This winter, when I needed a weekend escape with my two high-energy 5-year-olds, I did something few parents would do — I headed for an old college haunt. Back in the day, it was the last place I would have pictured myself vacationing with my children. But now it fit the bill. I was looking for an authentic, old-school getaway — a place that was affordable and family-friendly but with enough edge to keep me engaged, too.
So we packed up the car and drove to Asbury Park, New Jersey.
The city's glistening beach, flanked by a wide, mile-and-a-quarter-long boardwalk, is its main draw in nice weather. But a host of new kid-friendly attractions — in combination with some now-iconic favorites — have made it a popular all-season playground for families.
When I went to Rutgers in the early '90s, Asbury was the place to go to hear live music. My college photo albums are filled with friends hanging around the legendary dive bar and rock club the Stone Pony and posing in front of Madam Marie's fortunetelling booth, the Temple of Knowledge — immortalized in song by Bruce Springsteen, who famously got his start here.
Restaurants and retail
A decade or two later, the seaside city with the storied music scene has undergone a major renaissance. There is now a slew of year-round boardwalk restaurants such as Pop's Garage, a taco joint that serves standout dishes like sweet corn rolled in cotija, alongside older favorites such as Wonder Bar, which doubles as a pulsing live music venue. Retail has followed suit, with new arrivals like the midcentury modern furniture store Flux Modern, whose clients reportedly include the set designers for "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel."
The city now has an eclectic calendar of year-round public events that include Catsbury, billed as the biggest cat convention on the East Coast, and an Irish Viking parade. And there's a street-art scene, with towering murals my kids loved to look for — when they found one, they'd jump up and down and cheer. Their favorite was the 20-foot mermaid, painted by local artist Mike "Porkchop" LaVallee, on the side of the Sunset Pavilion.
At the center of it all is the Asbury, a boutique hotel affordable offseason rates. When it opened in 2016, housed in a once-derelict Salvation Army building, it was the city's first new hotel in 50 years. In winter months, guests can skate at the hotel's outdoor rink and relax beside a fire pit — or roast marshmallows from the s'mores kits sold from a food truck parked nearby.
Inside, a hallway leads to the newly refurbished Asbury Lanes — in my day, the grungy and faded Fast Lanes bowling alley. When we wandered in on Sunday morning, it was hosting the Little Rockers Band, who dress in "Wizard of Oz" costumes and often perform at noon instead of midnight. My kids didn't want to leave. Luckily, the Asbury Lanes Diner — with surprisingly good chicken fingers on the kids' menu — was on-site. (On Memorial Day, the developer behind the Asbury plans to open the Asbury Ocean Club Surfside Resort and Residences, a 17-story boardwalk hotel and condo complex.)
We started our days at the Asbury's coffee shop, which, fortunately, served good, strong coffee: The kids woke up at 6 a.m. because of the sunrise over the Atlantic. To power up, there were local doughnuts from Purple Glaze, a mother-son team who craft worth-every-calorie treats with Jersey spins such as the Holey Cannoli, with chocolate icing, mini chocolate chips and cannoli filling.
There was no shortage of good food outside the hotel, either. The Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten has a 6,000-square-foot indoor hall with communal tables, more than 90 beers and food my kids love: potato pancakes with apple sauce and sour cream, and the Bavarian Brezel, a soft pretzel with mustard, Liptauer cheese and gherkins. In the winter, the Biergarten features rooftop "igloos," translucent domes with space heaters and table service. Our favorite restaurant on this trip was Porta, a massive industrial Neapolitan pizzeria that's dominated by a wood-fire oven and hung with fairy lights indoors and out.
Bon Jovi onesies
Shops selling vintage clothes, artisanal soaps and onesies featuring the Boss and Bon Jovi line Asbury's Main Street. There are tons of quirky boutiques that will strike a chord with Gen X parents — if you're looking for Cure posters or secondhand Doc Martens, you're in luck. My daughter loved going into the boardwalk dress shop Bettie's Bombshells, which was offering customers a chance to try on Red Hot Red, Marilyn Monroe's favorite lipstick circa 1959 and the store's best seller.
The Convention Hall's Grand Arcade, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was another favorite destination. The once-shuttered building is now open year-round and houses an artisan marketplace, where the kids tried on mermaid outfits and flip-flops while I drank another round of gourmet coffee at the Asbury Park Roastery and bought organic, locally made soap at one of my all-time favorite shops, Big Spoon Little Spoon Naturals.
For the kids, Asbury's main draw is the Silverball Museum, with its row after row of vintage pinball machines, some dating to the 1930s. Its huge collection of arcade games, which visitors are invited to play, encompasses '80s favorites such as Pac-Man and Skee-Ball. The arcade's tall stools are perfect for toddlers and preschoolers, and there are coin-operated rides out front, including two cars, a small train and a purple dinosaur.
As I watched my kids play the retro pinball machines, I felt happy for Asbury, a place that lived for so long only in my memories. Now it would be in my children's memories, too.
IF YOU GO
The Asbury Hotel. Trendy boardwalk hotel offers amenities such as rooftop yoga and on-site bowling. Double rooms start at $115 per night; rates vary seasonally. Through April 30, guests who book three nights in a row get a fourth night free (book with code WINTER19). 732-774-7100, theasburyhotel.com
Porta. Atmospheric pizzeria with picnic benches and boccie in warmer weather. Neapolitan pizzas start at $14. 732-776-7661, pizzaporta.com
Pop’s Garage. At this boardwalk taqueria, tacos — one for $3.50 or mix and match two for $6 — are served on soft corn tortillas, topped with shredded lettuce, onion and cilantro. 732-455-3275, popsgaragenj.com
Silverball Museum. Hands-on collection of retro pinball machines and ‘80s arcade games for all ages. 732-774-4994, silverballmuseum.com/asbury-park/about
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