Asbury Park is a different kind of beach escape
By Frank Rizzo
Looking for a gay vacation mecca where you’re surrounded by only rainbow-loving people?
Honey, that’s so 20th Century.
The need for an exclusive gay oasis where LGBTQ vacationers could feel festive, free and
safe was understandable, and necessary, in the post-Stonewall/AIDS decades. But for gay
millennials, as well as for their older brothers and sisters, it’s now more about traveling to
interesting places that welcome a wider spectrum of diversity for the gay – as well as
(gasp!) straight – community, too.
For the Connecticut crowd, the go-to choices for exclusive escapes have been Fire Island,
N.Y., Provincetown, Mass., or any number of gay cruise lines.
But now, a new wave of cities, resorts and vacation destinations are wooing gays with full-
throttle campaigns to come party, chill and have “experiences” – and mix it up with the
welcoming locals, too. Toronto, Philadelphia, Washington, Palm Springs, New Orleans, and
Montreal are among the places that seek out gay travelers to their diverse cities.
But for something a little closer to home, and a bit beachier, think New Jersey.
Yes, New Jersey.
And then think Asbury Park, that raffish town with a checkered past that is perhaps best
known for its epic beach boardwalk and the Stone Pony, the rock nightclub where Bruce
Springsteen and the E Street Band got their start.
The Game Changer
There’s also something “outsider”-cool about A.P., which is less than two hours by train
from New York’s Penn Station or simply a car ride down the Garden State Parkway.
“It’s not pretentious at all,” says Russell Lewis, owner of Watermark, a popular restaurant
and craft cocktail bar on the boardwalk. “Asbury doesn't have that look-at-me-I’m-a-model
kind of gay crowd. It’s a much friendlier, easy-going, flip-flop kind of place.”
It’s taken more than 30 years for the city to recover from the riots of 1970 and its follow-up
years associated with crime and drugs. Since the turn of the millennium, the city has seen
major changes, some coming incrementally and some – especially in the last few years –
coming at a galloping development pace. This always a gay-friendly city, one which hosts
the statewide Jersey Pride in early June, has a new wave of restaurants, shops, and offers
hotels that will tempt a diverse crowd to turn the beach day into a beach weekend, or
The new big kid on the block is The Asbury Ocean Club, which opens this spring – and it’s a
game-changer. The 17-story building at 1101 Ocean Avenue was developed by iStar and is
a gigantic physical embodiment of significant change for the city. It features residential
homes, a beach club, a boutique hotel, and an array of retail amenities that will no doubt
further boost that end of town.
It’s next door to another iStar newbie, The Asbury Hotel, which opened in 2016 and has a
cool, hipster vibe. A former Salvation Army building, the 110-room Asbury shows the
respect for re-purposing buildings gives this funky town its continuing character. It’s a
great hangout place, too, with a bar in its atrium lobby that’s usually packed when there’s a
live band playing. It also has a rooftop lounge and yoga area, outdoor movie theater, and a
spacious pool area, complete with its own food truck and rows of pergolas for shady
lounging. Besides rooms that have a higher price tag, it also offers hostel-style “quad” or
“octo” rooms for those who can share and like to keep expenses lower.
For a more intimate feel, there’s the cozy but classy Tides Hotel on Seventh Avenue with
executive chef Julio Cruz reigning at its sophisticated-but-casual restaurant. For a taste of
old-time A.P., there’s the Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel, located in a 100-year-plus building
with a kind of fading dowager funk.
For the partying crowd, it’s the four-story Empress Hotel at the other end of the boardwalk
with its rooms overlooking the pool – and its sassy scene, which includes tea dances. (Think
P-Town’s Boatslip meets “The Ritz.”) The adjoining Paradise nightclub, with its dance party
atmosphere and drag shows also keep things hopping for the late-night crowd.
