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Visiting NYC's Coney, Rockaway beaches post-Sandy

Thursday - 6/20/2013, 3:48pm  ET

The B & B Carousel is seen on the Coney Island's boardwalk next to the Parachute Jump, Wednesday, June 19, 2013 in New York. Eight months after Superstorm Sandy hit New York City, Coney Island's rides, eateries and beach are getting plenty of visitors, and there are even a few new attractions like a carousel and a store for fans of the Nets basketball team. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

BETH J. HARPAZ
Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- Two of New York's best-known waterfront neighborhoods took a beating last fall from Superstorm Sandy: Coney Island in Brooklyn and the Rockaways in Queens. But crowds are back on both beaches and enjoying local attractions, from rides and hot dogs at Coney Island, to surfing and a funky taco stand in the Rockaways.

"They took a punch in the stomach, there's no question, but they're back strong," said Robert K. Steel, the city's deputy mayor for economic development. The city spent $270 million to reopen its beaches, Steel said, noting that they're "an important part of the New York experience" for locals and out-of-towners alike.

The city has eight public beaches along 14 miles (22 kilometers) of coastline, but Coney Island and the Rockaways, while very different, are two of the best-known, especially among tourists.

"At Coney, you've got the amusement park, the boardwalk, the historic attractions," said Steel, adding that "it's an organized experience" that leaves you "buzzing." In contrast, Rockaway is a great place to chill out, with a mix of beachgoers, surfers, longtime residents and trendy 20-somethings creating a laidback scene that's been dubbed the "hipster Hamptons."

Here are some things to see and do at both beaches.

CONEY ISLAND

Coney Island has been undergoing a comeback for several years, and that redevelopment continues despite severe flooding last fall. The boardwalk looks spiffier than ever, with bright signage and several new venues, including the candy store It'Sugar, 1232 Surf Ave., and Nets by Adidas, 3015 Stillwell Ave., which sells T-shirts, hats and other Nets basketball team gear.

Also new this season: a carousel, though technically it's an old-timer. The antique merry-go-round closed a few years ago but was bought by the city, restored, and just reopened near the Parachute Jump and MCU Park, the stadium used by Brooklyn's minor league baseball team, the Cyclones.

The Cyclones team is named for Coney Island's famous Cyclone wooden roller coaster, built in 1927. Another landmark among Coney Island's dozens of rides is the Wonder Wheel, which opened in 1920. The Cyclone's shake, rattle and roll experience is not for the faint of heart, and even the Wonder Wheel offers a thrilling twist to the usual Ferris wheel: Some cars slide back and forth as you get your bird's-eye view. (Ask for a stationary car if that sounds scary.)

Near the underground entrance to the Wonder Wheel is a booth called Grandmother's Predictions. The mechanical fortune-teller has been there since 1923 but had to be sent off for restoration after Sandy. Grandma looks better than ever after her makeover, and offers cards predicting your fate for just 50 cents.

Unlike Disney or Six Flags amusement parks, there's no upfront admission at Coney Island. You can walk around for free, take photos, people-watch, and buy tickets for individual rides (Wonder Wheel, $7; Cyclone, $9, carousel, $3). Or buy cards or wristbands good for a number of rides; just remember that there are several different, independently run parks, so a card for Luna Park won't cover the Wonder Wheel, and vice-versa.

Eateries range from hot dogs, fries and seafood at Nathan's Famous, corner of Surf and Stillwell avenues, to a brand-new Mexican-style cantina, Place to Beach, 3070 Stillwell Ave., to Tom's Coney Island, 1229 Boardwalk West, which opened last year. For sublime pizza, walk a few blocks to Totonno, 1524 Neptune Ave., a legendary hole-in-the-wall that lives up to the hype. You can't buy pizza by the slice at Totonno, but one person can make a serious dent in a small pie.

The New York Aquarium, at West Eighth Street on the boardwalk, was closed for seven months due to storm damage. It's reopened about half of its exhibits, including sea lions, penguins, walruses and seals, with admission reduced from $14.95 to $9.95. On Fridays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., admission is by donation.

Events at Coney Island include the Mermaid Parade (this Saturday, June 22), fireworks at 9:30 p.m. Fridays through the summer, and a movie series, Flicks on the Beach, kicking off July 1. More information is at http://www.coneyislandfunguide.com or NYC & Company's "Neighborhood X Neighborhood" guide for Coney Island at http://www.nycgo.com/neighborhoods .

Nancy Koziol, who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., visits Coney Island every summer, most recently bringing along a visitor from Holland. "She was blown away that you can take the subway there, and she was in love with the idea that this kind of community has held its own," said Koziol. "You can lie on the beach, go ride a roller coaster." She added: "It's not Disney" -- but that's part of its charm.

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