by Karen Rubin
We found ourselves constantly surprised during our fall weekend getaway to Red Bank, on the New Jersey shore, just about an hour south of New York City (without traffic).
It is ideal for a getaway – so near and yet providing that most wonderful sense of being far away from the everyday – and so much more than we expected.
We arrived at the Oyster Point Hotel late on a Friday, pleasantly surprised to find a classy, contemporary boutique hotel so picturesquely poised on the Nevasink River – and our room, No. 510, on the top floor, with the most glorious view of this undulating river, sparkling with the lights of Red Bank in the night.
In the stunning Pearl Lounge – another surprise, set at the base of an atrium that goes to the full height of the building, with a fireplace and beautiful sofas which you see as you ascend or descend the windowed wall of the elevator – we mentioned to Mike, the bartender, that we had an interest in biking, and he painstakingly, in pink magic marker, mapped directions to what we found as an absolute jewel – Sandy Hook.
We awake to see a lone person in a scull boat, slide across the flat river water, as the light begins to color the sky blue.
We are pleasantly surprised by the coffee and croissants laid out for guests, and the New York Times among a selection of newspapers, we took our treats to an enclosed patio that overlooks the river, with plush sofas and pillows.
Raring to go, we followed Mike’s directions and set out over a small bridge over the river, to an area so rich in history, and well, apparently plain rich, judging by the mansion homes with waterfront views. The winding road led through small villages like Middletown and Locust where there is preserved greenspace, to the Highlands, following the Nevasink River Road, to Navesink, to Route 36 which led us over another bridge, to Sandy Hook.
Along the way, we pass many intriguing places – Huber Woods Park which has an environmental center, Hartshorne Woods Park, and see signs for the Twin Lights National Historic Site, which has been recommended to us by Mike, and we plan to visit on the way back.
We make our way to Sandy Hook, which is part of the Gateway National Park – the same national park that is in Brooklyn and Queens and includes the waters in between.
Sandy Hook is an immensely popular beach area, and deservedly so – essentially a narrow sand bar where you see water on both sides, gentle sand and lovely dunes with grasses, and wonderful rest facilities. I can easily imagine how crowded the beaches must get in season, but on this unseasonably warm autumn day, it offers perfect tranquility and the excitement of discovery.
In this season, Sandy Hook is the domain of fishermen, bikers, hikers and nature goers, and windsurfers.
There are constant surprises that unfold along the nearly seven-mile-long trail.
The trail is beautiful – scenic and varied, going from sand and sea grasses to a forest glade in stunning fall color – and the surprises just keep coming.
You are riding along and all of a sudden, missiles – actual missiles – pop into view. This is the Nike Missile Base. You see satellite radar and more missiles and small buildings, and your imagination races.
Continuing on, you come to a whole settlement of buildings and open field that is Fort Hancock, which protected the nation from the 1890s through the Missile Age, and is now a National Historic Landmark.
The buildings, largely vacant, make an impressive sight. But they are not entirely vacant – there is a laboratory and various buildings are used for different purposes including a school, and you can visit History House, a restored home on Officer’ Row.
Then the Sandy Hook Lighthouse comes into view.
You ride toward it but before you get to it, you come upon a fascinating array of the remains of battlements that date back to the 1890s. They have a surreal, even artful quality to them, the way they just come out of the sand and dunes – such a counterpoint to the adjacent beach houses that remind you of Sandy Hook’s modern use.
There are historic markers which explain what they were. You come upon the Mortar Battery and Battery Gunnison and the Battery Potter – two of them, the Mortar Battery and the Battery Potter the first of their type in the country.
Named for General Joseph Potter, Battery Potter was the first disappearing gun battery in the United States, and the first and only steam-powered hydraulic-lift gun battery. This innovation allowed the gun to be raised and lowered inside the protection of a concrete bunker, which in turn was encircled within an earthwork slope for protection and camouflage. This steam hydraulic system used for Battery Potter’s gun-lift carriages was soon rendered obsolete by a new counterweight system for raising and lowering guns. The guns were removed in 1906, and the battery was adapted to serve as a tracking and observation station for other batteries at Sandy Hook.
Construction of the Mortar Battery, the first of its kind for American harbor defense, also began in1890 and was completed in 1894. The battery consisted of four pits; each pit with four 12-inch caliber mortars, for a total of 16 mortars that could fire half-ton armor-piercing projectiles. After World War I, the structure was converted to a communications center, and it became the New York Harbor Defense Command Post during World War II.
Battery Potter, the Mortar Battery, and Battery Gunnison are considered nationally significant structures and are part of the Fort Hancock and the Sandy Hook Proving Ground Historic District, which altogether contains 110 historic buildings and 16 batteries. The district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on April 24, 1980, spanning from 1859, through the 1950s and 1960s Cold War Era, until 1974. The nomination recognizes the importance of the defense installations at Sandy Hook in guarding New York City.
