Rockaway Beach wasn’t known as the “Queens Riviera” for nothing. The Rockaway Peninsula, which is often referred to as “The Rockaways,” is a peninsula that sits in the Queens borough on Long Island, New York. The peninsula is home to nine neighborhoods, and became a popular summer getaway in the early 1800s. With its name possibly deriving from the Munsee language of the Native American Lenape (Rockaway might have meant “place of sands”) or from “Reckouwacky,” a Canarsie Native American word which means “The place of our own people,” the name helped to identify the land as different from surrounding areas with less isolation and water. Originally a summer hotspot for primarily wealthy individuals, a new railroad station in the 1900s opened the area to New Yorkers—and tourists—of all classes. New beachfront hotels, amusement parks, and shopping centers transformed the area into what was known as “New York’s Playground.”
Today, Rockaway Beach continues to be a playful location for New Yorkers looking for a nearby beach trip. For many in neighbouring boroughs, the Rockaways is a perfect day trip. Just off the prominent A train that runs from Manhattan to the beach, the Rockaways has long been identified as a summer beach town. Boardwalk eateries, parks, and beautiful beach views do indeed make it an ideal summer getaway. However, few know of the beach’s autumn and winter brilliance. As the Labor Day crowd returns to work, cooler temps and fewer tourists transform the beach into a lovely, peaceful, and quaint oasis for all who visit. Considered the “Locals Summer,” by residents, autumn is when the Rockaways heart and soul shows, through the people who continue to call it home.
partner Javed Rambaran says that, “Some of the neighborhoods are starkly different and I’d be doing a disservice to blanket them under the idea of “The Rockaways” as far as description and opinion is concerned.” However the Rockaways enthusiast caters to those who visit the beach area, including the strip which I was able to enjoy during the fall.
With shutdowns looming due to the ongoing pandemic and staycations perhaps being more needed than ever, sea towns during the unusual fall and winter months are increasingly desirable. In this guide, we outline where to stay and eat in the Rockaways—from delightful ice cream cones along the main strip, to Central Asian dumplings in the event—and what to do to make the most of your time on the beach.
“Rockaway Beach, Rockaway Park and Arverne (people tend to simply refer to as Rockaway Beach vs the Rockaways), are [considered the] quintessential “New York” beach town because they represent New York, simply,” Rambaran tells me. “…there isn’t an air of exclusivity. An afternoon walk on the boardwalk as people begin to wind down and prep for the journey home will show the spectrum of cultures that flock to this area. We are a true representation of the melting pot that should be New York.”
Accessible by train, ferry, bus or car, the Rockaway Beach area has truly become a beach for the people, so much so that Rambaran thinks the area should be considered New York City’s beach. My time there shows why.
WHERE TO STAY
After a subway ride from Manhattan by way of the A train, I arrived at The High Tide. Established in summer 2018, the High Tide is just minutes from the S Shuttle in the heart of The Rockaways. Nestled atop a restaurant and overlooking the beachgoers, the beautifully designed rooms capture the easygoing nature of the beachtown.
“The High Tide is simply this: a no frills, artsy, little inn, for people who would like a nice couple day get-away,” says Rambaran. “This town was built on beach goers, sunbathers, drinkers, who often needed a room or a place to rest their heads for a night or two. I think we’re just piggybacking off old tradition. We don’t pretend to be something we’re not, but what we are is more than sufficient to enjoy a quick beach weekend without the headache, hassle or huge expense.”
A mere block away from the beach and just blocks from the main strip of food and shops, The High Tide proved to be a perfect place to sleep, house my belongings, and take a breather from NYC citylife. For Rambaran, The High Tide is especially important because it showcases the power of minority-owned businesses in the area.
“Having a minority owned/operated business in the area is incredibly important as… [it] shows a changing of the guard,” says Rambaran. “I deal with many people in the world of leasing and I find it both inspiring and exciting that I’m coming across so many young people of color willing to invest, hungry to start something new and eager to plant roots in Rockaway Beach. These foundational changes will slowly point Rockaway toward the direction that many hope for.”
Notably, checking into the High Tide doesn’t require interacting with someone in a lobby; instead, The High Tide team shares an entry code and inn instructions in advance of your visit. In a world battling COVID, the ability to get to my hotel room with as little human interaction as possible was comforting and thoughtful.
“We were lucky in that our original business idea just so happened to fall in line with Covid protocols,” says Rambaran of the hotel setup. “You check in without talking to a soul, other than our virtual manager. You never have to talk to a soul unless you have an issue or you chose to. You leave, our cleaning crew steps in immediately to clean and disinfect and we’re ready for the next stay.”
