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Spring Lake, NJ: Suburb-by-The-Sea

Once is not enough

An inn with a porch, a patch of rough weather, an hour or two aboard a boat, hot and cold running lobster, shadow-dappled back roads to drive, and a Main Street breakfast joint that keeps pouring decent coffee no matter how long you linger over the papers: These are my requirements for a mid-summer beach get-away from New York City. Aren’t they everyone’s?

A New Englander by birth, I admit that Maine is true north on the compass in my heart. Ten hours on the road is a small price to pay to reach the craggy coast where sunrise comes at 4 a.m., ready or not, and lobster is $2.50 a pound, if you don’t mind providing the pot.

The Beach at Spring Lake

But my partner in mischief, Rick, a Jersey boy, sings the praises of Spring Lake, on the northern stretch of the Jersey Shore. An hour by the good ferry SeaStreak to Atlantic Highlands will satisfy my need for a bit of boat. Then it’s an hour by car, mostly on the beach road and other secondary roads—my kind of driving. Ideal for the three nights we can carve out of real life.

Rick assures me this isn’t the taffy-scented, rocking Jersey Shore of Chris Grabenstein’s Sea Haven mysteries, our latest find at Partners & Crime in Greenwich Village, where we stock up on travel reading and instead-of-travel reading. Sea Haven is a nice place to die violently, but we’re counting on a round trip.

Spring Lake, sometimes called the Irish Riviera, is low-key and high-rent, with the longest stretch of non-commercial boardwalk between Atlantic Highlands and Cape May. Mary Higgins Clark has restored an 1880s home there and lovingly describes the town’s gentility in books such as No Place Like Home. (Her murders take place in other towns.) The New Jersey governor’s summer mansion is in hailing distance.

Of the 17 Victorian inns the town boasts, Rick knows the very one: Spring Lake Inn. A matey feel with its 16 rooms; perfect porch; perfect location—a block from the beach, so breezes sweep the bedroom at night, without the high-season traffic of Ocean Avenue also filtering in. He books us into the Tower Suite, which promises a sleigh bed on a turreted sleeping platform, two of its four windows facing the sea.

Getting there is half the fun. We board the SeaStreak at the ferry landing on the East River (35th Street) and ply our way to Atlantic Highlands, just beyond Sandy Hook, an hour and a world from Manhattan. The ferry has inside and topside seating, and we mix and match, filling our lungs with real air and then heading to the bar for very good iced coffee (made from fresh hot coffee poured over a heap of rocks—why doesn’t everyone do it that way?) We watch the Verazzano Narrows Bridge loom before us, stark and strong, compellingly modern, and then we pass under it for a movingly intimate view of its bottom bits.

Spring Lake Inn Dining Room

By pre-arrangement, the extremely affable team at the Middletown Hertz office, about 20 minutes away from the ferry terminal, deliver our electric blue Camry. Matt, who’s wearing a tie on the 90-degree day—ceremoniously walks us around the car, pointing out the foot-long scratch for which, he assures us, we will not be blamed. This is so perfect a car rental experience, I feel as though I’m in a commercial. As we get on the road, Rick and I work up a fantasy: We will find a body shop with the right shade of paint, we’ll return the car without a scratch so Matt will believe in wonders all his life.

We zigzag our way southward, variously following Rick’s memory, the coastline, the Hertz NeverLost (set to “least use of freeways”), my printed MapQuest route, and a nifty glossy fold-out map with regional insets. No two guides agree, but never mind. The paradigm shift from city life is simple. The ocean stays on your left. And the crosswalks belong to the people.

After glimpses of parti-colored Ocean Grove, quasi-urban Asbury Park, and populous Avon-by-the-Sea, one’s arrival in Spring Lake has the feeling of time travel: 1950-something, Eisenhower in office, and now we are the grown-ups. Forget about wild waving fronds of sea grass; the houses here have silky lawns, immaculately edged, with disciplined flowerbeds. Even the ocean is polite; it always seems to be low tide, and the sand is an even swath the hue of pearls.

