Rockaway, Queens (CNN) — One of Rockaway Beach's most appealing traits may also be the very thing holding it back.
Unlike beach getaways in The Hamptons or along the Jersey Shore, Rockaway Beach, to its detriment, can be enjoyed easily in a day.
Accessible by the New York City subway (just take the A train to Beach 98 Street and follow the sounds of the ocean), by ferry from Brooklyn or Manhattan and by car (from Park Slope, Brooklyn, it's less than 17 miles), The Rockaway Peninsula, as it's formally called, hasn't previously had a lot to lure overnight guests. Especially not semi-local guests. Arguably though, it's NYC's hippest beach destination, popular among day-trippers known as D.F.D.ers — down-for-the-day. This is not an endearing term.
The Rockaway Peninsula is more commonly referred to as The Rockaways or Rockaway.
The High Tide
D.F.D.ers go down for the day, surf or sun, maybe eat a taco or two (more on the taco later) and grab a drink at Caracas where there's live music in summer. They then brush the sand off their feet and go home.
Logistically speaking, the longest big-city beach in the United States doesn't require an overnight, but you should consider it. The Rockaway experience is richer when you aren't rushing to catch the last ferry home at the end of the day.
A 13-year D.F.D.er, I discovered this a couple of weeks ago when I decided to vacation in a part of NYC I knew only vaguely.
To the beach
With travel restrictions aplenty, my options for a late summer trip were, of course, severely limited.
News of a new hotel opening (hello, Rockaway Hotel), a recently updated contact-free rental property (hi, High Tide) and a serious itch to do something before the summer ended led me to Queens.
I honestly wasn't even sure it counted as a vacation. My sister, who also lives in Brooklyn, did little to reassure me. "Wait, it's like a half hour away. Why are you staying more than a night?" she asked, while I then proceeded to second-guess myself.
Did this 16-mile jaunt really necessitate a multinight stay?
With hotel rooms booked and a restaurant list the length of my arm, I was about to find out.
My first stop was The High Tide Hotel. A cross between a hotel and a rental property, the former Playland Motel opened under the new name and new ownership in May 2018.
All of the rooms at The High Tide Hotel are designed by local artists. Jason Heuer, who, with his wife owns the area's only bookstore, is responsible for this room's golden touch.
The High Tide
The two-story property has no common areas, no front desk, gym or breakfast option — just nine suites, one of which is equipped with a kitchen.
The check-in process may have been the most seamless I've experienced. Earlier that day, I'd received my arrival instructions via email. The message included a code to the main entrance and a different code for my room.
"Since we're such a small boutique, we wanted to just keep it simple and keep it easy for guests," says Adam Ecker, one of the partners of The High Tide.
"We keep a list on our website of all our recommended restaurants and places to go," Ecker offers.
The rooms are clean and artsy. Local artist Jason Heuer designed my gold-accented room, and it's this art-immersive decor that makes a stay here special.
Like me, most of the hotel's recent guests are from another part of the city. "Nine out of 10 of the travelers staying with us this summer are coming locally from Manhattan or Brooklyn or Queens or nearby areas," Ecker says.
"It's a very fun place to be," he adds, pointing out the area's great restaurants, art scene and vibrant surf community.
In some ways, the Rockaways feel very much in sync with New York City, which makes sense because the peninsula is a part of the city. This isn't a quaint little beach town catering to an affluent set, though spendy travelers will find ways to spend with a stay at The Rockaway Hotel located just a few blocks away.
Regardless of where visitors choose to lay their heads at night, the boardwalk, all 5.5 miles of it, is the same no matter which block you enter at.
Rockaway Beach is NYC's longest beach and the only one where you can legally surf.
It was after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the area that the new boardwalk was built. Whether you're a biker, runner, walker, the boardwalk beckons.
"[Hurricane] Sandy hit in 2012 and the destruction and rebuild efforts created more awareness toward the area," Javed Rambaran, another partner in The High Tide Hotel, tells me over email.
