This stop in our adventure was focused on three key elements: visiting some key sights in the towns where Ran spent time as a kid growing up; reconnecting with some of Ran’s New Jersey relatives; and being tourists in one of the iconic cities in the U.S.
Our main camping base in New Jersey was at an odd, but quite decent campground in Jersey City: Liberty Harbor RV Park. The park has great WiFi and offers extremely easy access to New York City via the PATH train or ferry. A side note: We hit 61,000 miles in total travel, with 27,000 so far in 2019!
New Jersey, the Garden State, is the 38th state we have visited on this trip. The state tree is the Red Oak and the state bird is the Eastern Goldfinch… while the state fruit is the blueberry. It is the most densely populated state in the U.S., with about 8.9 million residents — and we certainly felt that the density of people whenever we were driving! Happily, the state also has 127 miles of coastline, 28 state parks, 11 state forests, 43 natural areas, and 5 recreation areas… along with more than 100 rivers and creeks and 800 lakes and ponds. The state is also the birthplace of two fabulous musicians: Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi. Finally, if you have ever played Monopoly, you have used streets named after actual streets in Atlantic City (which is known for its casinos, boardwalk, and beaches).
We started our time in Jersey visiting with more of Ran’s relatives… all from his mom’s side of the family… cousins and their kids (cousins once removed) who he spent years visiting with over the holidays when the families would gather for hearty meals and celebrations. Once their mom passed and then his mom passed, those family gatherings stopped… so it had been many decades since seeing any of them. But thanks to social media, we have been connected electronically for years.
We had a wonderful lunch with Kathy and Sandra, the “cousins” Ran spent the most time with growing up. Both are amazing women now and it was fun catching up on their lives and sharing more of ours. We also got the special treat of seeing their folks, Anne and Bill, in the home where many Christmas afternoons were spent so very many years ago. A final added bonus was also getting to see another direct cousin, Carl, who just happened to be at an art show nearby at the Ridgewood Art Institute.
The next day was all about visiting Millburn and Short Hills, where Ran spent most of his youth and where he attended school.
We started in downtown Millburn, where Ran introduced Jenny to the famous Sloppy Joe — and it is NOT what you think it is. There is no ground beef or spaghetti sauce in this delicious sandwich, but instead deli meat, Russian dressing, coleslaw, butter, and Swiss cheese on thinly sliced rye bread. Only the Millburn Delicatessen knows how to make these wonderful sandwiches — and we splurged on a traditional Turkey Joe (now only made with butter if requested), as we generally stay away from carbs and non-ancient (GMO) grains.
We ate the Turkey Joe in Taylor Park, a small park located right off Main Street. Millburn, located in Essex County, has a population of about 20,000, and is located about 15 miles from Manhattan… the perfect little commuter town. Two notable actors are from Millburn… one of which Ran went to school with. John C. McGinley, known mostly as a superlative supporting actor in movies such as Wall Street and Platoon was a classmate of Ran’s and even attended Syracuse University like Ran (though Ran never knew that at the time). The other is Anne Hathaway, one of the highest-paid actresses and winner of multiple acting awards, who graduated from Millburn High School, making her breakthrough in The Princess Diaries.
The next day, it was time to get back to nature — with a visit to the perfectly named Jenny Jump State Forest… where Jenny did quite well in performing a few jumps!!
The 4,466-acre park is located along the 1,222-foot high, 6-mile long ridge of Jenny Jump Mountain in northern Warren County — about 3 miles east of Hope, NJ, and just south of Interstate 80. The forest is managed by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Parks and Forestry. The name of the mountain is unknown but some say it is named for a Native American girl who jumped to her death. The mountain is part of the New York-New Jersey Highlands of the Appalachian Mountains.
The state forest offers picnicking, camping, hiking, mountain biking, and hunting… and while we were there we chatted with a group from Vermont who hunt for deer here annually because the deer population in the park is so great; these guys bring enough deer meat back home to last almost the entire year. We love hunters who help control populations of wild animals like deer — and who actually eat what they kill, rather than just for the trophy antlers.
