Home July 2023 Tour Your Own Backyard

Tour Your Own Backyard

Homes on Main Street with stoops and rings

Try a Staycation that Doesn’t Turn into a To-Do List

    If summer is the most popular time for travel, all indications are that this year will be a banner year: credit card companies report that bookings are already up over last year’s. Yet what may be good financial news for the industry does not bode as well for travelers.
    Airfares are up close to 20% overall since last year and, due to a shortage of qualified air traffic controllers, the FAA anticipates a spike in delays and disruptions in air travel of up to 45 percent over last year, which was itself outstandingly awful. Travel by automobile looked like a viable option during this past spring—at least until Saudi Arabia announced it was cutting its oil supply by 1 million barrels per day, to be felt beginning in July. So, OK, half the fun may not lie in the “getting there” this summer, but what about the rest of the trip?
    The leisure and hospitality industry is looking at a shortfall of 500,000 unfilled jobs, which is bound to have an effect not only on availability of resort destinations, but also on the service they can provide once you get there. If all that makes staying home sound increasingly appealing, it is natural to hesitate in the face of the prospect of falling into a rabbit hole of mindless “doom-scrolling” or getting in over your head in exhausting home improvement projects that could make returning to work sound like a rest cure.
   Instead, why not plan a short walking tour of Monmouth County’s north shore via the Atlantic Section of the Henry Hudson Trail?

Firefighters Park, Union Beach 9/11 Memorial

  Named for the English captain of the Dutch Halve Moen, who explored the New Jersey shore of Raritan Bay in September 1609 before sailing up his now eponymous river as far as Albany, the Henry Hudson Trail follows in the abandoned and rail banked tracks of the Central Railroad of New Jersey. The 10-mile Atlantic segment between Keyport and Atlantic Highlands, originally operated by the Freehold and Atlantic Railroad in the 19th century, was opened in 1992. Although termed a bike trail, its short distance and level terrain make it eminently walkable.
    Start at the trail head nearest to Middlesex County on the Aberdeen Township border on Lloyd Road, just off State Highway 35. From there, head to Keyport Borough, “the most underrated town in New Jersey” according to Cheapish.com, for its small-town charm and wonderful bay views. Keyport was, indeed, a key port through the 19th century when it boasted thriving oyster and shipbuilding industries and served as a gateway to New York for coal, agricultural products and goods and one of several gateways to the shore for New Yorkers seeking to escape the city.

Mary Kearney’s School House

  However, the name derives from its origin as the 800-acre Key Grove Farm purchased by the Kearney family in 1714. Mary Kearney’s School House, the second oldest building in town, is located on (where else?) Kearney Street and is now a private home. Several of the nearby 19th-century mansions on Main Street retain the stoops and rings for helping ladies out of their horse-drawn carriages and tying up their horses.

The trail head

    Don’t leave the neighborhood before checking out the Historical Society Museum, also on Main Street, in a Victorian cottage dating from 1836, where exhibits on those bygone oyster and shipbuilding industries (the River Queen, a side-wheel steamer used by Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, was built here) and the aircraft industry (Aeromarine-Klemm Co. built seaplanes and flying boats here) might give you a slightly different perspective on the “small-town charm.” About one block to the east—Keyport was not built on a grid, so streets do not always line up exactly—is the Keyport Fire Museum and Education Center, Monmouth County’s first fire museum. Both museums have some limited regular summer hours on weekends, but you can arrange tours by appointment.

Union Beach wetlands with osprey platform.

    A block south will take you to the Keyport Library, where, despite the fact that it is in Monmouth County, you can enjoy full library privileges if you are a member of a library in the Middlesex County Consortium. If not, you might want to take a peek at the books in the outdoor “little library,” a box of books free for the taking and a place to leave books that you may have finished. From there, you can stroll throughout the town, where many homes bear Keyport Century Home plaques and where a few have little libraries of their own.
    A visit would not be complete without a walk along the waterfront on American Legion Drive, where benches make it convenient to take in the view of New York City. There is also a fishing pier, a boat ramp, educational rain gardens maintained by the Keyport Garden Club and, on Thursday afternoons, a farm market. Clustered in the business district are antique and vintage shops along with the best diner in the state, according to NJ.com, the best ice cream in the tri-state area, according to CBS FM, and a New York Times two-starred Cajun restaurant along with a number of other places to eat and drink, including a vegan restaurant. None of the restaurants is kosher, either here or elsewhere in the towns along the trail.

One of the little libraries in town

  The next day, start early and head for the next town after Keyport, Union Beach. If you thought the view from Keyport was great, wait until you see the view from here! Union Beach is located on Conaskonk Point, the largest expanse of tidal wetlands along Raritan Bay. It makes for an impressive sight on its own, but, in addition, Save Coastal Wildlife, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving wildlife along the Jersey Shore, has erected an osprey platform visible from the trail. The flat expanse allows for an unobstructed view of New York, including the gracefully imposing Verrazano Bridge, and is close enough to have featured in “Steel Ball Run,” a Japanese manga about a cross-country race in which Union Beach is just about the only thing that is not outlandish or supernatural (or both). Be forewarned: It does not appear until Chapter 90.
    For a beautiful and moving view, head off the trail to Firefighter’s Park to see the monument to the victims of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks. Two pillars of black granite carved to replicate the twin towers on a gray granite base back a piece of an I-beam recovered from the ruin. If you stand in front of it, you can look past it to the exact site where the towers stood.

