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We inevitably got stuck in traffic, trying to leave the congested perimeters of New York City for a quiet overnighter in the Garden State. We purposely left early on a Friday, hoping to avoid the throngs of escapees, but an accident up ahead left us scrambling through city streets on a detour. This is never a great way to begin a getaway.
In a few hours we entered Ocean Grove, New Jersey and found ourselves driving down streets of vintage Victorian homes in search of The Manchester Inn. The homes had wraparound porches and filigree-decorated fronts and were painted with summertime palettes of pinks, greens, blues, violets and yellows, which formed an architectural rainbow. Most were adorned with wreaths, angels and candlelights in the windows, but all of them were the type of homes you oohed and aahed at, as you passed by. We literally drove up and down each block, not because we were lost (as usual), but because the homes and atmosphere of Ocean Grove are quite literally from another time and we were drawn to see each one. Words like charming and quaint seem trite as a description.
We drove on the main road along the boardwalk and inns and private homes, each evoking an old world seaside community with their style and unique names such as Seaside Hotel, Sea View Hotel, The Beach House and the Ocean Grand. There are a dozen variations on any name using the words: ocean, sea or beach, but luckily there is only one Manchester Inn. Driving up and down the blocks at a slow speed, I was afraid the locals, relaxing on their porches, would soon mistake us for suspicious characters.
We found the main "strip" in town, appropriately named Main Avenue, and walked around a bit. The center of town is lined with antique shops and gift stores selling the mandatory t-shirts and seashell accessories, as well as a wide assortment of classic Victoriana. Since dolls, bears, candles and soaps aren't really Donald's cup of tea, he found a "has-everything" hardware store, to linger and browse through. While he was duly occupied, I managed to find a few bargains among the high-priced antiques and clothing stores. I especially loved the Main Avenue Galleria that featured not only unique items, but also affordable prices and Donald is always ready to save a dime! They had wonderful inexpensive gift baskets that I was so tempted to buy, even though I had no immediate purpose for one. I did find a great pocketbook and, as the designated shopper for the family, I was now fulfilled.
It was almost dinnertime and Don can tolerate browsing for only a limited time, even in a hardware store, so we followed the directions to the Manchester Inn. On their website, our hosts, Clark and Margaret Cate, describe the inn as the only one on Ocean Pathway with four trees in front and, sure enough, as we drove down the wide spacious block, we immediately spotted those landmark trees. However, even more noticeable was the larger-than-large Great Auditorium at the end of the block with a larger-than-large cross in the center. It is not only a central landmark to this community, but the structure around which the entire town grew - and that is a story.
The area has the unique history of being a spot for religious camp meetings and revivals for the Methodist church. Traditionally, camp meetings involved ministers preaching around a fire in a "camping out" situation, sometimes for days, while followers set up tents all around. So the story goes, on July 31, 1869, a group of ministers camped, at what today is called Founders Park, and they decided to establish this secluded area on the North Jersey coast as a permanent Christian encampment. Thus, the town of Ocean Grove grew up around this initial premise. Today, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association actually retains ownership of the land and the "homeowners" buy and sell the buildings while leasing the site.
To the casual visitor's eye, Ocean Grove looks like any other picturesque seaside town with stores, restaurants, police and fire departments, well-cared-for beaches and private homes. However, there are indications of their fundamental Christian roots everywhere. Up until 1980, cars were not even allowed anywhere on the open streets on Sundays and visitors, and homeowners alike, had to park at the outskirts of town and walk a mile or so inland. To this day, Ocean Grove remains a "dry town" with no liquor sold. There are no bars or pubs and alcoholic drinks are strictly "BYOB" in all restaurants and inns.
Another highly noticeable indicator is the area surrounding the Great Auditorium. We noticed what looks like little summer cabanas with a large front porch, boarded up for the winter. We found out that these are indeed the"tents" about which everyone speaks. At one time, 660 tents were leased or owned on individual sites, but now that number has dwindled to 114 and there is about a 10-year waiting list to get one. The actual tents are erected over the porch and are occupied from May to September, by many fourth- and fifth-generation residents. This area has a unique legacy as each summer the population swells with additional seasonal visitors who occupy the many B&B rooms as well as the tents. We were glad we were here during the off-season, so we could truly enjoy the peacefulness and the calm of spring.