"Surprisingly, there were many people in Brooklyn, Manhattan, etc., that had no idea that a beach existed in Queens."
Hurricane Sandy and Covid-19, each devastating in myriad, particular ways, aren't siblings or even distant cousins, but they're both intrinsically involved in what's happening in Rockaway Beach right now.
Avoid the Day is a bookstore and cafe that opened weeks before Covid-19 struck.
Courtesy Avoid the Day
Rockaway Beach has all the energy, verve and resilience of the city it is a part of. The area evolved as a popular NYC beach destination after Sandy.
Christina Traugott, who grew up here and is planning a move back after living in the West Village, says Hurricane Sandy "really brought the local community together, and it feels like the rest of the city rediscovered the beaches in the Rockaways after the storm."
"I'm a firm believer, from experience, that chaos and destruction creates new growth," Rambaran says, adding that while this statement may seem a "little heavy for food and beverage," it's nonetheless true.
If the area's growth has been realized in large part through its food landscape, that'll suit most New Yorkers just fine. After all, if there's one thing New Yorkers will travel for, it's food.
But first, tacos
Initially, Rockaway's taco scene brought people in droves. "Tourists would literally wait on line for two hours and considered it a rite of passage when they got to the front of the line," Rambaran says of Tacoway Beach (called Rockaway Taco at the time of the taco's initiation).
Tacoway Beach is far from the only taco game in town — though Rambaran believes the craze is dying down and is grateful for it.
At the time of my visit, Tacoway Beach was only offering takeaway taco boxes. But at $15 a pop, I instead opted for fish tacos with a view at The Wharf, a low-key bar and grill that Traugott calls a hidden gem.
These fried fish tacos came two to an order but had enough fillings for closer to four tacos. While you can find some hipster Brooklyn prices in the Rockaways, I found most things to be reasonably priced.
Tacos aren't the only thing to seek out though.
Kimo's Kitchen, a Mediterreanean restaurant a few blocks from the beach, is a welcome respite for surfers after a day catching waves.
Courtesy Molly Tavoletti
"Growing up, there were a couple of American fare restaurants, bagel shops, delis, a couple of Chinese take-out places and the sort. These days, the food is definitely more ambitious from central Asian food at Uma's, healthy bowls from Cuisine by Claudette, modern brunch options from Bernadette's and even ramen at Oasis Ramen House," Traugott says.
Even the boardwalk offers interesting fare, not your run-of-the-mill concessions. Rambaran attributes the artisanal beachside offerings as "part of the catalyst that sparked momentum toward the neighborhood."
Off the beach, a slew of unique restaurants tempt. It's just a matter of deciding whether you want oysters, ramen or falafel.
Kimo's Kitchen, just a short walk from The High Tide, was on the list of places I wanted to try. I was in the mood for falafel.
A small, cozy joint with a pretty (and Covid-essential) back garden area, Kimo is the name of Chef Mike Adil's son. The Mediterranean food is inspired by Adil's Greek and Egyptian heritage and is fit for carnivores and vegans alike. As such, the falafel, Egyptian, are made from fava beans, not chickpeas, and they contain something like 10 herbs, packing an herbaceous bite via a green hue.
Chef Mike Adil of Kimo's Kitchen prides himself on cooking from scratch.
Adil prides himself on the authenticity and freshness of his food. He doesn't take shortcuts, he says, remarking on how educated people have become about food. They appreciate the "good stuff," Adil says.
Some of the good stuff Adil is referring to? Falafel stuffed with eggplant and harissa (a chili paste), falafel stuffed with salty feta cheese and briny green olives. Hummus, tabouli. Sambusas oozing with cheese or spinach and mushrooms.
All food can be taken to go, and Adil says the restaurant does a brisk take-out service, especially during peak season with the prospect of a picnic at the beach just a few blocks away.
Post-surf, it's a popular choice among the waterlogged who've worked up an appetite.
