One Tank Trips: Stress relief at quaint and quiet Ocean Grove, N.J.

Photo by Jeff Bahr/ Quaint tent community greets visitors at Ocean Grove.


By Jeff Bahr

The real Jersey shore

If you mention the Jersey shore to almost anyone these days, images of Seaside Heights and the Jersey Shore TV show, which is filmed in town, will probably come to mind. That association can be a genuine blast if you’re youngish and hunger for the latest facts behind Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi’s “shocking” pregnancy or Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino’s latest female conquest, but not so good if you’re a bit longer in the tooth looking for respite from such manufactured drama.

The real Jersey shore is comprised of many quiet (“dead” in youth-speak) beach communities that have little or nothing to do with such hormone-driven antics. That’s as it should be. Many of us reach a point in our lives where the frantic pace of the midway somehow loses its allure. It is then that we look for charming towns – cute, quiet places – where we can soak up our surroundings and decompress.

Cape May is perhaps the most celebrated of these restful spots along the Jersey shore, but it’s also the farthest afield. If you think three hours of monotonous Parkway driving is too hefty a price to pay to reach such a land-based nirvana, boy do I have the alternative for you!

It’s hip to be square

Ocean Grove, N.J., is often overlooked in travel brochures because, in truth, it’s the antithesis of a “happening” place. With no amusements on its boardwalk and a decidedly laid-back pace, this “dry” town (Ocean Grove prohibits the sale of alcohol) repels the younger generation as effectively as a chaperone at a sleepover. But the kids’ loss is everyone else’s gain. Ocean Grove is steeped in history, brimming with charm, and refreshingly quaint when compared to other seaside towns. Let’s check it out.

Camptown USA

Ocean Grove emerged in 1869 as an outgrowth of the “camp meeting” religious movement. The idea was simple. Bring the faithful (in this case Methodists) to an agreeable location for a few days where, unburdened by daily chores, they could receive God’s word through a series of orations given by prominent preachers and speakers.

Due to the popularity of the revival – which traced at least in part to the new town’s beautiful seaside location – the seaside meeting place became known as the “Queen of Religious Resorts” by the early 20th century. Even today, the town functions in this heavenly capacity. It’s a feat that’s earned Ocean Grove the honor of being the longest active camp meeting site in the United States. Take that, Salt Lake City!

Tents aplenty

In addition to Victorian houses so astoundingly attractive they helped to earn the town’s Ocean Pathway listing as one of the 10 most beautiful streets in all of America, people come here to see the tents. Before these can be effectively described, you will need to forget the “roughing it” concept that the word tent implies and think more along the lines of “impossibly adorable cloth vestibules designed for peaceful contemplation.”

But as fetching as these are, their looks are deceiving. Each one of Ocean Grove’s 114 celebrated canopies is in reality a hybrid structure. The rear portion – built of wood and housing the kitchen and bathroom — stands yearround, while the front section is erected and used during the warmer months only.

Most residents use the tent portion as a sitting room where they read and relax, entertain guests, etc., and many have moved their beds here to sleep in the salt-air glory that the Jersey shore is famous for. A stroll past the tents often finds many of them with their doors swung wide open – a situation that ensures a great interior view for curious tourists.

The Stokes statue, named for Rev. Ellwood Stokes, a founder of the Camp Meeting Movement at Ocean Grove, stands in front of The Great Auditorium.


The Great Auditorium

Appropriately, the tent community encircles The Great Auditorium. The name is more than apt. The mammoth allwood structure, built in 1894, has become the epicenter of summer activity in Ocean Grove, and its history is every bit as rich as its grand Victorian architecture.

Seven U.S. presidents including Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon have spoken here, and musicians like Enrico Caruso, John Philip Sousa, and Peter Paul and Mary have made magic beneath its timber roof. The building currently seats over 6,000 people. This sounds impressive until it’s learned that it once accommodated 10,000! The hall is shaped in such a way that a performer’s voice resonates throughout the enclosure without amplification. Every summer during Camp Meeting Week performers take to the stage (2012 shows are slated for Friday, July 27 – Sunday, Aug. 5). This year Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell are scheduled to perform. How’s that for a nostalgia fest?

Antiques, banned ‘hooch’ and ice cream

Ocean Grove’s shopping district is rather small (most of the shops are located on Main Ave.) but you know what they say about things that come in small packages. Boutiques, bric-a-brac and antique shops rule the day here, but ambience is what this place is really about. For this reason, there are generally as many people walking past the shops as dropping in for a visit. An abundance of outdoor eateries are featured on Main Ave., so your stomach will be well taken care of, but, as mentioned earlier, your consumption will need to be done in the complete absence of spirits (other than the Holy Spirit, that is). But don’t fret. A great treat exists at Nagle’s Apothecary Café, an old-time pharmacy/ice cream parlor that also serves delicious sandwiches. Here one will find an array of gooey delights including Nagel’s egg cream (yum!) and hand-drawn cherry Cokes. Nagle’s has become a local institution in town and for good reason. The ice cream served here is good enough to make most forget alcohol – temporarily at least.

Despite its pious Christian history, Ocean Grove stands at the ready to be enjoyed by any savvy enough to seek out its charms. Go there for a swim ($5-a-day passes are available at the boardwalk), a stroll, a meal, a concert or all of the above. But do go. As surely as this town is called “God’s square mile” many believe He would want you to.

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