Road Trip! Destination: NYC's best beaches — Coney Island and the Rockaways
Two of New York's best-known waterfront neighborhoods took a beating last fall from Superstorm Sandy: Coney Island in Brooklyn and the Rockaways in Queens. But crowds are back on both beaches and enjoying local attractions, from rides and hot dogs at Coney Island, to surfing and a funky taco stand in the Rockaways.
“They took a punch in the stomach, there's no question, but they're back strong,” says Robert K. Steel, the city's deputy mayor for economic development. The city spent $270 million to reopen its beaches, Steel says, noting that they're “an important part of the New York experience.”
The city has eight public beaches along 14 miles of coastline, but Coney Island and the Rockaways, while very different, are two of the best-known, especially among tourists.
“At Coney, you've got the amusement park, the boardwalk, the historic attractions,” says Steel, adding that “it's an organized experience” that leaves you “buzzing.”
In contrast, Rockaway — often called The Rockaways — is a great place to chill out, with a mix of beachgoers, surfers, longtime residents and trendy 20-somethings creating a laid-back scene that's been dubbed the “hipster Hamptons.”
There are fun things to see and do at both beaches.
Beth J. Harpaz is a writer with the Associated Press.
Coney Island has been undergoing a comeback for several years, and that redevelopment continues despite severe flooding last fall. The boardwalk looks spiffier than ever, with bright signs and several new venues, including the candy store It'Sugar, 1232 Surf Ave., and Nets by Adidas, 3015 Stillwell Ave., which sells T-shirts, hats and other Nets basketball team gear.
Also new this season: a carousel, though technically it's an old-timer. The antique merry-go-round closed a few years ago but was bought by the city, restored and just reopened near the Parachute Jump and MCU Park, the stadium used by Brooklyn's minor league baseball team, the Cyclones.
The Cyclones team is named for Coney Island's famous Cyclone wooden roller coaster, built in 1927. Another landmark among Coney Island's dozens of rides is the Wonder Wheel, which opened in 1920. The Cyclone's shake, rattle and roll experience is not for the feint of heart, and even the Wonder Wheel offers a thrilling twist to the usual Ferris wheel: Some cars slide back and forth as you get your bird's-eye view.
Fortunes be told
Near the underground entrance to the Wonder Wheel is a booth called Grandmother's Predictions. The mechanical fortune-teller has been there since 1923, but had to be sent off for restoration after Sandy. Grandma looks better than ever after her makeover and offers cards predicting your fate for just 50 cents.
Unlike Disney or Six Flags amusement parks, there's no upfront admission at Coney Island. You can walk around for free, take photos, people-watch and buy tickets for individual rides (Wonder Wheel, $7; Cyclone, $9, carousel, $3). Or buy cards or wristbands good for a number of rides; just remember that there are several different, independently run parks, so a card for Luna Park won't cover the Wonder Wheel, and vice-versa.
Eateries range from hot dogs, fries and seafood at Nathan's Famous, corner of Surf and Stillwell avenues, to a brand-new Mexican-style cantina, Place to Beach, 3070 Stillwell Ave., to Tom's Coney Island, 1229 Boardwalk West, which opened last year. For sublime pizza, walk a few blocks to Totonno, 1524 Neptune Ave., a legendary hole-in-the-wall that lives up to the hype. You can't buy pizza by the slice at Totonno, but one person can make a serious dent in a small pie.
The New York Aquarium, at West Eighth Street on the boardwalk, was closed for seven months due to storm damage. It's reopened about half of its exhibits, including sea lions, penguins, walruses and seals, with admission reduced from $14.95 to $9.95. On Fridays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., admission is by donation.
Events at Coney Island include fireworks at 9:30 p.m. Fridays through the summer, and a movie series, Flicks on the Beach, kicking off July 1. Details: www.coneyislandfunguide.com or NYC & Company's “Neighborhood X Neighborhood” guide for Coney Island at www.nycgo.com/neighborhoods.
By subway, Coney Island is at least an hour from Manhattan.
The Rockaway Beach section of Queens was hard-hit by the storm. There were more than a half-dozen deaths; electricity and train service were disrupted for months; homes, businesses and 2.5 miles of the wooden boardwalk were destroyed.
But the area is coming back. On a recent sunny Saturday, the newly restored shuttle train to the beach was standing-room only. At Rockaway Taco, 95-19 Rockaway Beach Blvd., hipsters in cargo shorts and brimmed hats waited patiently in line for over an hour for fish tacos. And the beach was packed with sunbathers, even where swimming is off limits because of erosion that's left only a narrow strip of sand.
Several shops cater to Rockaway's famous surfing scene. At Boarders, 192 Beach 92nd St., which sells and rents surfboards ($35 for four hours, $50 for the day), the guest book has been signed by customers from as far away as Kazakhstan, Australia, Ecuador, Japan, Holland and South Africa. Storm damage forced Boarders' owner Steve Stathis to “gut the place” and discard more than $30,000 worth of inventory, but, he says, “we're back now.” Stathis says the most popular spot for surfers is off Beach 90th Street, and it gets crowded.
“I won't rent boards until 10 a.m. so it gives the locals four or five hours of surfing for themselves,” he says.
Rockaway is located on a peninsula with the bay and the ocean sides several blocks apart. On the bay, Rockaway Jet Ski, 375 Beach 92nd St., rents Jet Skis ($85 a half-hour on weekends, $75 weekdays) and offers guided Jet-Ski tours, including a four-hour trip from the Rockaways all the way around Manhattan island ($600, though sometimes there are deals online). If the buzz and speed of Jet Skis aren't your style, owner Robert Kaskel also rents kayaks ($25 an hour weekends, $20 weekdays).
The nearby marshlands are sure to please nature-lovers, he says: “Guaranteed you'll see a lot of beautiful things. We have nesting grounds for all kinds of birds and turtles.”
Other places to check out include Blue Bungalow, a beach-theme home and gift shop, 165 Beach 116th St.; the Irish Circle restaurant, a local favorite since 1940 at 101-19 Rockaway Beach Blvd.; Sayra's, a new wine-and-tapas bar, 91-11 Rockaway Beach Blvd.; and the soon-to-open Playland complex with a boutique motel, bars, restaurants and shopping, named for a long-defunct seaside amusement park, 97-20 Rockaway Beach Blvd.
Restoring the beach and boardwalk is a long-term project. Construction equipment abounds and red flags mark areas where swimming is not yet allowed. Areas open to swimmers are subject to change but as of mid-June included Beach 75th to 86th streets and 108th to 146th streets. (Rockaway is notorious for riptides, so don't swim without a lifeguard present.) Concrete boardwalk islands provide beach access at Beach 86th, 97th, 106th and 115th-117th streets. Details: www.nycgovparks.org/parks/rockawaybeach