Surfing in the NYC
"Most of the time, there's two to three foot waves. It's very easy for beginners," Ecker, who calls himself a beginner to intermediate surfer, says.
Rockaway Beach has long been on surfers' radar.
It's actually the only legal surf spot in all of NYC, and, perhaps more importantly: it's the only beach that gets a surf break.
"You can't just make a surf break. It's either there or it's not," Jon Krasner, one of The Rockaway Hotel's partners and owners, explains. Terence and Dan Tubridy, brothers and third-generation Rockaway residents, are the hotel's other partners, along with Michi Jigarjian.
Not surprisingly, expect to find the requisite surf shops and surf crowd who have either decamped permanently to the Rockaways to divide their time between well, surfing, and whatever work will keep them afloat (sorry, not sorry!) or who won't hesitate to play hooky if the surf looks promising.
"I had three friends today call in late to work, to come surfing in the morning and then they jumped on the ferry to go into work," Krasner says.
Rockaways' waves are enjoyed by advanced and beginning surfers alike.
To Jigarjian, who's also the hotel's social impact officer and curator, surfing is a means to connecting to the community and to visitors to the area: "... Bringing the surf and all of that culture — the urban beach — to all New Yorkers and connecting it with a place like this is such a beacon of hope right now."
As delighted as the folks behind The Rockaway Hotel are to provide a new offering to locals and nearby New Yorkers, their hope is to appeal to people far beyond NYC: "We want this to be an international escape for surfers as well," Jigarjian says.
Putting this past summer aside, Rambaran doesn't understand why the Rockaways hasn't gotten more attention worldwide: "it's baffling that the area isn't more of an international destination."
He cites infrastructure as one of the issues. The Rockaway Hotel is positioned to help with this.
If you build it ...
The new hotel boasts 16,000 square feet of outdoor space. This includes a pool with a spacious sunbathing area. Just off the pool is outdoor restaurant seating. Upstairs is more space to eat and drink, relax and take in the view of Manhattan's skyline.
If small spaces make you claustrophic, opt for one of the suites as the Standard King is quite tight.
Kyle Knodell/The Rockaway Hotel
"To be honest, my biggest excitement is around the bar," says Eva Van Anglen, a Rockaway resident since 2018.
Having been stumped by the drink menu at Bungalow Bar the previous night, I would have to agree with Anglen. Although the bartender gamely made an excellent rye Manhattan at Bungalow, it was disappointing to get a sugar crash just from reading the specialty cocktail list.
The Rockaway Hotel's cocktail list, which includes such classics as the Negroni and Old-Fashioned ($14 a piece), was much more to my liking.
I'm still on the fence about the cost of a very tiny (I thought this was Queens, not Manhattan) room: $400 on a weeknight after Labor Day, natch.
Rockaways' newest offering is The Rockaway Hotel. It's a full-service hotel with 16,000 feet of outdoor space.
Kyle Knodell/The Rockaway Hotel
But one can and should check out the space even if opting for the more gently priced (and gently worn) High Tide Hotel.
Van Englen hasn't said anything about staying over at The Rockaway Hotel, but she's taken advantage of its offerings for drop-in guests: "I can say I've been to the hotel about five times now in its opening month (for an art event, lunch, drinks and outdoor yoga, etc)."
Traugott, who's about to become a local again, agrees the new space has a lot going for it: "I think the food and drinks are a little nicer than other options in the area and thus they'll be the destination of choice for special occasions for a while."
Jigarjian says "bringing the community and the vibrancy of the already existing amazing culture here in Rockaway and giving it a platform," is one of the things she's hoping the hotel will do.
They'll have to work a bit harder to convince some of the locals there's something there for them, too.
A local artist I met on my way home from dinner at Whit's — a simply stellar brick oven pizza spot — referred to the hotel as "that bougie place for surfers." I nodded, not sure whether to be amused or embarrassed.
If it's true that "Rockaway represents New York City," as Krasner put it, then surely there's room for The Rockaway Hotel.