We were there for the hiking, of course. The park offers about 11 miles of hiking trails, ranging from very short (under one mile) to longer (with the longest at 8.6 miles). Most of the trails start near the camping area at the northern end of the forest.
We decided on the Summit Trail, a 2.8-mile (RT) moderate trail that climbs to an elevation of 1,090 feet, following the ridgeline of the mountain, and offering cool views of the Delaware Water Gap and the Pequest Valley. Rocky outcroppings and boulders line the trail — evidence from when glaciers once covered the area. (Glaciers receded from Jenny Jump Mountain near the end of the Wisconsin Ice Age, about 21,000 years ago. Exceeding a mile in thickness, the ice sheet advanced southward from Canada and created the geography of mountains and valleys.)
When we got to the end of the Summit Trail, we hiked for a bit on the Ghost Lake Trail before turning around and heading back the way we came. As you can see from the pictures, the hike on a cloudy autumn day was quite wonderful.
We ended the day at a nice little winery, Four Sisters Winery, located in Belvidere. The winery, named because the owner has four daughters, is part of a farm dating back to 1921. They have 8 acres of grapes under cultivation and produce about 5,000 cases of wine annually. We enjoyed a tasting of several of their dry reds, including wines made from Baco Noir, Corot Noir, and Leon Millot grapes. They also produce white wines from La Crescent, Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc, and Cayuga grapes.
The next day we headed into New York City for a weekend of Broadway shows and an overnight in a Times Square hotel. We bought MetroCards (which can be used on both the PATH and NYC subways) and were ready to get into the city!
We scored a pretty good deal through Travelzoo for the Hotel Mela, an Italian-inspired boutique hotel located on 44th Street, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue… right in the heart of things. We had a nice king bed and even received drink coupons for the bar located next to the hotel.
As soon as we had finished checking in, though, it was time to get out and people-watch in Times Square, which has become much more tourist-friendly since the days when Ran worked in Manhattan in the mid-1980s and the area had a high concentration of peep shows, sex shops, and go-go bars — as well as prostitution and crime.
Times Square is now a major tourism center, entertainment hub, and electronic billboard carnival. It is located in Midtown — between Broadway and Seventh Avenue and from 42nd Street to 47th Street. It’s where the ball drops on New Year’s Eve and where theater-attendees go to find the Broadway Theater District. It is one of the world’s most visited tourist attractions, drawing an estimated 50 million visitors annually — and so amazing for people-watching. The bustle of people walking, stopping, gawking, and snapping pictures is unbelievable — at almost any time of day (or night).
We then moved north and east, heading over to Rockefeller Center (also located in Midtown, between 48th and 51st Streets), where Ran worked when he was a marketing manager at People magazine.
Constructed in the 1930s, Rockefeller Center consists of 22 acres and 19 commercial buildings (for working, dining, shopping) — including 12 original Art Deco buildings commissioned by the Rockefeller family. The three things you may or may not know about Rockefeller Center: There is a vast underground concourse (which is great in bad weather), it has the iconic skating rink, and it is the location of one of the biggest city Christmas trees. Rockefeller Center was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987.
Radio City Music Hall, the original Time-Life Building (where Ran worked), NBC Studios (Today Show, Saturday Night Live, Tonight Show), the Rainbow Room, and Top of the Rock Observation Deck are all located in Rockefeller Center. Radio City Music Hall, which was built on the spot intended for the Metropolitan Opera House, was already advertising for their annual Christmas Spectacular, with those famous high-kicking Rockettes.
Just outside Rockefeller Center lies St. Patrick’s Cathedral, built in the mid to late 1800s, and located on Fifth Avenue, between 50th and 51st Streets –interestingly sitting right across the street from the Atlas sculpture (holding the heavens) that is perched in front of the International Building (both seen in the picture collage above). We gawked at the cathedral’s neo-gothic grandeur while still across the street and wandered briefly inside to admire the stained glass and other features.