Spring Lake Inn is just as Rick promised. Wide porch with simple furniture, soaring ceilings on the ground floor, and a sort of sensible air to it, with fine rugs on the floors and a minimum of chintz. On a humid day, with luggage, the steps up into the turret seem long, but I would opt for the Tower Suite again. It must be sublime in winter, when the fireplace in the anteroom is needed and the breezes blow through at a roar. Meanwhile, our hosts keep the pitchers of iced tea and lemonade filled; they give us the all-important beach tags to pin to our bosoms and point us toward beach towels and chairs.

I must tell an inconvenient truth: at 5 p.m. on August 11, the Atlantic Ocean is bathtub warm.

Forgive a spate of foolish sentiment, but I want to be chilled in a particular way, as if I were 10-years-old, pink from too much sun and then blue at the lips, shivering in my mother’s arms as she wraps me in a big old towel. I know I should be grateful for this pristine beach, but it rouses the imp of the perverse. I want a jellyfish sting (just one). I want to scrape my legs on barnacles and pop seaweed bubbles with my toes. Lousy swimmer that I am, I want to feel threatened in a ragged surf, just for a minute, to know the wild relief of surviving.

Still, the sand sticks to one’s feet, as ever it did. Sprinklers for rinsing are properly cold, I’m happy to report.

Room at the Spring Lake Inn

And as the designated driver, I’m happy we’ve booked dinner at the Black Trumpet, around the corner from the inn. It’s BYOB, so after showering and dressing in our pretties we drive into Sea Girt, not five minutes away, and score a favorite Montepulciano at perfect Giunco’s Beef and Bottle Shop on Washington Avenue. Then we tuck the car away behind the inn and set out a pied with our illicit-feeling brown bag. Sweet simplicity.

Tomorrow will be lobster, I know, and tonight I want steak. Warm or not, the ocean makes me hungry. A “bistro” steak turns out to be the right thing to order—cooked rare, as requested, full of flavor, and absent any hint of the garlic I must avoid. Rick is less happy with the bluefish, which has too many ingredients and too little texture. We should have been tipped off by our server’s boast that “the chef takes out all the dark parts—it really doesn’t taste like bluefish.”

Breakfast at the Inn is generous as to fruit and pastries, most notably a crusty skillet cornbread one morning. I wish the coffee were made in smaller batches and served hotter, but I’m impossibly demanding as to coffee. There’s always a hot entrée, such as cinnamon raisin French toast.

I’m an early riser, first at the caffeine trough, perfect or not, and late morning I’m easily sold on a second breakfast in town. My consort knows the very place, Who’s on Third. The two-block Spring Lake business district has neither bookshop nor newsstand but we are armed with The New York Times, conjured at the inn. And so ensues the peculiar subset of bliss that is a must on such vacations. A western on rye toast for me, and, yes, the toast is charred. Rick’s eggs are scrambled light, the bacon is crisp. The coffee is so fresh, hot, and plentiful that I lick the Thursday puzzle. I forgive—perhaps I even admire—that the only jelly offered is grape. Who’s on Third does not aspire to be Sarabeth’s, for which we may all be grateful.

Spring Lake: a blessed absence of must-see, must-do. Big decision of the day is where to read. When the porch pales, or a cell-phone user poisons the air, the seaside pavilion offers benches and iced coffee (not made from hot but not bad). When the brilliance of the seascape turns to glare, there’s the fresh water aspect of 16-acre Divine Lake, between the inn and the business district, surrounded by shadowy park, amply supplied with benches, the jollity of a playground contributing a joyful noise.

And no must-buy. Of course Spring Lake has a branch of the ubiquitous Irish Centre, and of course we need cast a glance at the Belleek and the Waterford, but the ladies behind the counter are dour, unimpressed by my eternal quest for Howard’s wholemeal flour from the auld sod. On the other hand, across the street, the ancient Variety store offers a thousand welcomes, with its classic smell of wood, ribbon, metal, and wax. I score perfect sunglasses for ten dollars.

