By Jeff Bahr
Paradise off Exit 117
Just 47 miles south of Kearny (Garden State Parkway, Exit 117) the first sandy swath of New Jerseyís famed shoreline begins at Highlands, N.J.
Surrounded by water on three sides ñ the Shrewsbury River to its west, Raritan Bay to its north, and the Atlantic Ocean to its east ñ the hook-like peninsula known as Sandy Hook (the southern portion of the Gateway National Recreation Area) is the northernmost shore point along New Jerseyís 130 miles of coastline. Itís also one of its most intriguing. The reasons for this have nothing to do with boardwalks, carnivals or midways ñ as you might expect ñ rather itís the absence of these that make it so special. Letís don our sunglasses and take a look-see.
Let’s get wet!
If you plan to swim at Sandy Hook Beach during the weekend I have some sage-like advice for you: Arrive early. Otherwise, youíll find the parking lots filled to capacity and your hopes for a refreshing dip dashed.
Like other Atlantic Ocean beaches, Sandy Hook offers surf, pleasant breezes and fun in the sun. Quite unlike them, however, you will also find untouched areas featuring windswept sand dunes, salt marshes, even a holly forest. Another noteworthy feature of this barrier spit is its narrowness. At certain points, the ocean and bay are less than one-tenth-of-a-mile apart. This means that you can see both bodies of water at the same time ñ a visual feast for your seashore senses.
Sandy Hook contains seven swimming beaches. Thereís no entrance fee if you arrive on foot or by bicycle, but a $15 fee is charged if you arrive by car.
New York City has long been a target for foreign forces not on board with our American way of life. Realizing this, the United States Army opened the coastal artillery base Fort Hancock near Sandy Hookís northernmost tip in 1859.
In its earliest days, the installation protected the city from hostile ships with its powerful gun battery. During World Wars I and II, it protected New York Harbor from German subs. Most recently, it functioned as a Nike antiaircraft missile base ñ a prime defense against hostile ìbogiesî with their crosshairs set squarely on the city.
Decommissioned in 1974, Fort Hancock acquired National Historic Landmark status and was opened to tourists. Today, visitors will find the fortís gun batteries and officersí quarters largely intact. Here, too, theyíll encounter Sandy Hook Lighthouse, a 103-foot-tall beauty built in 1764 that carries the distinction of being the oldest working lighthouse in the United States.
Hereís an interesting tidbit: The highest point to be found on the eastern seaboard south of Maine is located in Atlantic Highlands, N.J. (situated just to the west of Highlands). Specifically, it occurs at Mt. Mitchell ñ a 266-foot-high ocean bluff that offers breathtaking views of the Hook and its surrounding waters.
If you find yourself sweating under Sandy Hookís beaming sun, a quick drive to the summit will help to cool you off. From this superb vantage point, visitors can easily see the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and Lower Manhattan, including the new World Trade Center. One of the more interesting 9/11 memorials is situated here. It recalls how people huddled on this very bluff and watched in disbelief as history changed before their eyes.
Navesink Twin Lights
If loftiness is Highlandsí calling card, the Navesink Twin Lights are its signature. As its name implies, this picturesque lighthouse features two beacons ñ one of which is still operable.
The lighthouses, built in 1862, are perched majestically on a hillside some 246 feet above the HighlandsñSea Bright Bridge. Currently operated as a museum (for a fee), visitors, short on time or loot, can walk the lighthouse grounds for free reveling in salt air and sea breezes as they go.
Twin Lights features two claims to fame. It was the first American lighthouse to test a Fresnel lens, and the place where radio genius Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated his wireless telegraph in 1899.
The town of Atlantic Highlands has its own unique set of charms. The Henry Hudson Trail ñ a 24-mile-long multi-use path that beckons walkers and cyclists alike ñ can be found here, as can the circa 1893 Straus Mansion and Museum ñ a 21-room Queen Anne residence that offers a freeze-frame view of the way things were more than a century ago. Shops and restaurants abound along First Ave., the townís main shopping district, so youíll be light of wallet and heavy of belly if you take the walk.
No Highlands visit is complete without a stop at Bahrs Landing (no relation to this reporter) ñ a seafood mainstay on the Shrewsbury River since 1917. Grab yourself some clams or a basket of shrimp and watch the endless procession of boats pass by. Life is good!
The Naked Truth
Hereís an interesting tidbit that the Chamber of Commerce might gloss over:
In the mid-1970s, naturists took over a portion of the recently decommissioned Fort Hancock for the purpose of sunning au natural. Gunnison Beach was picked not just for its tanning potential, but also because the parcel of land is under federal control and not subject to state or municipal laws.
In 1999, after a law change allowed the prohibition of nude beaches by counties and municipalities, Gunnison became New Jerseyís only remaining legal nude beach.
Warm weekends find it brimming with a generous assortment of naked bodies. For those who may be offended by such unabashed activity, posted signs warn beachcombers heading north from the public beaches that theyíre about to enter an area where ìhanging outî can and should be taken in its most literal sense. Vive la diffÈrence!
If using public transportation, take New Jersey Transitís North Jersey Coast Line train to Red Bank, and then board New Jersey Transitís bus # 834 to Highlands. Buses drop off at or near the entrance to Sandy Hook. Phone 1-800-772-2222 for more information.