From there, we walked back toward Times Square, deciding on a pre-show dinner at Junior’s on Broadway so that we could savor a slice of their delicious low-carb cheesecake after the show. The restaurant has both indoor and patio seating, and we panicked a bit when we saw the massive line waiting for an inside table… but we happily surprised when we were able to be seated outside immediately. While Junior’s will never win any epicurean awards from food critics, we loved the breadth of their menu; with Jen having a delicious broiled salmon and Ran having a grilled chicken Cobb Salad. We also had a fabulous waiter, which made the dinner even more fun and entertaining. (Junior’s also has a bakery located next to the restaurant, which we visited later — only to be disappointed that they had no small low-carb cheesecakes available for us to take on the road.)
After dinner, it was time to focus on one of the main reasons for spending the weekend in New York City: Broadway — the highest level of commercial theater in the world. Officially, it consists of some 41 professional theaters with 500+ seats located in the Theater District and Lincoln Center.
For our first night on Broadway, we scored tickets to Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. We both love music, and when we saw that the show was closing that Sunday, we purchased tickets for the last Saturday night performance at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. (The show is now on tour around the U.S.)
The musical tells the story of how Carole King broke into the music business, writing songs with her music partner (and then husband) Gerry Goffin that were sold to commercial singers and groups. It was not until her break up with her husband that King developed songs so personal to her experiences that she felt only she could sing them correctly — and her career as a singer-songwriter blossomed.
And while we both know music, we were amazed to learn how many popular songs we recognized were written by King and Goffin, including: It Might as Well Rain Until September, Some Kind of Wonderful, Take Good Care of My Baby, Up on the Roof, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, One Fine Day, The Loco-Motion, Chains, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,and Pleasant Valley Sunday. The show also includes several popular songs from King’s breakthrough 1971 solo album Tapestry, including: You’ve Got a Friend, It’s Too Late, I Feel the Earth Move, So Far Away, and Beautiful. Even more amazing, the show features the songs of another husband-wife song-writing team — Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil — who also worked at Don Kirshner and Al Nevin’s company Aldon Music. (Kirshner is also featured in the musical.) Some of their (along with Phil Spector) songs include: You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, Walking in the Rain, He’s Sure the Boy I Love, and We Gotta Get Out of This Place.
The show was fantastic and not overly done. We absolutely adored the music and enjoyed getting additional education in music history. The show has won both a Tony Award (leading actress in a musical) and a Grammy Award (best musical theater album). While nothing beats the production on Broadway, you can find out more about touring performances on the Beautiful website.
The next day, which brought crazy rain that hampered our people-watching, had us going off-Broadway. Off-Broadway shows adhere to the same standards as Broadway shows, but are performed in smaller professional venues, with a seating of between 100 and 499. It was raining so hard we had to take a cab to the venue: New World Stages.
Silly, fun, loud, and hairy is how we would describe our experience at Rock of Ages, where we amazingly had front-row seats right next to the stage — the first time for both of us for any venue. (One of the performers even gave Ran a high-five during the performance!) Warning: If you have front-row seats, you may also get spit on by over-exuberant actors!
The five-time Tony-nominated musical is a fun and rocking experience, with a performance that is partly parody. It centers on rock music from the 1980s — especially the glam bands of the time — with songs from REO Speedwagon, Survivor, Foreigner, Bon Jovi, Poison, Styx, Twisted Sister, Journey, Pat Benatar, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Night Ranger, and others. The story is set in SoCal, in a Hollywood bar/club along the Sunset Strip called the Bourbon Room, and the story is narrated by a character named Lonny Barnett. It revolves around the lives of several aspiring characters, as well as evil developers who want to demolish the “slime” of the strip and restore the area to respectability.
Songs include: We’re Not Gonna Take It, Waiting for a Girl Like You, Wanted Dead or Alive, Here I Go Again, Hit Me With Your Best Shot, Every Rose Has Its Thorn, Keep on Loving You, and Don’t Stop Believin’.
