Until last weekend, Long Branch, New Jersey was nothing more than an express train's final destination on the big black schedule board that hangs overhead in Penn Station. I've heard its name echo through the corridors of the station hundreds of times, each time triggering a stampede of people pushing and shoving their way down the stairs toward the waiting train below. And I've spent countless stretches of time watching the black tiles on the schedule board fall like dominos as the letters click into place forming, among others, the words Long Branch. Once, I wondered what Long Branch was like, but the thought fled my mind as quickly as it had entered when my own train was called and I bounded down the stairs toward my platform. So you can imagine my surprise when one of our friends, who's recommendations we trust implicitly, recommended Long Branch as the destination for the impromptu beach weekend we'd been considering. Long Branch? Really? Despite all the times I'd seen and heard the town's name, I never stopped to consider that it might actually be somewhere I want to go.
Luckily, Dave and I were both still a little buzzed from the corny optimism of renting Yes Man a few nights earlier and we ended up saying yes to Long Branch, even though we didn't know a single thing about it. So there we were, Saturday morning, Wawa in hand, gliding down the Garden State Parkway toward the promise of a lovely beach weekend. Our trip was off to a perfect start until we hit Rte. 36 - the stretch of road that corrals you from the vast interstate to this supposed beach paradise. Our hearts started to sink as we watched the scenery degrade by the minute, morphing from new shopping centers to old strip malls to boarded up store fronts and run-down buildings, and we were struck with the fear that our dear friend had meant Long Beach...not Long Branch. So, you can imagine our relief when we crossed over Ocean Boulevard and into the sliver of Long Branch where the sun glimmers across the ocean like scattered gold sequins, and palm trees - not native, of course - line the beaches, making you feel like you've arrived in some sort of remote tropical haven. This part of Long Beach is called Pier Village.
As we rolled through Pier Village, high-end restaurants called out to us, expensive boutiques shimmered in the mid-morning sun, and the boardwalk - which was brick-paved without a single splintery piece of wood in sight - invited us to stroll along the quiet stretch of unspoiled beach. We couldn't help but wonder, where are we? How, in all our years of avid shore going, had we ceased to realize that such a delightful little paradise exists less than 2 hours from our doorstep? Looking back on it now, it was like the universe had been whispering Long Branch in my ear all along, only I'd been too preoccupied to hear it. Our weekend in Long Branch turned out to be one of those perfect weekends, where the weather was just right and all the logistics - where to eat, where to stay, where to find rum cocktails in the late afternoon - clicked perfectly into place.
Lunch: Call Jr's (732-229-9600). The food is fresh (and reasonably priced) and they'll deliver to you right on the beach!
Dinner: Sirena Ristorante (27 Ocean Avenue). Ocean views, delicious food, need I say more?
Lodging: Ocean Place (1 Ocean Blvd. - just look for the big blue sea shell). If you're only interested in a one night stay, call their reservation line because the front desk staff will make you book two nights...according to their hotel "policy."