Greenwich Point Park
Greenwich’s pristine beaches used to be closed to all but the local blue bloods; but by order of a 2001 State Supreme Court ruling, the city had to open its beaches to nonresidents. This year, Greenwich Point Park dropped its daily admission fee from $10 to $6 a day (senior citizens get in free, though all nonresidents have to pay $20 to park). That puts a wide, sandy beach, with nature trails and strategically placed picnic tables, less than an hour’s travel time from midtown. The town doesn’t make it easy—parking and beach passes must be purchased several miles away, at Town Hall or the Eastern Greenwich Civic Center—but a stroll along the jagged coastline, with sailboats bobbing in the sound and stately homes peeking through the greenery, shows it’s all worth the hassle. The New England–style storefronts along Greenwich Avenue are a short drive away, housing pricey boutiques and a range of places to eat, from hibachi at Abis to tiny crêperie Meli-Melo.
Getting there: Metro-North to Greenwich, 40 minutes; 15-minute cab ride to beach. Travel time: 55 minutes.
Sandy Hook’s seven miles of barely developed beaches are connected by a network of well-maintained bike paths, and surrounded by bird- and butterfly-laden salt marshes, shrub thickets, and maritime forests. The isolated Sandy Hook unit of Gateway National Recreation Area, just an hour’s ferry ride from Manhattan, is a nature lover’s dream. A pair of school buses await SeaStreak ferry passengers off-loading at Fort Hancock. One goes to clothing-optional Gunnison Beach, which is often packed with nude bathers, volleyballers, and anglers, if you can imagine such a thing, by midday on weekends; it also stops at family-friendly North Beach. The other bus heads farther south to Beach E, favored by fishermen, and the site of Wednesday-night summer concerts. At Beach D, the Sea Gulls’ Nest restaurant has a full menu, live music, and a raised deck with views of the city skyline in the distance.
Getting there: SeaStreak ferry from E. 34th St., or Pier 11, 1 hour; 5-minute bus ride to beach. Travel time: 1 hour 5 minutes.
The marketing slogan for the brand-new, Soho House–style Le Club @ Avenue is “Access the Inaccessible.” But the jetty-protected cove right in front of the swish, members-only resort is about as accessible as they come. Just pay $5 at one of the public-beach entry points along Ocean Avenue, and you can share the same pristine sands and softly curling surf as Le Club’s $5,000-a-year members—though you can’t use the fenced-off day beds or take a swim in the rooftop pool. The north end of Long Branch has the new 30-store upscale Pier Village shopping center, which caters to the resident Wall Streeters and mixed bag of European jet-setters who’ve settled here. But not everything is expensive: at the Mix Lounge, pizzas and salads are half-off and top-shelf martinis are $5 every day from 4 to 7 p.m.
Getting there: New Jersey Transit to Long Branch. Travel time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
The mile-long boardwalk at Seaside Heights is crammed with carnival games, blipping arcades, and shooting ranges with live human targets (one even gives you the chance to “Shoot Bin Laden”). There are also kid-friendly waterparks, miniature golf courses, carousels, and dozens of places to buy funnel cakes, cheese steaks, and stop-your-heart fried Oreos. The main beach, flanked on both sides by amusement-filled piers, is pretty much an afterthought. It costs $5 a day to step on the sand (free for kids under 11), except on free-for-all Wednesdays and Thursdays. Crowds thin out north of the Casino Pier (there are showers for $3 at the far north end), and if you really want to escape the chaos, peaceful, white-sand Lavalette Beach ($5 for day badges) is just a few blocks up-shore. Drip-dry over cold Buds at endearingly trashy E.J.’s Tavern on the boardwalk. For better-than-boardwalk pizza, take the kids to Lenny’s in Lavalette.
Getting there: By train, New Jersey Transit to Bay Head, 2 hours; 15-minute taxi to the beach. Travel time: 2 hours 15 minutes.
The longest and most diverse of the city’s beaches, Rockaway caters to everyone: nude sunbathers, barbecue maestros feeding hordes of children (see the picnic lawn in front of Robert Moses’s Art Deco bathhouses), and hunters of horseshoe crabs and stingrays (scouring around the beach’s rock jetties in front of Fort Tilden), to dirt-road bikers and hikers (scattered around Fort Tilden’s decommissioned missile sites and batteries). Crowds gather for massive volleyball tournaments on the sprawling half-moon beach west of the bathhouses. The farther you get from the parking lot (in either direction), the fewer humans you’ll encounter. Migrating birds on their way to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge are another story. After a day of fishing, kite-flying, or whatever, settle on the back deck of the Rockaway Lobster House for fresh crab legs and trashy cover bands.
Getting there: The A train to Rockaway Beach. Travel time: 1 hour 20 minutes.
Everything worth loving and hating about Long Island, rolled into a 2,413-acre package of sand and marsh, concrete and asphalt, belly-button rings and diapers. Actually made up of eight separate (often jam-packed) beaches named after their accompanying parking lots, the park has a little bit to offer everyone: Field 6 gives families an easy walk from minivan to sand, the famed Jones Beach amphitheater lets fans of Poison and Ratt relive past glories, the Central Mall beckons teenagers in from the boardwalk, and the dunes on the far eastern side provide cover for nudists. A still-water bay on the park’s northern side serves as a makeshift kiddie pool, while those looking for a little quiet can settle into the radio-free zones at Fields 1 and 6.
Getting there: LIRR to Freeport, 1 hour and 45 minutes; N88 bus to Jones Beach, 30 minutes. Travel time: 2 hours 15 minutes.
Less of a scene than Jones Beach, more quaint than the Rockaways, Long Beach offers a laid-back oasis on one of Long Island’s loveliest pieces of shoreline. The beach is a throwback, with cleaner-than-average facilities, a splintery wooden boardwalk, boat and bicycle rentals, snorkeling, and sand-court volleyball. Daily passes ($10 a day, free for kids under 13) are available along the boardwalk and at various beach entrances.
Getting there: LIRR to Long Beach. Travel time: 55 minutes.