The show just has a light and fun feel to it — and who can’t help rocking out to so many songs we grew up singing? (The cast even makes fun of the horribly panned movie version of Rock of Ages staring Tom Cruise.) A cool aspect of the performance is that the band is always right on stage — no orchestra pit needed for this show.
Interestingly, the musical started at the New World Stages back in 2008 when it made its opening in New York… it later moved to Broadway, settling in at the Helen Hayes Theatre for several years and thousands of performances… and so it was cool to see Rock of Ages where it all began.
One final tip about Broadway and tickets. A good friend from New Jersey recommended TodayTix, a great app for finding tickets to shows — and not just in New York but numerous other locations. You simply find the show you want to see, choose the types of seats you want, pay for the seats, and on the day of the show meet a representative from the company to pick up your tickets. It worked seamlessly both times we used it.
It was time to get serious — and somber — during our next day in New York when we traveled to the World Trade Center, located in the Financial District in lower Manhattan — and where the Twin Towers once stood. The towers were part of a large complex of seven buildings — and while only the towers collapsed, all the buildings in the complex were badly damaged and all were demolished as part of the rebuilding effort. The Twin Towers were iconic in culture — not just for New York, but around the world. As a child, Ran watched the towers being constructed and as an adult, visited them for business multiple times. It’s been estimated that the towers are included in scenes from almost 500 movies.
We arrived via PATH train into the World Trade Center Transportation Hub — World Trade Center — rebuilt after the destruction of 9/11. The station — named The Oculus — is part transportation hub (linking to multiple subway lines in addition to the PATH), part upscale mall, part vast pedestrian tunnel… and cost about $4 billion and 12 years to build. From the outside, it is supposed to resemble a dove with its wings extended to inspire love and hope; inside, it is bright and white and flooded with natural lights from the many large skylights above. It sits about a block from the the 9/11 Memorial.
We exited the station and walked the perimeter around the two square reflecting pools where the towers once stood. The Twin Towers — the tallest buildings in the world at one point — both collapsed in the heinous attacks of September 11, 2001 that killed almost 3,000 innocent people. The reflecting pools, titled Reflecting Absence, have the names of all the victims (including the six who died in the 1993 bombing) etched into the bronze and it truly is a somber place. The memorial also includes The Survivor Tree, a callery pear tree that was amazingly recovered from the rubble at the World Trade Center site in October of 2001 — and lovingly brought back to health and replanted. The final piece is the 9/11 Memorial Glade, located near the Survivor Tree, a pathway that mirrors the location of the main ramp used by rescue and recovery workers — and which is dedicated to the tens of thousands of people from all over the country that came to Ground Zero to help.
After walking around the memorial, it was time to visit the National September 11 Museum… which is something almost impossible to describe. But before we try, here’s an important tip we learned from a friend: Use one of the tourism websites to purchase tickets ahead of time — so-called Skip the Line tickets. If you don’t purchase tickets ahead of time, you will wait in a ticket line and then wait in a second line for security. By the way, entrance to the museum is close to airport-level security, so be prepared. One final hint: the best time to visit seems to be early in the morning or late in the day. On the morning we visited (arriving around 9:30 am), it was not too crowded; by the time we left that afternoon, the place was packed!
The museum itself is simply mind-blowing and overwhelming in size and dimension. The collection includes more than 40,000 images, 14,000 artifacts, more than 3,500 oral recordings, and more than 500 hours of video. You could probably spend several days there if you stopped at every single exhibit and artifact. It is truly one of those unique experiences that is indescribable — beyond amazement, sorrow, anger, pride, and a million other emotions. In terms of artifacts, you’ll see the twisted steel from the towers, pieces of airplane wreckage, melted office supplies, and destroyed rescue vehicles. The two most moving to us were the Last Column — the last piece of steel to leave Ground Zero in May 2002; and the Survivors Staircase — the crumbled, last visible remaining original structure above ground level at the World Trade Center — stairs people used to escape 5 World Trade Center, one of the adjacent buildings to the Twin Towers. (Both of these artifacts are shown in the above collage.)
