Summer in the Garden State

One of the things I love about the field of teaching English as a Second Language is the diverse number of ways I can earn money. Last year, I was feeling a little bit of “daily grind” restlessness at my job. I wanted to step back from teaching for a little while, develop a new set of skills, and work a little further towards earning a freelance income. So last summer, I took a short hiatus from teaching and spent seven weeks in Central New Jersey working at ETS, a large educational testing company.

I considered commuting daily from my apartment in Manhattan to Princeton, but I would have had to either take three different trains, or drive 90-minutes each way, five days a week. Crossing the George Washington Bridge every day at rush-hour was an immediate deal breaker, so I rented a room in nearby Ewing. I drove my car to work each day, which gave me a nice break from the sweltering heat of the NYC subway system, and also a roommate, which I had not had (other than my husband) in almost 20 years.

My husband and I alternated weekends between New York and New Jersey. Neither of us enjoyed being apart but each weekend felt like a special occasion and we planned short getaways to maximize our time together. I’ve always loved summer in the Northeast but my focus has been on upstate New York. The Catskills, Hudson Valley, and the Adirondacks are gorgeous in the summer, but I also grew up upstate, so it always seemed natural to head there for summer excursions. After my summer of exploring New Jersey though, my map has gotten a little wider and I will definitely keep these places in mind when making summer plans. Here are my favorite New Jersey adventures (including one that was pretty much a disaster) that I had last summer.

 

Ocean Grove, NJ
Banish all reality TV stereotypes you have before heading to this beach town, nicknamed  “God’s Square Mile at the Jersey Shore.” Founded in 1869 as a Christian seaside resort, the land within the shore is still owned by a religious organization called the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association.

The small downtown area is dominated architecturally by the Great Auditorium, where worship services can accommodate over 6,000 people. In many ways, this is a typical Jersey shore town. The narrow streets are lined with colorful Victorian homes, many now operating as bed and breakfasts, and the downtown area, just a few steps from the beach, has enough cafes, restaurants, and shops to sample even if you stay all summer long.

Besides the massive church, Ocean Grove is conspicuous for its tent city, made up of 114 tents close enough to each other that neighbors can probably hear each other slathering on suntan lotion. These accommodations are available for summer rentals, but the waiting list is about ten years long, with the same renters often returning year after year. The beach at Ocean Grove is wide and clean, and charges a daily/weekly fee, as do other Jersey beaches. The sale of alcohol is prohibited in town, but restaurants will usually let you bring your own. You’re also a short walk away from the non-dry Bradley Beach and Asbury. Another result of the town’s religious ownership is that the beach is closed until noon on Sunday’s, presumably because everyone is at church anyways.

Canoeing
This was the surprise highlight of my summer. At first, I was worried that a 10-mile canoe trip would be too exhausting to be fun. But when you sit in the front of the canoe like I did, you really only have to splash your paddle around a little bit to steer the canoe in the right direction. My husband may have a different take on this, since he sat in the back and picked up all the slack, but from up front, it was a gorgeous day on the Delaware River. Even in the dead of the busy summer season, there were moments when the river sprawled out in front of me as far as the eye could see, without another person in sight. The water was blue-black and perfectly still, and when we got too hot, we pulled over to park in the shade and jump in the water. At one point, lightning suddenly split open the sky and it rained so hard I couldn’t open my eyes to see where I was steering, so we pulled over to wrap ourselves in our raincoats and sit out the storm. Luckily we had rented a dry-bag, so we weren’t worried about our wallets or phones. After ten minutes, the rain stopped, the clouds vanished, and the sun bore down even hotter than before.

Make sure you bring lots of water and sunscreen, a hat, a raincoat if rain is in the forecast, and if you don’t have your own, rent a dry bag, which really eased my mind about any of my valuables getting wet. We went with Edge of the Woods Outfitters and had an excellent experience all around.

Tubing
OK, here’s the one summer adventure that went awry. A couple of weekends after our canoeing trip, I couldn’t get the peace and beauty of that day out of my mind and I wanted to get back on the river. We opted to try something new and go tubing, but if there’s any tranquility in tubing, it stayed far, far away from me. We arrived at the headquarters of Delaware River Tubing to find a massive crowd of people already waiting to board the buses that would transport them to the river. We had reserved our space online ahead of time but after we checked in, we waited for close to two hours before we actually got a ride to our drop-in point. There was no apparent person in charge and entire groups of people cut in line in front of us.

