Finding luxury at the Jersey Shore: My stay at the Asbury Ocean Club Hotel
For my family, pandemic travel has been all about rediscovering our backyard. I just never thought that would include exploring my dad’s hometown.
Yet, on a recent fall weekend, my wife and I escaped for a luxury getaway in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
Yes, that Asbury Park — the onetime gritty shore town that could be called lots of things, but hardly luxurious.
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My father was born and raised in Asbury Park. I have childhood memories of visiting my grandparents in town at a time in the 1980s when crime, drugs and boarded-up stores dominated the image of this seaside community.
That and The Boss.
Asbury Park will probably always be associated with Bruce Springsteen, who got his start at the oceanfront Stone Pony — now a legendary music venue with year-round shows.
Today, there is so much more to this town, though. After a decade of revitalization kickstarted by the LGBTQ+ community, Asbury Park is well into its next act. New Yorkers bought second homes here and rehabilitated them to their former architectural glory. Others moved to town, making it their new full-time home. Yes, there are still plenty of issues, including poverty. But literally on the other side of the train tracks you'll find a vibrant downtown with great restaurants.
It just so happened that my wife and I were looking for a quick, kid-free getaway from Manhattan. I had been eyeing resorts out in the countryside, such as Hutton Brickyards and Kenoza Hall. I couldn’t find any available nights at them -- or nearly half a dozen other hotels in the Catskill Mountains -- over multiple weekends, though.
That’s when I turned my gaze toward the Jersey Shore and found the Asbury Ocean Club Hotel.
The Asbury Ocean Club Hotel opened for July 4th weekend in 2019 and has been charging prices that rival New York City hotels over the past two years. Case in point: Our mid-October, one-night escape cost $607.51, including taxes, in a city view standard king room. Overnight valet parking was another $37.32, with tax.
I booked through the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts program and was able to offset some of that cost with the up to $200 in annual statement credits for making prepaid FHR bookings with The Platinum Card® from American Express. You can read more about how to use that credit here.
For our very short stay, this approach had the added benefit of a guaranteed 4 p.m. checkout plus a $100 on-property credit that we put toward some drinks with friends Friday night at the hotel's lobby bar.
The Asbury Ocean Club Hotel includes a basic continental buffet breakfast in the room rate, but we were able to add on some delicious hot dishes thanks to the FHR program's breakfast credit. (More on that later.)
The hotel sits across the street from the beach in a 17-story tower that is comprised mainly of 130 condominiums. The hotel's lobby, bar, pool, public spaces and most of its 54 rooms are on the building's fourth floor.
We arrived late on a Friday afternoon, left our car with the hotel valet and checked in at the desk right off the street. We were offered a small welcome drink and then escorted directly to our room. It had been upgraded one category to a dune view standard king room (though we weren't informed of it), which would have been $20 more per night based on current rates.
Everything in our room was ultra-modern, with sharp lines, lots of glass and a sense of "I'm cool — Are you?"
The layout was narrow and long, and although there was plenty of space, it didn’t feel especially big. As much as I tried to feel cozy here – and the comfortable chairs and throws helped – there was a sterile sense to the whole place.
A glass shower and bathroom dominated the room and were the key design feature. It felt like the designers were just trying too hard, and it was odd to have the bathroom as the focal point. Luckily, there were curtains to close it off if you wanted some privacy — something all “trendy” hotels should consider.
There were a few nooks where you could relax and read, and the hotel provided three books in the room for those who forgot to pack their own. It is a nice amenity in this digital age.
The room had plenty of electric outlets, including at the nightstands.
There was a comfy set of robes, yet strangely no slippers to go with them — a missed opportunity for a luxury touch.
The bed was comfortable but not remarkable. Overall, the decor felt like that of a modern beach house, without any nods to Asbury Park and its history. It could have been a room anywhere else, which seemed like another missed opportunity.
The real highlight for me was the outdoor patio.
It was a large space overlooking the hotel’s inner courtyard. Since none of the hotel rooms are high up, this is actually preferable -- in my mind -- to an ocean-view room. The ocean views are really views of parking lots and nearby roofs. This, at least, felt like a little oasis.
While I loved this beach-dune inspired space, I also felt like the hotel designers could have gone just a bit further to make the patio more attractive. Two chairs weren't enough, and there was no lounge chair or spot to really relax. Slightly higher barriers between neighboring rooms' decks would also add a bit more privacy.
The place to hang out at the hotel during nice weather was the outdoor pool deck and bar.
It had sweeping views, plenty of chairs and a beautiful pool that was close enough to the beach that you could hear the waves crash.
The pool bar was a nighttime centerpiece and the type of spot — if it wasn't too windy out — where I could see myself relaxing for hours after the sun goes down.
The year-round focal point, however, was a spot called the Drawing Room -- a large, glassed-in room with sliding doors that made it an indoor-outdoor space, usable in every season. It was next to the lobby and pool deck and connected the two wings of the complex.
In the morning, the light, airy venue was a great spot for breakfast. There were traditional tables but also couches and lounge chairs.
