As beach towns go, Ocean Grove wins the prize for the most unusual. And that's now just because of the shocking contrast of the town to its boisterous neighbor Asbury Park. Founded in 1869 as a seaside retreat for Methodists, the town became known as “God’s Square Mile.” The founding
entity—Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association—still owns most of the land and has sought to preserve rather than tear down and modernize. Walk through town to see the largest assemblage of authentic Victorian architecture in the nation, resulting in its placement on the National Register of Historic Places.
Interestingly, Ocean Grove isn't a town, village or municipality, but part of Neptune Township. The Association largely controls parking and beach access and welcomes all.
The Great Auditorium is great except for the air-conditioning
Few American concert halls have featured concerts by John Philip Sousa, Enrico Caruso, Kenny Rogers, and the Beach Boys. Even fewer have natural acoustics that conductor Leonard Bernstein once compared to Carnegie Hall. More than 120 years ago, Ocean Grove’s founders built this amazing, mostly wooden building, which today seats more than 6,000 people. Among its features are one of the world’s largest pipe organs and a huge painted American flag at the back of the stage with lights bulbs that flash in an undulating manner. Visitors are invited, free of charge, to tour
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the Auditorium. Tours are offered on an ad hoc basis weekday afternoons during the summer. Show up on the south side of the Auditorium and ask if a volunteer is giving tours that day.
Most events are religious oriented, but check for symphonic concerts and secular band performances scattered throughout the summer. The calendar is online here. It's well worth the time to hear any concert in the space. Unfortunately there is no air conditioning, but the barn-like doors on the ground floor open in the summer. Most days, this creates a decent airflow, but dress for sweat.
Cottages and tent camps
There are 23 cottages and 114 tent camps that are owned by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association and are rented out each year, mostly to repeat visitors who families have often been coming to Ocean Grove for generations for a summer religious camp experience. Many of the homes date back more than a 100 years.
The cottages are permanent buildings that are nestled among other homes and cottages in Ocean Grove. They blend in with the homes next door that are privately owned.
The 114 tent camps, on the other hand, are obvious and create a colorful and unusual vista along sidewalks and streets. Each tent has a bright awning over an outdoor porch. The living space is a combination of a front room or "canvas room" that is covered by a canvas tent attached to large wooden outdoor structure and is closed to the elements by a door provided by each tenter (aka renter). The back part of the tent or "cabin" is a permanent structure that minimally includes a kitchen, toilet and shower. Because the tenters typically return year after year, they buy their own furniture and invest in upgrades to their cabins.
The cottages and tent camps are not winterized. Cottage renters return April 15 and the tenters return May 15 for the season. Everyone stays through September 15 so make sure to come in late spring and summer to see the colorful awnings and flags.
Want to rent a cottage or tent? With a waiting list of more than 300 people, it requires patience and persistence and willingness to have a chance to be part of a faith-based community. There is a "paper application" and an interview that takes places by the staff of Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association to be considered for the list.
A longer pier once again reaching the ocean is in the works
Due to the double whammy of Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, the Ocean Grove pier was partially demolished and no longer stretches out to the ocean as it did when it was constructed in 1889. The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association has been raising funds to extend the pier and plans to start construction in 2022. The pier will be open to all with benches to sit and enjoy a view as the ocean waves break on the sand. You can contribute here to this effort and have your name or your family's name engraved on a board at the entrance to the pier.
Starting at the northern end of the Asbury Park Boardwalk and continuing through Ocean Grove, there's either a boardwalk or a promenade for seven miles. The pathway is interrupted by the draw bridge between Belmar and Spring Lake and then again a short bridge between Spring Lake and Sea Girt. In all of the northern part of the Shore, there's no better or more interesting pathway along the ocean for runners and walkers.
Tips for Visiting Ocean Grove
What's New: The Great Auditorium features a full schedule of events and activities. Craft fairs are planned for Main Avenue's shopping district.
Road Access & Parking: The main entry to Ocean Grove is along Route 71/Main Street. Flanked by stone pillars, there's an official looking entrance at Main Street. Parking is free but is often taken by visitors heading over to Asbury Park where it costs to park. The streets are very narrow, so drive cautiously.
Amenities: There are restrooms at the southern end of the promenade.
Beaches: Beach badges are required weekends from May 29 through June 13 and then daily from June 19 to September 5. In words of the Association, the beach is only "open" on these days. Daily beach badges are $10 and can be purchased through the Viply app or at the beach. Seasonal beach badges are $95 for people 18 and older, $20 for people 12-17 and seniors 65 or older. Complimentary seasonal badges are available to clergy appointed to full-time pastoral service of a local church in New Jersey.
Starring Role: Ocean Grove has been featured in the movies -- Woody Allen's Stardust Memories and According to Greta with Hilary Duff.
This spring, summer and fall, follow Jersey Shore author and expert R.C. Staab as he walks the entire 139 miles of the Jersey Shore from Sandy Hook to Island Beach State Park, from Old Barney to Beach Haven, from Brigantine to Cape May.
Next stop: Bradley Beach at Beach Walk Mile post 19.5 See all the Jersey Shore Walk stories at www.jerseyshorewalk.com