Destination: Bradley Beach

An intimate Shore hamlet opens its arms to lobster lovers.

Lobster is the main attraction for many Bradley Beach Lobsterfest revelers.
Lobster is the main attraction for many Lobsterfest revelers.
Photo by Joe Polillio

Heat ripples the air. Stomachs growl. Cajun-spiced shrimp hit the grill. Italian sausages, sizzling and browned, sidle up to soft buns and are happily smothered by fried peppers. Oysters glisten on their half shells. Bright red lobsters are cracked to reveal luscious meat. Welcome to Bradley Beach—and Lobsterfest.

Bradley Beach is a quiet Shore retreat, but when Lobsterfest rolls into town each year for one summer weekend, the boardwalk booms. The 2014 event attracted some 30,000 attendees, nearly nine times Bradley’s year-round population, which hovers around 4,300.

Lobsterfest sprawls along the Bradley Beach boardwalk, a walkway of honeycomb-shaped paving stones. (Admission and activities are free, but food and beverages must be bought.) With more than 100 food and craft vendors, it’s a hive of activity.

In one shaded tent last year, teens poked through sports memorabilia. Nearby, a young woman sipped a liquid concoction from a foot-tall, green plastic goblet while her friend tried on stone rings. Children shoved Frozen-themed trinkets into their parents’ hands and headed for the inflatable obstacle course and its 15-foot slide.

Cathy Smith, of Sayreville, a first-time Lobsterfest vendor last year, hawked her hand-decorated and personalized wind chimes. “When you hear the chime, it’s time for a glass of wine,” she said. Makes sense: The chimes are made from recycled wine bottles. “I love Bradley Beach so far,” she said.

Mike Petrie, a Lobsterfest attendee from Westfield, bit into a lobster roll. “Fresh and delicious,” he said, wiping butter from his fingers. “It’s all claw meat, no filler.”

Lobsterfest returns June 27 and 28, but for most of the summer, Bradley Beach will be its normal, low-key self. The town traces its roots to 1871, when William B. Bradner and James A. Bradley, developers of nearby Asbury Park, purchased 54 acres of waterfront property south of Ocean Grove. They dubbed it Ocean Park, but wanting to distinguish it from its neighbor, they renamed it Bradley Beach.

The town soared in popularity in the 1920s with flashy hotels, waterfront pools and seaside shopping. But those days are long gone. Today’s Bradley Beach is warm, intimate and inviting. It’s a place for vacationers drawn to the Shore’s simple pleasures.

“It’s a really great Shore town,” says Sean Trupo, a Philadelphia resident who spends weekends at his father’s house in Bradley Beach. “It’s one of the few where it feels like the people are here year-round.”

Mornings in Bradley Beach start with a blissful jog or leisurely stroll along the mile-long boardwalk, which stretches from artsy Ocean Grove at the north end to tonier Avon-by-the-Sea at the southern border. The boardwalk also invites bicyclists, but only until 10 am. On your jaunt, you can pause to watch the bocce players at Fourth Avenue, or pick up a beach read at one of the three Little Free Libraries, courtesy of the Bradley Beach Public Library.

The Fifth Avenue Gazebo, rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy, is the ideal place to sit in the shade and catch up on reading—or just catch your breath.

To catch some rays, take a spot on Bradley’s soft, white sands. Bradley was the first community in the country to issue beach badges, starting in 1929. Back then, the tin badge was free for residents and hotel guests; day visitors paid a small fee. Today, daily beach passes are $8. You can also rent chairs and umbrellas. Newark and Second avenues have wheelchair-accessible entrances, and beach chairs are available for people with disabilities. Clean public restrooms can be found at Newark, LaReine, Third and Evergreen avenues, and changing rooms at Cliff and Third avenues. Showers are located all along the beach.

Feel like hanging ten? The beach between Third and Fifth avenues is reserved for surfers. Summertime Surf sets up shop in Bradley and other neighboring towns, schooling kids and adults alike on wave riding. (Read about surf schools along the Jersey Shore.) If fishing is more your speed, the jetties at Lake Terrace, Park Place, Brinley Avenue and Second Avenue are favorite spots for anglers.

The boardwalk’s chief attraction, Shipwreck Island Mini Golf, punctuates its colorful layout with humorous touches. A moored vessel, spouting water from its hull, sports the name S.S. Sandy. The nautical theme is a nod to Bradley’s rich history: Legend has it that Captain William Kidd anchored on these shores in 1679, burying his treasure somewhere along what is now Brinley Avenue.

Boardwalk concessions include Hula Grill, where grass-thatched umbrellas set the mood, and breakfast sandwiches, fish tacos and fresh-squeezed lemonade satisfy cravings. Shore Break Grill offers burgers, fries and more.

For a break from the beach, walk the half-mile to Main Street, admiring the town’s attractive variety of homes as well as pretty Sylvan Lake, where you might spot ducks or a crane taking flight.

Main Street has plenty to offer, especially if you’re hungry. The Buttered Biscuit (700 Main Street), a favorite breakfast haunt, also serves lunch all day. Del Ponte’s Bakery (600 Main Street), just down the block, tempts with classic Italian-style treats, including exceptional cannolis and tricolor cookies.

The brightly painted walls and surfing murals at Fin’s Tropicali Cuisine (120 Main Street) radiate the joy of summer. The menu features tacos, burritos and “finchiladas”—mixed-fish platters served with rice and beans. The Local Plate ($11.99) showcases Pacific influences, with an island-spiced cod served with pineapple pico and sweet plantains. A Caribbean vibe prevails at Blue Marlin (714 Main Street), with its authentic Jamaican cuisine.

Good Italian food abounds. Vic’s Bar and Italian Restaurant (60 Main Street), a Bradley Beach institution for four generations, makes its own pizza sauce. Order a large, small or mini pie and grab a seat on the patio. For plentiful pasta, meat and seafood, try Giamano’s (301 Main Street). The family-owned restaurant hosts live music several nights a week, and an organic market with locally sourced produce from 11 am to 4 pm Wednesdays beginning in June.

No day at the beach is complete without dessert. In Bradley, head for Beach Plum Ice Cream (420 Main Street), with its inviting retro look, shaded patio and 48 flavors.
Bradley doesn’t exactly throb with nightlife, but it does keep visitors entertained. You can catch a movie at Bradley Beach Cinema (110 Main Street), a 90-year-old institution that still presents just one screen. Or knock down some pins at Bradley Beach Bowl and Recreation (1217 Main Street), which defies the retro ethos with laser lighted lanes. Thirsty adults can grab beer towers from the neighboring Ground Round.

Back at the beach, the gazebo pops on summer concert nights. Beginning July 6 from 7 to 9:30 pm, Mondays feature Opera by the Sea; Tuesdays offer country music and dance; and Saturdays are Date Night, with music under the stars. Two additional Saturday-night shows—A Tribute to Elvis (July 18) and a Strictly ’60s Concert (August 1)—will take place on Main Street in Riley Park, both at 7 pm.

Where to Stay
The Sandcastle Inn

204 Third Avenue
732-774-2875

This lovely inn tops the short list of lodging options in Bradley Beach. The six rooms and two suites have whimsical names like Sweet Violets and Country Cottage, but the best attraction is the spacious porch, where the rocking chairs are inviting and the sound of crashing waves (a block and a half away) is enticing. High-season rates: $155 weekdays-$305 weekends.

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