Thousands of people -- with coolers, beach umbrellas and Frisbees -- visited Long Beach Sunday, the first official weekend of summer after superstorm Sandy ravaged the city's sand and psyche.
"It's one of the most beautiful beaches in the world," said Tim Hughes, 45, of Long Beach, who set up a volleyball net for a group of locals who have met on the West End for 20 years. "It's the same soft sand you'd get in the Hamptons, but without the traffic and the crowds."
Some beachgoers noticed differences after Sandy: glass in the sand, higher dunes, fewer people -- but were glad to return.
"It's much better than I thought it was going to be," said Antoinette Bruno, 42, of Long Beach. "In October, I didn't think I would be here."
Don Sarner, 75, of Long Beach, said he expected that more construction would have been done.
"I miss the boardwalk," Sarner said. "I can't take my bike out to the beach anymore."
Long Beach Patrol's chief lifeguard, Paul Gillespie, said the crowds have decreased compared with last summer.
"People live for the boardwalk. They run, they ride their bikes, then they go eat in town," he said. "The economy will hurt a little, but once they get the boardwalk back up, everything will be fine."
Gillespie, 63, of Long Beach, who has been a lifeguard for 45 years, said he watched the old lifeguard headquarters house on National Boulevard get washed away by the ocean.
"We lost all the bathrooms, all the lifeguard facilities. Everything we have is portable and was brought in," he said.
General admission beach tickets of $12 generated about $204,000 for the first 10 beach days this year, including Memorial Day weekend. That's a decrease of more than $90,000 from the same period last year -- said Bob Piazza, Long Beach commissioner of Parks and Recreation.
"I do get a lot of emails and people ask, 'Is Long Beach open?' " Piazza said. "They think that because the boardwalk is only starting to be repaired, there's nothing to come to."
This year, those who purchase LIRR getaway packages and travel to Long Beach via Penn, Atlantic Avenue and Jamaica stations will receive free bus transfers. The initiative encourages people to visit West End businesses that were "devastated" by Sandy, Piazza said.
Food trucks have been approved to operate on Riverside Boulevard Tuesdays to Sundays through Sept. 2.
"The Shoregasboard" of seven food trucks Sunday were selling everything from smoothies to cheesesteaks. People ate at tables with umbrellas, flanked by palm trees.
"We're doing it for the community, to bring people to the beach," said Joe Goetz, 22, whose family owns Lido Kosher Deli, which has a nearly 60-year history.
Some business owners on East Park Avenue, across from the Long Beach LIRR station, said business was picking up.
"God bless America," said George Babayev, owner of the unisex George's Nail and Hair Salon. "Everybody's back, almost."
Cassandra Bolivar, who has owned Long Beach Craft and Variety -- a general store -- for 17 years, said she moved merchandise to the second floor and reopened the day after Sandy hit.
"It's very different because their houses got destroyed," she said of customers who kept her business open. "You can't sell a beach chair if you don't have an oven . . . I don't want people to forget Long Beach. We're here. We're open."