Once the spring sun starts coming out, we embark on one of my favorite traditions. We head to the beach, bundled up layers and all. The sky is as blue as the summer. The ocean and sand, seemingly untouched during the colder months, are ever constant. It doesn’t matter that the water is ice cold or that the air is still somewhat chilly. We go because the beach is as much an expansive playground as it is a brilliant space to be alone, with the first rays of spring warming the air and our faces.
We recently did just this, spending a day at Sandy Hook, our favorite beach in New Jersey. This place is off the beaten path in an area where it can feel like little else is. It’s a national park – albeit a narrow one – so you’re surrounded by sand and trees and bike paths, rather than development. And at the same time, you can see the NYC skyline as part of your beach view. Bustling life is close, but not too close. It’s easy to reach, but feels a far way off. Plus, you have the history of the island and its 250 year old lighthouse to boot.
But what made this visit so special wasn’t necessarily just the warm sun or the setting, although they were truly great. It was the simple moments my daughter and I spent together. Laughing. Exploring. Being.
Our day seemed adventurous from the very start. We drove onto the peninsula that is Sandy Hook passing through wooded areas, with glimpses of the beach on either side. Everything was still and quiet, in a beautiful sort of way. Walking the long, natural trek onto the beach, it was hard not to take in how flat and untouched everything seemed. It’s a stark contrast to much of the surrounding area.
We were bundled for the wind, but of course, my daughter wanted to be barefoot running through the sand. And so she was, as we did many of the typical things you can do on a beach. We went looking for seashells, flew a kite, had a picnic lunch. But, as with the many firsts of a renewed season, there was such a sense of wonder in it all again. Like the first snow fall of winter or once the multi-colored foliage is in full force in fall. You realize how much you missed that feeling and are glad it’s back.
So we breathed in the salt air and took in the bright blue ocean. My daughter collected dozens of seashells – large clam shells, smaller ones with curls and bends in them. She used them to make designs and spell letters. We wound up bringing many home and they’ve since turned into art projects, gifts and part of our nature collection.
But perhaps the most fascinating find, was when my daughter brought me a brick. There was nothing special about that particular brick, but her idea for it was. She’d recently watched a program about ways kids can conserve water. How to build a rain barrel, how to reduce the time you keep water running, and how to displace water in your toilet tank so you use less with each flush. So when she came carrying this brick, I knew exactly what she wanted to do with it. That was to be the brick we placed in our toilet tank to conserve water. (Flash forward – it was a great success, displacing at least 2-3″ of water, which she positively beams about.)
As we sat on the beach, picnicking in our snow gear to ward off the wind*, laughing at the seagulls squawking back and forth with us, I couldn’t help take in the moment. Life felt good. The day was simple. There wasn’t much to it. But it felt incredible special. Our day on the beach.
*Being relatively new to the concept of wearing gear for the season, I’m hooked. Turns out when you’re not cold, the chillier seasons are that much more enjoyable.
On our way out, we decided to explore Fort Hancock on the tip of the Sandy Hook Peninsula. While there is a restoration underway, the buildings are largely abandoned or destroyed by storms over the years. But what has survived all those same storms, and a sorted history, was the most compelling for my daughter – the Sandy Hook Lighthouse.
This 250 year old lighthouse was built before the United States was event established as a country. It is the oldest standing, active lighthouse in the US. The keeper’s house and grounds have been converted into a museum, but the lighthouse itself, while open for tours, is still operational. And it’s all free.
Our guide took us up for a one-on-one tour of the lighthouse. At first, we weren’t sure if my daughter would be able to go up. They had a height restriction which she didn’t meet, but they let us look at the staircase to see if it would be doable. I knew she’d be fine, we’d just have to go slow. So up we went all 95 spiral stairs, plus a rung ladder to the top. We went extra slow. When we got up, we looked out over the beach we’d just played on and the paths we’d just walked down.
I didn’t know how much she was into the experience. She didn’t say much or do much on our climb. I though, oh well, still an experience. But it’s funny how some things take their time coming out. When we got back to the museum, she asked to go to the video portion of the exhibit. As we watched film of other people climbing the same lighthouse steps we’d just climbed, there she was telling me all about the lighthouse, just like our guide. She’d quietly been taking it all in. The whole ride home, she couldn’t stop talking about it, and later that night, there she was pulling up the same video online to show my husband and tell him the same things. Lighthouses have since become a serious part of our imaginative play.
The day left me grateful for the simple moments, whether we’re near home or far. It was a beautiful adventure, at a beautiful beach.
Sandy Hook Access
If you’re ever in the NJ / NYC area, Sandy Hook is a great day trip destination. You can take a ferry ride to and from NYC or drive there, like we did. It’s free to visit during the off-season, and between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you pay by the car. You can find out more on their website, here. Have fun!