No visit to New York City would be complete without a day spent in the area… the Oculus and National 9/11 Memorial and Museum are just part of the rebuilding of a New World Trade Center complex that will feature six skyscrapers and other buildings — some of which have been built, including One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and completed in 2014; the building itself rises to 1,368 feet, the same height of the original World Trade Center north tower, but its antenna structure increases the overall height to a symbolic 1,776 feet. When we visited, construction was also underway for the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center. Two other buildings planned for the complex are currently on hold.
Next up was a ferry trip to take in the Statue of Liberty. It’s too long a story, but we had purchased “premium” two-day tickets for the Big Bus, one of several providers of so-called hop-on/hop-off tours that have multiple stops for tourists in major cities; our tickets included a free Circle Line cruise around lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. For sake of brevity, let’s just say we asked for a refund because unlike our previous experiences with the Big Bus in New Orleans and Philadelphia, the New York operators have a LOT to learn about customer service and delivering on the services purchased. It was a sad and frustrating experience.
So… because the Circle Line cruises were sold out for the day, we hopped on the free Staten Island Ferry, which travels near enough to the Statue of Liberty to get decent pictures — and which has daily departures every 30 minutes (more frequent during rush hours) from lower Manhattan, at the
Whitehall Ferry Terminal. The ferry is the last of what was once an extensive ferry system in New York City that transported people between Manhattan and its future boroughs long before any bridges were built. As you can see from the pictures, many other folks knew about this cool “secret” and waited anxiously on the side of the ship that was traveling by the Statue of Liberty. For those who do choose this option, note that you have to physically leave the ferry in Staten Island and rush around and re-board it for the return to Manhattan. (During busy times, you may have to wait for the next ferry.)
The Statue of Liberty sits in New York Harbor, a symbol of freedom and democracy. The Statue of Liberty — a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States — was dedicated on October 28, 1886; it was designated a National Monument in 1924, and is cared for by the National Park Service. The copper statue stands at 151 feet.
You can also physically visit Liberty Island and the Statue of Liberty by purchasing tickets from Statue Cruises (the Park Service’s official vendor) — the only ships allowed to dock in there. These ferries depart from both Liberty State Park in Jersey City (right near where we camped) and the Battery in Lower Manhattan and make stops at both Ellis Island and Liberty Island. Note that all ferry riders go through tight airport-like security screening before boarding.
From Jersey City, we hit the road down the New Jersey Turnpike — a horrible drive with heavy truck traffic — to land in Chatsworth at a decent little RV park located in the heart of the Jersey New Pine Barrens, but also not far from the Jersey Shore. The Pine Barrens are unique and densely forested and serve a key purpose of helping recharge an underground aquifer… and in 1978, the U.S. Congress acted to protect this area by designating 1.1 million acres at the Pinelands National Reserve. (Several state forests are located within the reserve.)
We spent an afternoon along the Jersey Shore, visiting Long Beach Island — and specifically Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, located on the very northern tip of the island. The 32-acre park is open for bird-watching, hiking, fishing, and picnicking.The park is included as a maritime site on the New Jersey Coastal Heritage Trail — an auto route designed to provide education, understanding, and enjoyment of natural, maritime, and cultural sites of the coastal area of New Jersey.
At one time, this point where the lighthouse stands was regarded as one of the most important navigational points and crucial “change of course” points for coastal vessels bound to and from New York Harbor.
The Jersey Shore encompasses about 141 miles of coastline with the Atlantic Ocean, stretching from Perth Amboy in the north to Cape May in the south, with most folks heading to The Shore to vacation in the central-to-south parts of the state. The area is home to boardwalks, amusement parks, arcades, and tons of vacation rentals and summer houses. Notable shore towns include: Sandy Hook, Long Branch, Asbury Park, Seaside Heights, Long Beach Island, Atlantic City, Wildwood, and Cape May.
And we hit up another Costco — for gas and groceries — in Stafford Township, Store #1025.
From New Jersey, we plan to cut back into Pennsylvania for quick trips to Valley Forge and Gettysburg to get some Revolutionary War and Civil War history lessons.