And, okay, I indulge in new polka dot swim togs—not from a shop in town but from The Peacock, a crammed, friendly emporium around the corner from our inn, on Atlantic Avenue, between Bernard’s Hairdressers and The Sundae Times, which scoops Sedutto. You have to admire Gloria Jean Olson of the Peacock, open from early morning to 11 p.m. or so, and sending a heartening message: Even people who eat ice cream will find a flattering suit here.

As for the culinary life, perhaps we err in avoiding the venerable restaurants with their “dressy” codes and menus that read as fancy but might be anywhere upmarket. We want charm without fuss, we want fresh and local, we’ll take homey over hip or ultra-polished. High end or low, a shocking number of restaurants—a shell’s throw from the fecund sea—advertise Maine lobster and steamers. Bluefish, $1.99 in the shops, is seen on only one menu and, as noted, is served denatured. At one crowded lunch spot (up the coast) renowned for the view from its porch, the flounder in my sandwich may be local, but it died a second death in the fryer.

Our happiest eating takes place 20 minutes down the coast at Point Pleasant, a fishing town and boaters’ mecca. Lunch on the deck at Jack Baker’s Wharfside is embellished by a glorious storm; a fast moving crew rolls down plastic draperies, which save us from most of the spray without diminishing the drama. As the water surges, boats bobble, and thunder crashes, we savor juicy roasted clams and the flounder sandwich as Poseidon ordained it: crisp (but not dry) on the outside, sweet and flaky on the inside, with the proper straight-up addenda: lettuce, tomato, tartar sauce. Almost best of all, we get freshly made potato chips on the side. Jersey in August, I have hopes of more luscious tomatoes than we get, but I know that growers all over are moaning that the nonstop rain of June stole the savor from the beefsteaks. Even as it warmed the ocean, I guess.

Believing that too much of a good thing is nice indeed, we return that evening to Jack Baker’s Lobster Shanty, next door. Rick remembers the Shanty going back to the days when it was a ramshackle thing true to its name, a few picnic tables under a lean-to offered as an after-thought to Baker’s fishing business. Shanty no more, it’s a white tablecloth restaurant with a smart casual dress code and locally popular private rooms, charmingly dressed, for weddings and sweet-sixteens.

Our Jersey lobsters are sublime simplicity—one steamed, one broiled, nothing added, nothing taken away. I love coral and was pleased to land a female; turns out I could have requested one and not counted on luck. Corn fritters—brought with the bread, as at Wharfside—offer perfect punctuation, great summer taste and texture. Baked potatoes are as should be (but elsewhere often aren’t).

Service is very gracious, including damp cloth napkins in a silver basin when I object, as I must, to packaged scented wipes. A pinot grigio that tastes macerated to Rick and me is cheerfully swapped for a sauvignon blanc. But my sense—albeit from a very small sample—is that the wine here may have been exposed to summer heat. My advice: Order a Guinness. Kudos to the Wharfside and Shanty for also offering O’Doul’s, best of the non-alcoholic beers, a boon to those who are driving or otherwise not drinking.

Back in New York a few days later, I pull a Mary Higgins Clark off the shelf in the laundry room. There, on page one, is a scene on the beach at Spring Lake. I find myself feeling nostalgic, hoping to visit again. Perhaps Spring Lake is the sort of place where you need to have a history—unlike, say, Venice, which at first glimpse pierces the soul and on subsequent visits is never quite as magical.

Besides, we didn’t get the rental car painted for Matt, we need another chance to surprise him...

For more information:

http://www.crimepays.com (Partners & Crime)

Spring Lake Variety, (732) 449-6404
Who’s On Third, (732) 449-4233
The Peacock, (732) 449-4634
Giunco’s Beef and Bottle Shop, (732)449-8080

Nancy Weber

Summer, 2009