The chaotic and unorganized scene, plus two hours of withering under the blazing sun as we stood in line had put me in a foul mood and it only got worse from there. Unlike our canoeing experience, the point where we dropped in was packed with people drinking beer and shouting across the water to each other as their primary means of communication. I have no judgement on the drinking and I really tried to enjoy myself. But I missed our canoe, where I could move around freely, take photos, or grab a cold drink out of my cooler. The whole tubing day consisted of trying to find a comfortable position on the inner tube and awkwardly paddling down the river while my life jacket nearly strangled me, while entire families staggered around drunkenly on the shore shouting sarcastic remarks at the people passing by.

We were also grossly unprepared. People who tube take it seriously. Groups had their tubes strung together with rope, sometimes as many as 20 people strong. A floating cooler or two usually bobbed between them, which I imagined were full of beer and ice cold water. My husband and I had not understood the system, and we had only our smelly life jackets and our nearly useless handheld plastic paddles that were given out with our tubes. After reflecting on the day, I now realize that if I was looking to repeat my canoeing experience, I should have gone canoeing.

I don’t think I’ll be tubing again any time soon, but if a drunken meander down the river sounds like fun, by all means, this experience is for you. Bring a floating cooler and pack more cold drinks than you think you need, and consider renting one canoe and then stringing your tubes to the back of it with rope. Then you can alternate between sitting upright and paddling the canoe and lying down uncomfortably in your tube.

Frenchtown, New Hope, Lambertville
Located on opposite sides of the Delaware River, New Hope and Lambertville are both quaint river towns, with a mixture of eclectic boutiques, bed and breakfasts, and of course that perfect summer treat: homemade ice cream. A few miles to the north (on the Jersey side) is Frenchtown, which possesses much of the same charm as New Hope and Lambertville, but it’s smaller and infused with a hippie vibe that sets it apart. Standouts from these three towns include Moo Hope Ice Cream in New Hope, a delectable brunch at Lovin’ Oven in Frenchtown (If you don’t see the grilled chicken sandwich covered in mozzarella cheese, prosciutto, and peaches, ask for it because it was heavenly), and Chimney Hill Estate Inn in Lambertville. Located on a pretty country road with a llama farm out back and freshly baked cookies in the Butler’s pantry, it was the perfect antidote to a tough day of tubing.

Princeton
The dominant downtown presence here, of course, is the stunning Princeton University campus. I loved wandering around on a living slice of history, reading the inscriptions on the many statues and sculptures, and snapping endless photos of the art and architecture. The Princeton University Art Museum is free and manageable to see in a couple of hours or less. They have a nice mixture of art including Byzantine, Asian, and photography, as well as an eclectic rotation of regular exhibitions. Just a short walk away on Nassau Street, an upscale woolen apparel shop called Landau houses the Einstein Museum with news articles, photos and other memorabilia that was collected from the community during Einstein’s twenty years of living in Princeton. On the last day of my summer job, I finally made it to Princeton Cemetery, full of extremely old gravestones dating as far back as the founding of the cemetery in 1757. Aaron Burr Sr. and Jr. are both buried here. Vice President Burr’s father was a president of Princeton University and his grave is the oldest surviving monument in the cemetery. Grover Cleveland is also buried here.

Yankee Doodle Tap Room is a fun place to have a cold drink while taking in some casual history. An iconic Norman Rockwell painting hangs above the bar and an inscription which welcomes guests, dating back to 1756, is carved above the stone hearth. For fresh sushi or basic mouth-watering ramen in a long-standing Princeton establishment, go to Ajihei, whose revamped menu was recently reviewed in the NY Times. Note that it’s BYOB and good for small groups only because of its size. For some reason, Contes Pizza and Bar completely got under my skin and I went back again and again. They serve a very good thin-crust pizza, and probably because it’s been in the Contes family since 1936, the restaurant feels like nostalgia to me, like a long-standing family place that we don’t see nearly enough of anymore. I suggest topping off any meal with house made ice cream from Thomas Sweet, and finally, Small World Coffee was my go-to place for a cappuccino and an evening with my laptop.

I thoroughly enjoyed my New Jersey summer, but when it was over, I was thrilled to ditch my car and meld back into the chaos of city life with my husband, both of which feel like home to me. I will definitely expand my experiences in that region every summer.

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