Battery Potter is open for tours on Saturdays and Sundays in September and October, from 1 to 4 pm. You meet a Ranger or a volunteer to go inside this�man-made cave-like structure. You can see where soldiers once manned the guns, and feel the damp conditions created by 20-foot thick walls of concrete.
You can stroll around Fort Hancock, visit the Fort Hancock Museum, Battery Potter,�Battery Gunnison and History House, a restored home on Officer’ Row. You even can tour the Nike Missile Sites (check the sitewww.nps.gov/gate/planyourvisit/thingstodosandyhook.htm for schedule).
Sandy Hook Lighthouse
Our ride brings us right to the Sandy Hook Lighthouse – built in 1764 – that’s 1764! – this is the oldest operating lighthouse in the country. At certain times, we are told, you can climb it (it was closed when we visited), but there is a video presentation in the barn that is extremely well done. The video shows that the lighthouse was attacked during the Revolutionary War… by the Americans! They were fearful of it coming under the control of the British; it wound up that the British controlled the harbor, anyway. Now it seems the lighthouse is far inland, but when it was built, it was 500 feet from shore.
The Sandy Hook Lighthouse, Keepers’ Quarters and Barn tell the story of the lonely life of a sentinel of the sea.
The main floor has exhibits on New Jersey lighthouses, while the upper floors are offices and lodging for the Foundation and the NJ Lighthouse Society, the volunteer group that conducts Lighthouse tours for the NPS.
It is open to the public weekends from April through November, noon to 4 p.m. and admission is free; tours and talks are presented by the New Jersey Lighthouse society (call the Visitors Center, 732-872-5970).
For more information on the Gateway National Recreation Area, 732-872-5970, www.nps.gov/gate/planyourvisit/thingstodosandyhook.htm.
We’ve worked up an appetite on the bike ride, and go back over the bridge to explore a historic area of the Highlands, on the inlet that looks over at Sandy Hook, where we have just been. We find a wonderful place where we can sit outside on the patio and enjoy the water activity, at the Inlet Café (in season, there is entertainment next door).
Then we are off to continue our exploration of the intriguing site that looms over the area: the Twin Lights.
We take a road that winds up and around the promontory, going through a residential area.
I love lighthouses, and the Twin Lights is unlike any I have ever seen before. Its structure is simply magnificent and imposing, and the exhibit inside is utterly fascinating. And you get to climb the stairs to the top (actually not that high because the lighthouse starts off on a high point) and are treated to an amazing view from 250 feet high.
The literature notes, “Situated 200 feet above sea level atop the Navesink Highlands, Twin Lights has stood as a sentinel over the treacherous coastal waters of northern New Jersey since 1828. Named Navesink Lightstation, it became known as the ‘Twin Lights of Highlands’ to those who used its mighty twin beacons to navigate. As the primary seacoast light for The Highlands, New York Harbor, it was the best and brightest light in North America for generations of seafarers. Many a life and cargo were saved by the sweep of its light.”
The current structure was built in 1862 of local brownstone at a cost of $74,000, and replaced the earlier buildings that had fallen into disrepair. Architect Joseph Lederle designed the new lighthouse with two non-identical towers linked by keepers’ quarters and storage rooms. This unique design made it easy to distinguish Twin Lights from other nearby lighthouses. At night, the two beacons, one flashing and the other fixed, provided another distinguishing characteristic.
There are many firsts associated with Twin Lights.
Twin Lights was the first to use the Fresnel lens, developed by French physicist and engineer Augustine Fresnel. Commodore Matthew Perry was sent by Congress to France to examine the lights, and in 1841, two of the lenses were installed as a test. Ten years later, Congress ordered that the Fresnel lens be used throughout the system.
In 1898, an enormous electric-arc bivalve lens, nine-feet in diameter, replaced the South Tower beehive-type light. To illuminate it, the Lighthouse Service built an electric generator house. It was one of the brightest navigational lights ever used in the country – visible for 22 miles, and could even be seen reflecting in the night sky from 70 miles away. It was so bright and the generator so noisy that neighbors complained and ultimately it was taken out of service from the North Tower.
Now you get to see that enormous electric-arc bivalve lens rotating at near eye-level in the power house, with a model of the innovative electric generator.
The Fresnel lens was not the only history-making innovation at Twin Lights.
In 1829, the Merchant’s Exchange, a commodity exchange for buying and selling goods, erected a semaphore tower here, to relay messages between incoming ships and the Exchange office in Manhattan. Since then, it had been used by Western Union and other telegraph companies.
The first lamps to be fueled by kerosene were used here in 1883, and in 1898, it was one of the first electrically lit seacoast lighthouses in the country.