WHERE TO EAT
In a city that’s known around the world for its dining, New York City doesn’t typically disappoint in the dining arena. The Rockaways used to be left out of that narrative, but thanks to some new, brave chefs, the beachtown is becoming a foodie hub, too.
“This area was often referred to as a ghost town as well as a “food ghost town.” The new generation of risk taker chefs and entrepreneurs are doing their best to end that stigma.”
“Food is important because it’s the obvious complement to the beach,” says Rambaran. “Besides beach going, there aren’t too many draws in the neighborhood. Food culture and destination restaurants have to be a supplement for tourists. For residents and for the local economy, food is tremendously important in that it maintains a reason for out of towners to visit in the fringes of the peak season as well as the off season.”
As the efforts to support local restaurants continue to increase, several in the Rockaways are worth a visit (or two).
A good day along the beach simply isn’t complete without a good cup of coffee to kick off the day. At Rockaway Roasters, you can indulge in pumpkin spice lattes, matcha lattes, and other confections. If you like to keep it simple, an iced almond milk latte certainly does the trick. The coffee shop also serves plenty of food options, like acai bowls, blueberry cream danishes, vanilla cream doughnuts, and yes, even avocado toast.
This Central Asian restaurant provides endless options for those familiar with the cuisine, as well as newcomers. Steamy manti — steamed dumplings with meat, veggies, or other fillings — are a must have. The scallion pancakes over the perfect blend of crisp and creamy, and the Pelmeni, another traditional Russian dumpling, are both delightful and filling, ensuring that you’ll have sustenance for a long walk along the strip.
The Rockaways is a great getaway during the fall indeed, but like any beachtown, it can get a little chilly if the sun isn’t out. Grab your jacket and stop by the Oasis Ramen House. Outdoor seating fills quickly so you might have to take your order to go, but it’s well worth carrying back to your hotel room. Pork gyoza, edamame, Takoyaki— or octopus balls — and fried calamari sticks are easy-to-share appetizers (although you might want to keep them for yourself). The pork belly fat livens the Tonkatsu ramen, and kale noodles are a substantial option for those who want a slightly healthier meal. Don’t forget to grab a Kyoto Matcha IPA, which provides a unique and tasty drinking experience.
It’s no secret that this is a stressful time for, well, everything. Sayra’s Wine Bar is a welcoming wine bar with a backyard patio. Guests can easily socially distance and enjoy delicious wine and snacks. A cheeseboard will make guests feel a bit elevated after walking along the beach, and a wine flight is sure to relax you and your companions. The bar also serves small bites and larger meals like burgers, so it’s easy to stay there well into the night.
Pizza is associated with the beach as much as it is to New York culture and history. Longtime pizzeria Elegante offers takeout and delivery on standard pizza flavors like cheese and pepperoni, as well as baked cheese raviolis and wings. Bring empty stomachs, because Elegante will likely fill them.
Ice cream along the beach is a quintessential experience, and Mara’s Ice Cream Parlor ensures that it’s a part of the Rockaways experience. From ice cream to shakes to sundaes, Mara’s has something for anyone. Grab a scoop or two (or three) of old fashioned vanilla, cotton candy, cherry blossom, coconut, or lobster tracks and you’re sure to be transported to the sweet life.
WHAT TO DO
Though the beach water is quite cold during the fall and winter months, Rambaran sees this period as the best time to visit The Rockaways.
“There is a calm tranquility in the air during these months – I really can’t explain it,” says Rambaran. “When you juxtapose the nightmare of August and July foot and car traffic, loud and messy day trippers heading back home but leaving their junk behind in the streets, the months of September and October are just the perfect quiet after the storm.”
During the “off season” months, local residents and visitors can be found biking and running on the path along the beach. Rambaran uses the time to drink espresso, relax, and oftentimes, do nothing.
“Besides doing nothing, I don’t mind a walk on the boardwalk during these months. It’s really only during this time that I recognize the privilege of being in an ocean front community. Seeing and hearing the waves crash onto an empty beach is the ultimate relaxation.”
Whether you decide to get in an early or mid-afternoon run or workout, you should bring a light jacket to the beach. Watch out for experienced bikers, many of whom push through the path quickly in workouts groups. The Rockaways is also a great location for seagull watching and photography, so bringing a camera is useful as well.
The Rockaways have played an essential role in New York City’s culture and community. Whether in the summer months, when suffering and larger beach gatherings can occur, or the colder months when relaxation and simply doing nothing is preferable, the beach community has something for everyone.
“Imagine you can have the ocean, the beach, sun, lodgings, great food, great drink and open air and plenty of distancing,” says Rambaran. “Pretty much all the boxes of a “vacation” are checked off, while only venturing 30-45 minutes out of Brooklyn or Manhattan.”
Grab your subway ticket. The beach awaits.