t have to compete with crowds and traffic, usually during the week, first checking the weather forecast to make sure there will be sunshine. After an hour of packing and some preliminary shopping - such as picking up the chips, water, etc. - we are on our way.

Sand Dunes at Island Beach State ParkKerryl introduced me to Island Beach State Park several years back and we have continued to visit regularly - always to the same spot. Its natural beauty is unparalleled, with approximately 10 miles of preserved shoreline, natural sanctuaries, rolling dunes, and tidal marshes. It's pristine and raw and that's a big reason why we love it so much. The beach is where we enjoy hanging out, playing with our two dogs, walking the shoreline, swimming and ocean surfing, being and meditating, combing the beach for seashells and other unexpected finds, reading, conversing, taking pictures....

When you arrive to the park, the six dollar entry fee gets you in ($10 on weekends). Driving down a long strip, you will see two large visitor parking lots, which is a good place to settle down if you are interested in showering, concessions, lifeguards and other beachside amenities. Plus it's an easier walk to the beach. Should you pass that point, you are on your own.

Arriving to our spot, we unpack the car, and then head up the winding hot sandy path towards the beach, struggling with cooler, bags, beach chairs, and summer umbrella, an arduous workout not for the faint of heart. Sometimes I wonder whether I will actually make it to the beach without collapsing. Kerryl reminds me its good exercise. "No gain, without pain," and then I'm emboldened to carry on.

However, our journey does not begin and end at the beach. Before we enter the park, we must stop at the Berkeley Fish Market, which is located just outside the park entrance. Here we pick up several containers of homemade salad: Shrimp, chicken, and coleslaw. There is something in the mayo that makes these salads unforgettable. Nick, the owner, whose been in business for 48 years, won't give up his secret. With the large pieces of cut shrimp and lobster, the tender chicken, cut generously in square chunks, it's no wonder that his business thrives - not only enjoying the perfect spot, but the perfect array of product to keep the lines long during the summer months. 

Two other places we frequently stop: Ebby's Cafe Alfresco, where you can get a cup of Starbucks coffee, a killer taylor ham and egg on a roll, an extra long hero loaded with meat, or any assortment of savory baked products. If we end up staying the night, I treat myself in the morning, where I look forward to reading the NY Times while relaxing at one of their outdoor tables.


Pizza Mike'sWe also might stop at Pizza Mike's, almost directly across the street. We go because we like Mike, who shares lots of interesting stories and details of his life and how his business came to be. It was over a conversation with him that I learned more about a legendary long lost relative with the same last name as mine, who owned a popular restaurant named Top of the Mast. The restaurant bordered the park until it closed sometime in the last few years, where it's now a condo unit.

As the story goes, my thrice removed cousin Benny built up a great establishment, starting out as a hot dog vendor sometime in the mid 60's. Then the restaurant came into existence, where it flourished as a favorite destination through Benny's hard work. It brought in lots of money and had fabulous food. Benny even won the NJ lottery. But then all was lost when the IRS and Benny's penchant for womanizing ultimately did him in - both his riches and his restaurant. To my chagrin, I have found this story corroborated through discussions with other area residents and thus ends a saga in another family history, somehow marred by the fickle fate of fortune.

Fortunately there is the Island Beach State Motor Lodge which survives, located next to the old Top of the Mast. Kerryl and I have stayed on several occasions when we were either too tuckered out from a day at the shore to drive home or a special occasion - like a birthday. Room rates can be reasonable during the week. Located in the Motor Lodge is our favorite restaurant, the Atlantic Bar and Grill, which is a top shelf dining experience not to be overlooked on your excursion if you have any inkling for great food, ambiance, and service and are not too concerned about price. The restaurant looks right out over the ocean and you can be sure anything ordered on the menu is going to be par excellence. Sometimes we just have a drink at the bar, a Pina Colada with Dark Meyers Rum, to refresh us from a hot day on the beach, before we head home.

If we don't make it to the Motor Lodge for a night stay or a fine dining experience at the Atlantic Bar and Grill, we may head over to the boardwalk at Seaside Heights and stop at 3 Brothers Pizza where we pick up an oversized slice of pizza and a bucket of Idaho fresh cut fries, which are both unbeatable. Elsewhere on the boardwalk you can pick up a great sausage, peppers and onion sandwich.

I often have to remind myself that I'm still not too old for a little old fashioned fun and treats. When my girl tells me to pick up the fudge and taffy, I do what she says, making sure that before we leave the shore, our day is finally made complete with a little something sweet.