Each weekend night this past fall, local musicians performed in the space. It wasn’t the Stone Pony, but it was pretty impressive the night we were there, nonetheless. We were lucky enough to hear 17-year-old Jake Thistle, a New Jersey singer and songwriter. This is a guy who has played some pretty impressive venues, even at his young age, but on this night he was giving what felt like a private concert right off our hotel lobby.
If I ever win the lottery and become a multi-millionaire, I would use this space as the model for my new mansion’s living room. It had just the right mix of natural light and drew the eye outdoors while still being warm and cozy.
The gym was shared with the apartments above and was spacious, with lots of natural light and new equipment, including three Peloton bikes.
You had to swing by the front desk in order to borrow a key to get in, which seemed silly to me, especially since the hotel had given me a digital key to my room that presumably expired when I checked out.
Food and beverage
We met some friends who live in town for dinner the night we arrived and then had drinks back at the hotel using our $100 resort credit. The pool bar was already closed but we grabbed cocktails inside the lobby and brought them outside. Others carried them into the Drawing Room.
The drink menu had all the classics plus a few specials from the bartender. I held onto one last bit of summer with a $15 Mai Tai, while one of our friends went with a classic martini. The Hugo caught my eye for creativity. It was a mix of dry Riesling, Asbury Park Vodka, St. Germain, bitter bianco and orange zest. I would have ordered one, but the wind was picking up and we decided to call it a night.
The bar wasn't open to the public, meaning just residents or guests of the hotel were there. I appreciated it not being overly crowded, like some trendy hotel lobbies can be, but with just a dozen people in the bar, the space was eerily quiet.
For breakfast, the hotel set out a continental spread of pastries, fresh fruit and yogurt, along with coffee and a stack of newspapers in the Drawing Room. As a longtime journalist who got his start as a local news reporter, I still believe newspapers are an amenity every luxury hotel — dare I say every hotel — should still provide.
The menu also had hot dishes to supplement the buffet that you could pay for a la carte. It was a nice hybrid that more properties should adopt.
Since we booked via American Express, my wife and I were able to spend up to $60 on breakfast. Classic eggs with a side of bacon or sausage were $18, classic eggs Benedict was $22 and rhubarb French toast was $15.
New Jersey isn't really known for its lobster, but since we were at the shore, it somehow felt fitting to upgrade to the lobster eggs Benedict for $36. I was not disappointed. It was a generous portion of lobster, the eggs were perfectly poached and the hollandaise sauce added just enough flavor without overpowering the lobster.
Note: I wouldn't stick around for lunch or dinner here. There are many other good options just a few blocks away. While breakfast was a hit, I never saw anybody dining during the other hours.
Out and about in Asbury Park
You might be tempted to spend all day at the pool or curled up with a book in your room at the Asbury Ocean Club, but visitors should be sure to get out and explore Asbury Park proper. The seaside town is a destination by itself, even when it isn't beach weather.
Among the scores of great restaurants downtown, off Cookman Avenue, one favorite is Pascal & Sabine, a French brasserie that takes its cues from Albert Lamorisse's whimsical short film, The Red Balloon.
Thirsty tourists can find their beverage of choice with the Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten, a local brewery and beer hall adjacent to Asbury Park Distilling.
During our stroll through town, we stumbled upon an outdoor market selling local foods and crafts. We ended up buying some honey from Mill Creek Apiary, which is located an hour away in Medford, New Jersey.
Closer to the beach is Madam Marie's, a fortune-telling booth dating back to 1932. Clearly, Marie had the foresight to stick out the bad years and now has a prime spot on the boardwalk.
Wonder Bar, just across the street from the boardwalk, offers a Sunday "Yappy Hour," where dog owners can gather with other pet lovers.
For me, the highlight was the Silverball Museum, a collection of antique pinball machines and arcade games that can still be played. Prices start at $10 a person for 30 minutes, $15 for an hour or $20 for all day.
Finally, there is the architecture. After decades of neglect, the Paramount Theater and the Asbury Park Convention Hall have been restored to their former glory. It's an amazing complex with a style that brings you back to the 1930s.
Too bad there has yet to be a restoration of the Asbury Park Casino, a structure from the same era that once housed a carousel and now just remains the shell of a building. Local art fills the spot and you can peer in through the gates.
I never thought that I would be returning to Asbury Park for a vacation. But the food, history and people here made it a great weekend getaway.
This was not the town I remembered from my childhood. My parents now regularly return for day trips from New York and I finally appreciate what they see in a renewed Asbury.
There are not a ton of true luxury escapes within an easy drive of New York City. However, the Asbury Ocean Club Hotel is a modern, sleek luxury property that elevates the entire Jersey Shore hotel scene. Given the scarcity of other true luxury properties nearby, it is able to charge a premium, which might put some travelers off.
The prices are steep — very steep. But I never felt like I overpaid for the experience.
For me, the hotel fits that sweet spot: It's a modern escape surrounded by history. It's the exact opposite of the wood-planked boardwalk that, including my own daughter, four generations of my family have strolled upon. Yet, it somehow seems to fit right in. I know I'll be back.