Originally published July, 2015
Last Thursday afternoon, when I would have normally been at home, collecting my kids from camp, I stood with a girlfriend on a dock in Far Rockaway where we would be spending the night on a houseboat. As the owner relayed the rules of the marina, her eight-year-old boy manhandled a dead horseshoe crab beside us, which she gently reminded him to put down before we walked toward our floating accommodations. “That wasn’t in the Airbnb description,” she joked.
Day trips to the Rockaways, home to some of New York City’s most accessible beaches, have become a rite of summer, especially now that a significant stretch of its boardwalk has been restored and the food stalls at Jacob Riis Park have begun hawking tuna tartare and handmade ice cream. But considering how long it can take to stand in line for a snack beneath the hot sun on the boardwalk, or wait for a drink (or the bathroom) at Rockaway Surf Club during the weekend, the idea of turning a day trip into an overnight visit–especially during a less crowded weeknight–seemed more my speed.
Taking the ferry, which only runs on weekends, was unfortunately out of the question, perhaps the main downside of a weekday visit. But being able to take the A train to the Rockaways is really one of the rare virtues of the MTA. On any other subway ride, being stuck between two manspreaders would just be another annoyance to endure. But on a trip to Far Rockaway, your discomfort is rewarded once you reach Broad Channel, and can see the sun glinting off the water, and flashes of white egrets resting on the tiny islands of Jamaica Bay–all in sight of the NYC skyline.
“It feels like you’re a 100 miles away, but I can run into the office if I have to,” says Suzanne O’Neill, an old neighbor of mine in Greenpoint who has been spending a week every summer in the Rockaways since 2012. She and a friend vacation with their 10-year-old surfer sons in bungalows they rent from Feel at Home Vacations, and spend weeknights watching movies and concerts at Rockaway Surf Club, eating at Uma’s, and reconnecting with the friends who live and work around the Beach 90th Streets. “We have been renting every year and doing day trips as often as possible–almost every weekend to be honest. We drove out to the Rock the weekend after Sandy to help–if anything, seeing the destruction strengthened our love for the place, which is why we volunteer at all the dune-planting events.”
The price is also right in comparison to other, tonier beach towns like Montauk. “It’s $120 bucks a night, and we’re a block from a beach.”
Anecdotally, the number of New Yorkers who are vacationing during the week in the Rockaways this summer appears to be down from last year—a casualty of the now-discontinued ferry service that ran to Beach 108th Street throughout the week for the past two summers, for just $2 one way. (This year’s weekend service to Jacob Riis, which costs $30 round trip, is among the many things that are making the “People’s Beach” too pricey for the average New Yorker, according to this writer.)
Daniel Cipriani, the owner of Playland Motel, agrees that the reduced ferry service has cut down on the number of mid-week visitors, but that weekends are just as busy provided the weather cooperates.
“This Sunday was the busiest day I’ve ever seen in the history of Rockaway Beach,” he said. “It was non-stop people coming in and traffic was the worst I’ve ever seen.” For this reason, even without the ferry operating, he still tells people that the best time to come is weekdays. “It’s a much better time to visit– you’ll get much better service and a better experience.” It doesn’t hurt that rates at his hotel—which can reach $200 a night on the weekend—are half the price during the week.
Michelle Warner, who runs the Beach 97th Street Concession that includes Lobster Joint, Bolivian Llama Party, and the new Bite Size Catch’n, enjoys sticking around all week long in the Rockaways partly so she can avoid the long trip there and back, but also because of the camaraderie among those who work at the concessions. “It’s sort of like going to summer camp,” she says. “You go away to ‘school’ but your lives happen in the summer.”
Like a lot of her colleagues she finds a place to rent for the entire summer, beginning the search in April through word-of-mouth, Craigslist, the local papers, The Rockaway Times and The Wave, and postings at Rockaway Roasters. “Now I can ride my bike to work, and end the evening at Surf Club or Connolly’s and other little bars,” without having to stop drinking early to drive home. “Also where I live is right on the water—it’s a really nice spot to get home early to and see the sun set over New York City.”
This summer, Victoria Hagman is giving an extended visit a try, moving from her Red Hook apartment to the Rockaways for the month of August, where she intends to surf, paddleboard and work remotely from a houseboat. After spending a summer on the North Fork last year, the founder of Realty Collective decided it skewed too adult and couple-y for her. Or as she put it, “I don’t want to go on wine-hopping tours!” To her, the Rockaways feel younger and more familiar. “It’s very much like Red Hook–the people are like-minded.” (The two neighborhoods actually have people in common, too–Red Hook residents like Susan Povitch, the founder of Red Hook Lobster Pound, also have summer homes in Rockaway.)
It was Hagman’s decision to stay aboard a boat at Marina 59 that inspired me to search for similar lodging. I mean, once you know it’s possible to sleep on a boat in New York City, how can you resist? “Sounds hilarious,” my friend Kara texted me back when I told her the plan. “Can I come after work?”
This being the Rockaways, of course it was possible for us all to come for just a night, and even commute back to work the next day, which Kara intended to do. (My friend Jen and I would attend to the bare minimum of our business by phone.) And as exotic as it seems, being aboard a houseboat in New York turns out to be really no different than being in the midst of any neighborhood that’s just a few blocks from the subway, within steps of public housing, and along a flight path for JFK. Except it was floating, amidst a sea of quirky houseboats I recognized from Airbnb, all of which run in the range of $150 a night, and not far from the abandoned motel/art project “The Boatel,” giving the marina the feel of an alternate Bushwick universe. If there was ever a setting for a sitcom in need of a premise (maybe a reprise of Bosom Buddies, called Boat Buddies, but with a Three’s Company swingers-lite feel?), it’s Marina 59.
Given our prime waterfront access, it seemed a shame not to first split a bottle of Prosecco aboard the roof of “Anyone’s Guest,” and chat up a passing kayaker, before exploring Rockaway. Our host suggested starting at Thai Rock, where we caught a sunset as a lounge singer wearing two different colored sneakers crooned an impressive range of classics. His Frank Sinatra was a lot stronger than his Michael Jackson, but the difference was barely noticeable after a massive margarita. The next stop on our 24-hour tour was Rippers for a frozen sangria, and then a near-empty Rockaway Surf Club for tacos we were too late to eat, before we returned to the roof of our houseboat for another nightcap. When we turned in, we made our beds from the breakfast nook and benches aboard the boat. The setup reminded me of camping trips as a kid, when my grandparents would pop the top on their VW bus and transform the back into a giant bed, only significantly trickier in the dark after a few drinks.
We awoke at dawn because Jen is one of those early risers who can’t resist the urge to start a conversation at 5am. (One small note about spending a night on a boat–either find bunkmates who sleep as late as you, or who you don’t mind waking up with because privacy is non-existent. And if you fail to shut all the windows and doors/wear bug spray, you’re also at the mercy of mosquitos looking for an early morning feed.) Craving caffeine, we made our way to Rockaway Roasters, and brought our coffees to the beach to watch the surfers, bobbing on their boards in black wetsuits like crows perched on a line.
There was still time for Kara to make it into work, but she had already decided she was going to text in sick. For a good 30 minutes we debated the merits of pulling out the tried and true food poisoning excuse versus the vague “procedure” that didn’t go smoothly. Ultimately she chose a much simpler way to say she was not coming in–she said she was sick. We still had a few hours left before check out, plenty of time to dip our toes in the water at Jacob Riis Park, sip a frozen raspberry concoction from Court Street Grocers, and eat fish tacos in a blissfully quiet Playland Grill before boarding an empty A Train for home.