Seven miles of spectacular ocean and bay beaches make up the region called Sandy Hook.
Not only are these beaches perfect for surf casting, swimming, and relaxing on the sand, but nature lovers enjoy hiking through almost primeval holly forest.
And then, of course, there is Gunnison Beach.
Long one of the secrets of the New Jersey beach scene, Gunnison Beach, at the upper end of the Sandy Hook peninsula, is the only nudist beach in New Jersey, and said to be the largest one on the Atlantic Coast, probably existing since the Second World War.
Gunnison is clearly marked and it is set off from the main part of the beach activities. You won't be subjected to oceans of flesh unless you want to be.
The lore is that the soldiers at Fort Hancock, (which is still on the peninsula, although not active) preferred to swim in the altogether. When the beach became public, the parks department decided to honor this old tradition by allowing a section to remain a nudist beach.
Though the Highlands and "the Hook" are great places to spend a seaside vacation, it is possible to visit them from Manhattan in less than one hour. There is an excellent ferry service that runs from East 34th Street to the Highlands, as well as from lower Manhattan. The commuter service goes to Atlantic highlands, but in the summer, the ferry goes right to Fort Hancock, on the beach, with shuttles to the other parts of the beach. You can see the skyline of Manhattan from almost anywhere on these beaches.
So if you are a visitor to the city, you can actually take a break from the museums and restaurants and cool your toes in the sand for a day! It's a lot easier to get to than the Long Island beaches, which are only reachable by car. Just make sure you know the ferry schedule, so you don't get stuck on the wrong side of the Hudson River at night. (Although there are lots of nice places to stay in the Highlands.)
Sandy Hook is actually a state park, and as such, has no attractions such as rides or arcades, or even for that matter, restaurants or lodging. (There was one restaurant right in the State Park, but it was severely damaged by Sandy. For the moment, finances won't allow them to reopen, but there is always hope. See this story.)
But quaint and tiny Highlands, right across the bay, offers a number of Bed and Breakfasts as well as motels. Sea Bright, a busier town just south of Sandy Hook has a number of excellent accommodations and restaurants.
One of the nicest ways to get around and very much in keeping with the ecological tone of the area, is on two wheels. There are a number of shops, and some of the B&Bs in Highlands, that rent bicycles. For, besides the windswept beaches and sunburned bodies, there are a lot of wonderful sites to see.
Fort Hancock was established during the war of 1812 and was an important harbor defense for New York, Long Island, and New Jersey during the Second World War. The Fort Hancock museum affords the visitor a fascinating experience of a mortar battery ready to defend New York City. This is by far one of the most fun historical adventures for kids, who can scramble about on the ramparts and pretend to protect Manhattan. The fort was an important asset during WWII, and cacti were planted there to confuse any invading Germans!
Sandy Hook also has the oldest working lighthouse in the country, built in 1764. Originally, it was 500 feet from the water, but shifting currents forced the sand to surround it so that it is now a mile and a half from the water. Official tours of the lighthouse are available during the months of April through December.
Sun, sand, sports, nudes, lighthouses and army forts, plus a view of Manhattan. What other beach offers all of this?
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