36 Hours in Rockaway Beach, Queens07/01/2019
It’s been seven years since Hurricane Sandy decimated this barrier peninsula on the southern edge of Queens, tearing the boardwalk from its moorings and scattering debris across the peninsula. But as the scars heal, the working-class neighborhood of Rockaway Beach has transformed from one of the city’s best-kept secrets to a destination beach town, where the D.F.D.’s (“down for the day” in local speak) are packed towel to towel along the expansive shoreline. The weekend A train (yes, this beach is subway-accessible) is often packed with sandy chairs and surfboards, while beach-bag touting Manhattanites line Pier 11 in the Financial District waiting for a ferry. Indeed, the once-grungy surf town is now a cocktail of bohemia and gentrification, where the urban buzz can feel both immediate and worlds away.
36 Hours in Rockaway Beach, Queens
1) 4:15 p.m. Ferry ride
Plying the waters of the five boroughs used to be a pricey tourist treat (the Staten Island Ferry’s ancient route notwithstanding), but now Mayor Bill de Blasio has set up the heavily subsidized citywide ferry system, which offers 54-minute voyages from the canyons of Wall Street to the sea walls of Beach Channel Drive in Rockaway for just $2.75. Hop an early Friday afternoon ferry to beat the ever-growing crowds and nab a seat up top (with maybe a detour to the bar, well-stocked with local beers) and watch as landmarks like the Freedom Tower and Statue of Liberty fade into an ocean-blue horizon.
[This story is part of our package about Queens, New York City’s most diverse borough. It also includes a review of the new TWA Hotel, by our architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, and a whirlwind tour of the Queens food scene.]
2) 6 p.m. Sunset drink
Tucked behind a dilapidated Gulf gas station, on a pothole-plastered bayside stretch of Beach Channel Drive, is one of the best sunset views in New York City: The Wharf Bar & Grill. Nearly invisible from the road, it sits to the west of Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge, offering an uninterrupted panoramic view across Jamaica Bay. Walk through the back bar to the floating dock, where you can dip your toes in the water while sipping a beer and watching the sun fade out and the lights of Manhattan’s skyline blink on.
3) 7:30 p.m. Boardwalk eats
The three concrete bunkers that line the boardwalk date back to Robert Moses, the New York City power broker and shaper, but the modern buzzing Rockaway concession scene is barely a decade old. At the 86th Street hub, Rippers offers the “hardbody” burger for $9: two salty patties fused with smelted American cheese, topped with snappy lettuce, tomato, onion and an orange-tinted, immaculate “sauce.” At 106th Street concessions, an outpost of Caracas griddles the same protein-stuffed arepas ($6 to $10) that drive lines around its East Village location. There are many different vendors that share the long, curving counter at the Beach 97th Street station, though La Cevicheria, serving Peruvian ceviches (ceviche mixto, $13, is a top seller), remains a favorite, both on Instagram and on the plate.
4) 9 p.m. Boardwalk beats
Bonfires on the beach are prohibited, so there are no idyllic acoustic guitar singalongs to join on a nighttime sandy stroll. But this is New York City’s beach, and each concession stand bumps some beats on Friday and Saturday nights. Check out a salsa band or local rock band playing in the corner of the Caracas patio at 106th Street concessions. More rock and punk rips near Rippers, and the Low Tide Bar at the 97th Street concessions has both live bands and a D.J. spinning eclectically unpredictable sets. A malleable curfew agreement cuts the boardwalk thumps to the low hum of conversation around 10 p.m.
5) 9 a.m. Surf like a local
Surfing in Rockaway was once confined to a close-knit and protective community: a countercultural mix of dedicated locals and outsider surfers who dragged their boards on the A train in the depths of winter to catch a heaving winter swell. Now, New York City is a bona fide surf city (just check any surf magazine’s top 10 list), with packed lineups to prove it. To join the masses, head down to one of Rockaway’s two surf beaches at 69th Street, where Locals Surf School operates out of a black tent. Run by two, well, locals, Mike Reinhardt and Mike Kololyan, the surf school has both group ($85 for two hours, includes gear) and private lessons ($100 per session). For pre-lesson breakfast, the two also just opened Locals Collective, a coffee shop one block from the surf beach that also doubles as a mini showroom for the local shaper Joseph William Falcone, a.k.a. “Joey Clams.” If you can already surf down the face of the wave and don’t need instruction, Boarders, another local shop on Beach 92nd, rents boards ($35 to $50) and wetsuits ($5 with board, $10 without).
6) 12 p.m. The taco that changed Rockaway
Before Hurricane Sandy, the Rockaway Beach of the 2000s could be divided into two eras: pre- and post-taco. Summer for the D.F.D.’s officially started not on Memorial Day, but whenever the famous Rockaway Taco shack flipped on its fryers. Though the original location has since closed, the famous fish taco — flash-fried fresh whitefish topped with cabbage slaw and chipotle crema, and wrapped in a griddle-softened flour tortilla — can now be found at Tacoway Beach, a shack in the back of the Rockaway Beach Surf Club on Beach 87th. The fish tacos ($3.50, $1 extra for guacamole, which you definitely want) are why you’re here, but the surf club hosts events all summer. Check the calendar to see what’s happening. And try to spot the high-water mark from Sandy on the wall, memorialized in one of the many murals.