Down on the Boardwalk
Oh yes, there’s a beach, too, and you’ll find most of the LGBTQ crowd congregated near the
Fifth Avenue entrance to the boardwalk, next to Paramount, where you can catch a live
concert, depending on the night. (Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Dion was playing on our
The long boardwalk seems almost wide enough to land a cargo plane, with a water park,
miniature golf course, and the classic Silverball Museum Arcade that’s like stepping into
your pinball past. There are plenty of food shacks that offer goodies from crepes to
lemonade (at the appropriately named Pucker) to Korean fusion tacos. There also are
higher-end eateries such as Cubacán, a Cuban fusion restaurant, and Watermark with
rooftop dining, too. You can also get a psychic reading at Madame Marie’s, run by her
granddaughters since the late founder’s death. Tell them Bruce sent you.
The Stone Pony is literally a stone’s throw from the boardwalk, where it also has an
outdoor stage. And a block away there’s the nightclub/grill Wonder Bar, with its iconic
outdoor mural of Tillie, a replica of the creepy-grinning face that was originally located on
the side of the long-gone Palace Amusements.
Then take a 10-minute walk for your second wave of shopping, restaurants and farmers’
markets, to nearby Cookman Avenue. There are art galleries, retro-clothing shops, gyms,
crafts stores (one of which also teaches glassblowing), breweries, coffee, tea and poke
hangouts, an art house cinema, a cigar shop, bookstores, salons, and a mid-century
furniture shop. And who can resist a salon that’s called Hot Mess?
For a more neighborhood-karaoke type of watering hole, there’s the old-time Georgies at
819 Fifth Avenue, which is often described as “the gay Cheers,” but hardly the Norm.
The cool kids hang at Asbury Lanes bowling alley that’s been renovated and “hipified” four
years ago – also by iStar – and also features live performances ranging from musical acts to
burlesque. It adjoins a vintage diner that is open until 4 a.m. on weekends, 24 hours a day
on summer weekends.
Flashback To Present
Located in conservative Monmouth County, A.P. has long been a progressive, bohemian,
artistic and gay enclave.
“It’s always been downright welcoming to the LGBTQ community, and it continues to be,”
says Amy Quinn, Asbury Park Deputy Mayor, and an out gay woman.
Side note: Asbury Park was one of the very first, and few, places giving out marriage
licenses and marrying same-sex couples in 2004.
Quinn says Asbury Park has been kept alive by the energy and diversity of its communities:
“There’s the artist community, the music community, the African-American community, the
church community and, of course, the gay community. These are the people who stayed
when everyone else was fleeing. My favorite description of Asbury was by a woman in town
who said, ‘Asbury Park is the Isle of Misfit Toys.’ Maybe you didn’t fit in elsewhere but you
can find a home in Asbury Park.”
And some literally did just that.
“The gays were instrumental in making the city’s resurrection happen,” says Kim Powers.
The New York-based senior writer at ABC’s “20/20” discovered Asbury Park in the ’90s and
bought a home there in 2004 with his husband, Tony Award-winning Broadway costume
designer Jess Goldstein. “We used to go to P-Town every summer – 13 years in a row – but
it was such a long trip to get there. Then we discovered Asbury Park.”
They consider themselves early settlers there. “The true gay ‘pioneers’ bought in the ‘90s,”
he laughs. “At that time, there were two antique shops and a few places to eat but nothing
to write home about.”
Gradually, that changed as more and more people found deals in some of the one-of-a-kind
Victorian and American Crafts homes.
“But it didn’t emerge as an exclusive gay Shangri-La,” says Powers. “We prettied things up
for everyone else to then come in.”
That included artists, musicians, hipsters, millennials, young couples, and families, too –
some of whom were gay, but many were not. The gay sensibility was still there to a degree
but now just part of a larger and more dynamic whole.
“Instead, it emerged as this 21st Century place,” says Powers, “which is very mixed, very
accepting, with an artistic-hipster-gay kind of vibe, a kind of a who-needs-labels kind of
Says Watermark’s Lewis: “Welcome to assimilation. It’s what we’ve all been fighting for.”