Our family is always seeking out destinations that define Small Town America. We love visiting places with Mom and Pop shops, soda fountains, five and tens, quaint walkable streets, and friendly folks. Because our wedding anniversary falls on the fourth of July, we tend to use the holiday as an excuse to do something special as a family, and finding an old-fashioned, small-town Independence Day celebration has become something of a tradition.
One place that truly epitomizes that small-town vibe is Ocean Grove, New Jersey–a sweet, seashore town on Jersey’s famed coast that offers visitors none of the flashy, neon glitz of nearby boardwalks and plenty of oceanside charm.
A Bit of History
Ocean Grove was first established in the late 1800s as a summertime, seashore retreat as part of the Christian camp movement. During this era it was common for preachers and other religious-minded folks to congregate for prayer and song, camping out for several days at a stretch. Ocean Grove was an ideal location to establish a permanent camp settlement–it had a lovely, high beach, plenty of trees for shade and an absence of mosquitoes–and in 1870 a square mile of land was established as an official town.
The camp tradition remains strong, with the Camp Meeting Association owning all of the land and a couple of the old blue-laws from bygone days still in effect. The town is “dry,” meaning that alcohol cannot be sold within its limits, and the local beach is closed on Sundays until just past noon.
The focal point of Ocean Grove is the remarkable building known as the Great Auditorium. Located at the intersection of Pilgrim and Ocean Pathways, the Great Auditorium is the hub of summer season activity. It hosts youth groups, religious services, and musical performances from May through September. In the tradition of the late 19th century camp movement, 114 permanent tent structures are nestled in the lanes all around the Great Auditorium. These tents numbered near 600 in the settlement’s early days and now 4th and 5th generations of “tenters” take up residence each year to spend their summers at the shore.
Just north of Ocean Grove, about a five or ten minute walk along the boardwalk, lies the town’s Neptune Township neighbor of Asbury Park. Home of the famed Stone Pony Bar where rock and roll legend Bruce Springsteen has made numerous musical appearances and Southside Johnny, Ocean Grove resident, got his start, Asbury Park has a bustling boardwalk with some of the traditional seashore activities like mini-golf and arcades. If you’re looking for a bit more action, or perhaps a glass of wine, take a walk along the boardwalk to check out this funky town.
A Visit to Ocean Grove
Arriving in Ocean Grove is like stepping back in time where Victoriana reigns and quaint shops and eateries line the Main Avenue business district. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Ocean Grove boasts the largest collection of Victorian architecture in the United States. Each street through the small town is lined with lacy, gingerbread private homes, inns and B&Bs, most of which feature wide porches where residents can rock in chairs enjoying the ocean breeze.
We’ve visited plenty of beaches in our travels and consider those on the Jersey Shore to be some of the finest anywhere. Soft sand and wide beaches that are perfect for strolling and beach combing and surf that is ideal for boogie boards and body surfing all make them an absolutely fantastic spot for families. Ocean Grove’s beach fits this description perfectly with it’s non-commercial boardwalk, outdoor showers, beach chair and umbrella rentals and a couple of snack stands. Beach badges are required for folks ages 12 and up and cost $8.00 for the day. Many area inns offer badges as part of your stay.
And speaking of where to stay, Ocean Grove has an abundance of accommodations ranging from small bed and breakfasts and guest houses to weekly house rentals. The Ocean Grove Chamber of Commerce has an extensive list of local inns. Many require a two or three night minimum stay in season.
Finally, you won’t be at a loss at where to find a place to eat from cozy cafés to pizzerias to elegant restaurants. Two of our favorites are Nagle’s Apothecary and The Starving Artist. Both are family-friendly spots with great food and lots of choices and the two establishments have spent year’s vying for the unofficial title of best ice cream in Ocean Grove. Try them both and vote for yourselves!
The Independence Day Parade
Known locally as “the Best 4th of July Parade in America,” Ocean Grove’s procession begins around 10:30 in the morning, usually on July 4th (although one year recently the 4th fell on a Sunday and the parade was held on the 3rd) and makes it’s way through town finally marching toward the sea along Ocean Pathway. We set ourselves up right on Ocean Pathway with the Great Auditorium as the backdrop of the day and watched as almost two-hours passed while we were entertained by marching bands, community floats, civic groups, vintage vehicles and antique firetrucks.
Ocean Grove is best visited over the course of a couple of days, though because it’s only about an hour’s drive from where we live in New York we’ve made it a day trip on several occasions. If you plan to head down for the day on the 4th, leave nice and early–holdiay traffic heading to the shore on the Garden State Parkway builds quickly and you’ll want to arrive in town in plenty of time to park and head off to find your spot on the parade route. After the parade, make your way to the beach and enjoy the day in this town where time stands still.