7) 2 p.m. Biking, hiking and galleries
Grab one of the 600 dockless Lime bikes littering sidewalks around Rockaway ($1 to unlock, 15 cents per minute after) and take the scenic route along the boardwalk and Rockaway Beach Boulevard to Fort Tilden and Gateway National Recreation Area, where you’ll find old Army barracks that have been converted into galleries by the Rockaway Artists Alliance. Head toward sTudio 7 gallery, open most weekends ($5 suggested donation), which occasionally features exhibitions in a massive abandoned auto-repair plant that looks like a set piece from “Chernobyl.” Then hike east to the overgrown brush of Fort Tilden, following the trails through the lush green thicket to numerous abandoned concrete “batteries,” constructed to protect the former base’s huge artillery guns during World War II, now left to nature and the occasional graffiti artist. Take the stairs up Battery Harris East for one of the best, and most surreal, panoramic vistas of open ocean, wild green growth and the far-off New York City skyline.
8) 6 p.m. Sunset from a Jet Ski
Jamaica Bay is one of the largest nature preserves within city limits in the country. Grab a high-speed Jet Ski from Rockaway Jet Ski and experience the bay at 50 miles per hour during an hourlong sunset tour ($150). The guides will help you navigate the maze of waterways and islands, where airplanes taking off from nearby John F. Kennedy International Airport cast shadows over the barges, yachts, fishing boats and sailboats navigating the shoals. The tour wraps around the western expanse just as the sun turns the surface of the sea to slate, the skies to lavender and the adrenaline ebbs.
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9) 8 p.m. Uzbekistan by the sea
Uma’s is likely the only Uzbek restaurant anywhere to have a surfboard rack outside it’s doors and a constant stream of surf videos above the bar. But the Rockaway favorite — a rare year-round restaurant — brings the flavors of the Silk Road to the sea. Start with Uma’s Salad ($12), a smoky blend of roasted peppers, fried eggplant and fresh tomatoes layered into a silky heap with an accent of garlic and a mound of shaved feta. Though the menu’s dumplings and meat skewers are worthy, especially the saucer-sized Manti dumplings, any inaugural Uma’s feast has to feature the plov ($13), Uzbekistan’s national dish: spiced beef over carrots, rice and chickpeas, all spiked by the sour Uzbek red raisins that the owners, Conrad Karl and his wife, Umida, known as Uma, ship in from Uzbekistan. Splash homemade chile sauce on top and wash it down with a Ukranian lager on draft.
10) 9:30 p.m. Rock with Whit
The colorful, foul-mouthed pizziola Whitney Aycock is beloved in Rockaway, though perhaps less adored by local authorities. After being forced from two locations in less than a year, Mr. Aycock now has a sprawling indoor-outdoor restaurant, Whit’s End, with his signature pies (starting at $10) and inventive chicken parm bolognese ($22), and has lines spilling out the door. But in the back, which is also accessible through an open chain link fence off Beach 97th Street, Mr. Aycock has built a makeshift stage, and early summer weekends have capped with Grateful Dead cover bands. Though the police have occasionally asked him to turn it down, and Mr. Aycock abides, the B.Y.OB. party often continues well past the encore.
11) 9 a.m. Healthy relaxation
Some people just want to go to the beach and relax. So, do that, after you swing by Breakwater Surf Co. for last-minute beach gear. For more active relaxation, there’s yoga by both the ocean and the bay. Sunday mornings at the Beach 106th Street concessions offer a donation-based yoga class that starts at 8:30 a.m. (suggested donation is $15, bring your own mat); for more of a challenge, head to the bay behind the Thai Rock restaurant, where Rockaway Jet Ski offers an hourlong standup paddle board yoga class ($50, with gear).
12) Noon. Digging through the crates
The New York City craft beer craze has planted a flag on the peninsula at Rockaway Brewing Company, which began as a backyard home-brewing experiment in Far Rockaway and has since expanded to northern Queens. Their Rockaway tap house is built in a cavernous old warehouse, with a pool table and board games, and doubles as a used record store, with crates along the back wall stuffed with aging vinyls. Standouts on tap are ales crafted for a sunny, sandy day, like the crisp and cleansing Rockaway Pilsner or the hopped-up wheat DaBeach ale. Outside the brewery, a Rockaway Taco veteran, Sarah Peltier, slings shrimp and mushroom tinga tacos and generous beef shank nachos to share. So, go ahead, have one more taco.
Vacation rentals through sites like Airbnb are the preferred method of lodging in Rockaway, which has countless bohemian bungalows and luxury beach-view condos for rent each weekend. One bedroom in a shared house can be as low as $50 per night, and multiple-bedroom apartments with water views can get as high as $500 per night.
Hotel options aren’t plentiful, or traditional. The recently opened High Tide (from $140) is an eight-room hotel offering studios and two-bedroom suites, each designed by a local artist. There is no reception and guests are emailed door and room codes. It’s a trendy and central location, but the bass beat from the bar below can sometimes seep through the floor. The Inn Your Element Bed and Breakfast (rooms from $149) is not unlike an Airbnb; rooms are quiet and comfortable.
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Nick Corasaniti is a New Jersey-based correspondent, covering the politics, policy, people, trains, beaches and eccentricities that give the Garden State its charm. A New Jersey native, he previously covered presidential campaigns for The Times. @NYTnickc • Facebook
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