Keansburg Amusement Park

  Back on the trail, from Union Beach head east to Keansburg. You’ll want to be there by noon, when the Keansburg Amusement Park opens. The park dates from 1909, when William Gehlhaus of the New Point Comfort Beach Co. began adding tourist attractions to the bungalow development the company had constructed on filled marshland purchased in 1904. After building a hotel, a dance floor and amusements along a boardwalk, Gehlhaus purchased a steamboat to bring tourists from New York for the weekend. The steamboat, The City of Keansburg, continued to operate until Hurricane Donna demolished docking facilities all along Raritan Bay in 1960.
    In 1996, William Gehlhaus’s grandchildren added Runaway Rapids, a water park, to the much-expanded amusement park, all that is left of the original New Point Comfort real estate development. The park now includes 40 rides, the water park, go karts, arcades, batting cages and games of skill. There is also a fishing pier with available bait and tackle to buy or rent and a sunbathing beach. Bathing is not safe anywhere in Raritan Bay, and there are no lifeguards. Naturally, the park includes a number of places to purchase all varieties of carnival-type food, including licensed premises. You may find yourself spending the rest of the day (and lots of money) there. If you can tear yourself away, however, the Keansburg Museum, open on summer weekend afternoons, is worth a trip.

Atlantic Highlands Municipal Marina

    The Atlantic segment of the trail ends in Atlantic Highlands, a town that packs a lot into a small footprint and a short history. Originally part of Middletown, it began life in the late 19th century as a Methodist camp meeting. Soon boasting an amphitheater and then an auditorium, it was incorporated as a Borough in 1887 and was a popular summer destination for New Yorkers. It was served by rail beginning in the 1890s, then complemented by steamer service beginning shortly after the turn of the 20th century. To accommodate the traffic, at the end of First Avenue the Central Railroad built a pier large enough to accommodate more than one trail at a time. Steamer traffic ceased in the 1940s and the pier burned in 1966; in 1986, ferry service returned in the form of the high-speed SeaStreak.
    Only a little over 1 square mile, Atlantic Highlands has much to offer in natural resources, historic sites and cultural activities. While the trip along the trail has offered increasingly beautiful views of the bay and New York beyond, nothing can touch the magnificent panorama visible from the 266-foot-high scenic overlook on Mount Mitchell—a good reason to travel the trail from west to east. From there, the highest natural elevation on the mainland Atlantic Coast from Maine to the Yucatan, you will see Sandy Hook and the New York skyline. The 9/11 Memorial Plaza will be closed until Aug. 31 for repairs, but the overlooks and the playground are open.

Henry Judson’s Spring, Atlantic Highlands

    In a ravine below Mount Mitchell, Henry Hudson Springs is the oldest historic site on the trail. Legend has it that when Hudson’s ship moored here to restock provisions and the crew replenished their supply of fresh water from the spring, they trampled a sacred Lenape burial ground, which released an evil spirit. Subsequent calamities, of which there were indisputably many, were thus blamed on a resulting curse. The spring now emerges from iron piping protruding through a stone retaining wall and is identified by a marker placed there by the Atlantic Highlands Historical Society in 1977. The water is no longer safe to drink.
    The Historical Society meets in the Strauss Mansion Museum on a rise in the center of town. The building is a 21-room “cottage” built in 1893 by architect Solomon Cohen for Adolph Strauss, a German Jewish importer who was one of a number of Jews to choose to vacation in Monmouth County because they were not welcome elsewhere. The only Queen Anne-style house not in private hands in Monmouth County, it is open to the public on Sundays from noon to four in the afternoon.

Strauss Mansion Museum, Atlantic Highlands

    Contemporary Atlantic Highlands is a popular tourist town and caters to all tastes with plenty to choose from. Its most prominent feature is the municipal harbor marina constructed between 1938 and 1940, the largest on the East Coast with a capacity of over 700 watercraft. Strolling along the docks to admire vessels from trim cabin cruisers to over-the-top yachts can be an afternoon’s pastime, but if it whets your appetite for more, there are several regularly scheduled daily and evening cruises run by different companies as well as regularly scheduled party fishing boats. Most companies also offer charters—a great way to spend a day if you are with a group.
    If you would prefer to stay on land, the town boasts a variety of restaurants, bars and cafes and a brewery and a coffee roaster for a peek behind the scenes, boutiques and vintage shops. There is also a dessert theater which features Sunday matinees, if a more extended time sitting down appeals after all the walking of the last few days.
    And then it’s time to go home. You are probably tired and may be wondering how you managed to amass so many brochures and baubles. But you are surely no longer surprised at what even a small sliver of Monmouth County has to offer the most jaded traveler or long-term resident. Don’t be a stranger.  

SUE KLEINBERG is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.

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