Part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, a 26,000-acre park system situated primarily in the metropolitan New York area, Sandy Hook stands as a haven similar to Central Park:rooted to, yet removed from the hustle and bustle of a densely populated area. During the winter months this 6.5 mile stretch of sand spit--a mix of salt marsh and maritime forest--becomes a sanctuary for bird-watchers, history buffs, and athletes.
The offseason--when the gates are raised, the crowds minimal, and the parking free--is the perfect time to explore the ghostly buildings of Fort Hancock, a military camp that housed 12,000 officers, soldiers, and families during WW II.
After cresting over the recently renovated Highlands Bridge, one begins to see hints of the Hook's rich martial history before entering the eerie Officers Row. Nike missiles stand like sphinxes on either side of the 5-mile, multi-use path; abandoned military buildings pepper the space between beach and bay, and monuments speak of brave individuals who gave their lives in service of our country.
Beyond the village-like heart of Fort Hancock, an imposing gun
battery looms over the marshes like some apocalyptic movie set. At the gun battery, one can scale crumbling concrete stairs before climbing a wooden platform to catch a panoramic view of the "greatest city in the world" (New York), the highest point on the eastern seaboard between Maine and Mexico (The Atlantic Highlands), the largest holly forest on the East Coast (Sandy Hook), and the oldest operating lighthouse in the US (Sandy Hook).
Inside the Sandy Hook lighthouse, on the heels of a knowledgeable guide, one can ascend the spiral staircase, climbing nearly 100 ft to the top. During these tours you may learn about the challenges of "minding the light"or hear whispers of a haunted legend complete with skeleton and secret cellar.
Touring the lighthouse and Fort Hancock during the offseason is a good decision, as virtually all of the cultural and historical attractions remain open on the weekends. Yet even in the midst of this winter desertion, one can feel an undercurrent of energy, as if the ground is vibrating with the life that will soon be.
Every summer millions of tourists bypass the historical attractions, opting instead for sun and surf. Sandy Hook boasts numerous family-oriented beaches as well as one of the largest clothing-optional beaches on the East Coast (Gunnison Beach). A favorite hangout of summer beachgoers is the Sea Gulls' Nest, an open-air restaurant with a view of both the bay and ocean. Here one can quench a sun-driven thirst by sipping on a tropical drink or satisfy a hunger for burgers, fries, nachos, or coconut shrimp.
Those seeking a more upscale dining experience will not be disappointed by the plethora of high-quality restaurants in Monmouth County. The trendy towns of Red Bank and up-and-coming Asbury Park offer a myriad of venues for live music and cultural events, all within a 30-minute drive of Sandy Hook. Those seeking even more action can hop a scenic ferry from the nearby Highlands, arriving in New York City in less than an hour.
Sandy Hook offers something for everyone-from the summer sun-worshipper seeking crowds and action to the brooding bird-watcher who desires silence. Endurance athletes will find their niche on the scenic multi-use path, and history buffs will do well to check out Fort Hancock and the lighthouse. It's hard to believe that a single stretch of beach, bush, and marsh is home to such a wide variety of activities and experiences; similarly difficult to fathom is the extreme ebb and flow of people--from the summer tsunami-like crowds to the virtual desertion of winter, a 'feast or famine' phenomena that can only be understood after visiting Sandy Hook.
Kelsey Maki teaches composition and creative writing at The College of New Jersey and Brookdale Community College. She earned her BA in American Literature from The University of California-Santa Cruz and her MA in English from Rutgers University and has published articles on teaching and composition.