In 1899, Guglielmo Marconi was invited to America by New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett to demonstrate his wireless telegraph, by using it to report on the America’s Cup yacht races occurring off the tip of Sandy Hook. Marconi placed an antenna and receiving station at Twin Lights, and relayed the reports to the newspaper’s offices.
The United States Army also saw the value of using Twin Lights as a test site for experimental electronics. In the 1920′s and 30′s, various radar devices, developed at nearby Ft. Monmouth, were tested here. Many of these prototypes were later used in the early days of World War II.
The Twin Lights finally was shut down in 1949; the State of New Jersey acquired it in 1962 and reopened as a historic site that year. (Twin Lights Historic Site, Lighthouse Road located off Rte. 36, Highlands, NJ 17732, 732-872-1814). Admission is free; open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Memorial Day to Labor Day), and Wednesday Through Sunday, September to May. Guided tours are available with advance reservations.
With more time, we would have biked from Atlantic Highlands on a nine-mile long Henry Hudson Railtrail, that extends into Aberdeen (but we did about half the trail from Aberdeen on our way back to New York).
Oyster Point Hotel
The Oyster Point Hotel is perfect for a getaway. It is classy and cozy, a contemporary boutique hotel hugging the shore of the Navesink River. It offers 58 beautifully renovated guest rooms and meeting rooms that feature panoramic water views and Wireless High Speed Internet, superb service.
The rooms have every amenity – wireless Internet (they even provide a wireless Ethernet adapter at no charge if you don’t have a Wi-Fi card), iPod dock, turndown service (another pleasant surprise), cable television, flat-screen TV, 400-thread count Egyptian cotton bed linens, and incredibly comfortable beds.
Dining at the intimate Pearl restaurant at Oyster Point is upscale and serene – a perfect spot to relax and enjoy contemporary American cuisine with tastes of Asia and the American Southwest from seasonal ingredients. Summer standouts include Tuna Tempura and Shrimp, Scallops and Lobster Ceviche. Our late-night Angus burger ($10) was sensational.
Pearl Lounge is a delightful gathering place with a casually, classy, elegant atmosphere, where local sophisticates can meet world travelers over cocktails and lite fare.
The Oyster Point Hotel also has a fitness room with the latest in Nautilus and cardiovascular equipment, a ballroom, and stunning meeting rooms with waterfront views.
The Oyster Point Hotel also offers a Marina with overnight slips for guests arriving by boat – and even if you are not, it makes for a beautiful sight.
For a very different ambiance from the Oyster Point Hotel’s contemporary styling, you can choose its sister property, The Molly Pitcher Inn, located just around the corner.
The Molly Pitcher Inn offers first-class amenities with the sophistication of an elegant small luxury hotel. Built in 1928, this national landmark offers a traditional grandeur, with a beautiful waterfront setting. In the evening, a pianist entertains at the bar-lounge. Among its amenities, an outdoor pool (in season). Molly Pitcher Inn, 88 Riverside Avenue, Red Bank, NJ 07701, 800-221-1372, www.mollypitcher-oysterpoint.com.
The village of Red Bank, walking distance from the hotel, is charming with red brick sidewalks, Victorian street lamps, and whole blocks of Victorian buildings dating from the second half of the 1800s, and lovely cafes with outdoor dining. We were surprised to see two music shops – Jack’s Music Shoppe, and a guitar store – a tribute to Red Bank’s musical heritage (William Count” Basie was born here in 1904 and Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen live in the neighborhood). There are all sorts of boutiques, not to mention various and sundry investment banks and brokerages that are very telling about who lives here – in fact, Red Bank is listed as a top 10 place to live.
Red Bank is a year round destination that draws visitors with its sophisticated mix of dining, shopping, live theater and concerts – Two River Theater is a critically acclaimed new performance venue.
One of our surprises is that Red Bank is accessible by ferry from Manhattan, that make the getaway more of a complete vacation. SeaStreak offers high-speed catamaran services from Manhattan to Central New Jersey with a fleet of seven vessels ranging in capacity from 149 passengers to 400 passengers. SeaStreak provides daily year-round ferry services to Atlantic Highlands, Conners/Highlands from Pier 11 Wall Street and East 35 Street. It offers indoor and outdoor seating, full service bar, rest rooms and complimentary parking. The ride takes over an hour and costs $40 R/T (800-BOAT RIDE, www.seastreak.com).
It is also accessible by New Jersey transit North Jersey Coastline train from Penn Station making the entire trip stress free (www.njtransit.com).
By car, it is one mile off Exit 109 of the Garden State Parkway.
Red Bank Visitors Center, 20 Broad Street, Red Bank, NJ 07701, 732-741-9211, www.OnlyOneRedBank.com.
Wednesday, 18 November, 2009
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