WANTAGH, N.Y. — It's hard to say what it is exactly that makes one beach nicer than another. Is it the sand? The water? The size of the waves? Nearby attractions, such as a boardwalk or gift shops?
Whatever it is, Jones Beach on Long Island's south shore has it in spades ... or in this case, waves.
Since it opened as a park in 1929, Jones Beach has served as a picturesque playground for generations of summer's sunburned masses who make regular pilgrimages to the beach to lie on the soft, sun-soaked sand and gaze out at the waters of the Atlantic.
And the masses still travel to the park — it is one of the most popular beaches on the East Coast and plays host to more than 6 million (yes, million) beachgoers each year. It is the most popular destination in the New York park system, outdrawing even Niagara Falls.
Both of my parents grew up in New York City, and when they speak of their childhood trips to Jones Beach they speak of it in the glowing terms normally reserved for mythical places like Shangri-La. They're not alone in their awe of the beach. To many who grew up in the greater New York metro area, regular family trips to Jones Beach became the stuff of legends — preserved in golden-hazed Polaroid pictures.
On a recent trip to Jones Beach, I discovered the place lives up to the myth. The six-and-a-half mile beachfront is among the nicest shorelines I've ever visited. The unparalleled white sand is perfect for choose-up football games and other sports — it's soft as silk, but still provides solid footing, which means you and your kids can run on it and make diving catches without fear of serious injury.
George Gorman, deputy regional director of the New York State Office of Parks and Recreation, which oversees Jones Beach, apologizes for getting philosophical when discussing the beach's beauty and appeal.
"The main attraction is the Atlantic Ocean; that has been the main attraction since the park opened up over 80 years ago," he says. "However, it's not just that. It's the beautiful white sand and it's the awe of the Atlantic. It's a different environment from the normal hustle and bustle you face in life and you kind of get rejuvenated to face the world."
In all, Jones Beach is a 2,413-acre park with a two-mile boardwalk, playgrounds, softball fields, an 18-hole par-3 golf course and a half-mile of water frontage on the bay — which is convenient for parents with smaller children who are not big enough to swim in the ocean waves. The park also includes the Nikon at Jones Beach Theater, an outdoor amphitheater that regularly hosts major concerts. Upcoming performances include a joint show by Santana and the Allman Brothers on July 24, and a performance by Jimmy Buffet on Aug. 30.
Though Jones Beach still attracts millions of people a year, the number of visitors has actually gone down in recent decades.
"There are not the long lines and hour waits that people used to see in the '70s and '80s; that's all gone," Gorman says.
The park is most crowded on Sundays, he says, and on weekends the Field 6 parking lot — which provides the shortest walk to the beach – fills up early, usually by around 8 a.m. However, the park was designed to accommodate 150,000 people comfortably and Gorman says that these days, unless the beach is hosting a special event, the crowds are never overwhelming
Named for Major Thomas Jones, who became a resident of Long Island in 1692, Jones Beach was the vision of master builder Robert Moses, and in a sense the beach is man-made.
"Let us have no illusions about Jones Beach as we found it," Moses once said about the creation of the park. "It was an isolated, swampy sandbar accessible only by small boats and infrequent ferries, inhabited by fishermen and loners, surf-casters and assorted oddballs and beachcombers trying to get away from it all. The tales told of a lovely primitive paradise wilderness with indestructible dunes were fiction. Jones Beach was in fact a mosquito-infested tidal swamp full of stagnant pools, flanked by shifting dunes."
Turning that "swampy sandbar" into a beloved beach was no small task. The original sandbar at the beach was only 2 feet above sea level, which led to constant flooding. To solve the problem, Moses had 40 million cubic yards of sand brought to the beach to raise the area by 12 feet. That sand helps make the beach so unique today. "It's a softer sand and it's a gentler sand" than what you'll find on the Jersey Shore or even at other beaches on Long Island, Gorman explains.
The beach was designed to be a relaxing retreat. No commercial businesses have ever been allowed, and from the get-go there were no carnival-type rides in the park — which was unusual for a park created in the 1920s. The Art Deco structures in the park were designed to imitate an early 1900s cruise ship — anchors and other ship artifacts can be found throughout the park and the boardwalk has the feel of a ship's deck. The park houses the iconic Jones Beach Water Tower, a 231-foot-high beacon which was modeled after the campanile of St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice. It also has several uniquely quirky underpass tunnels which visitors have to walk through to get to the beach from most parking lots and which echo continually with the sounds of summer.
Getting to Jones Beach from Connecticut, you must brave the perilous and confusing (at least to the geographically impaired like me) metro area roadways. You must also risk ensnarement in the frequent traffic jams which have earned the Long Island Expressway the well-deserved nickname of "world's largest parking lot." However, as soon as you see the "Welcome to Jones Beach" sign above the entrance gate and the water tower beckoning in the distance, you will know it has all been worth the effort. As you drive out to the park, the rest of the world seems miles away. Even if you bring your cell phone (which I did, but don't advise), you still can escape the rest of the world. The sound of your phone will be drowned out by the ocean waves and soothing seagull calls, and after a few minutes on the beach you'll forget you even have a phone. You have arrived at Jones Beach – the Shangri-La of East Coast beaches.
IF YOU GO:
Most Jones Beach State Park facilities are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. There is a $10 per-car vehicle entrance fee.The park's address is 1 Ocean Parkway, Wantagh, N.Y.; http://www.nyparks.com