NEW YORK — 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 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 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 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.
Also new this season: a carousel, though 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.
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.
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Eateries range from hot dogs and seafood at Nathan’s Famous and a brand-new Mexican-style cantina, Place to Beach, to Tom’s Coney Island, which opened last year. For sublime pizza, walk a few blocks to Totonno, 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 was closed for seven months due to storm damage, but it’d reopened about half of its exhibits, including sea lions, penguins, walruses and seals, with admission reduced from $14.95 to $9.95.
Events at Coney Island include fireworks at 9:30 p.m. Fridays and a movie series, Flicks on the Beach.
On a recent sunny Saturday, the newly restored shuttle train to the Rockaway section of Queens was standing-room only. At Rockaway Taco, hipsters in cargo shorts and brimmed hats waited patiently in line for over an hour for fish tacos. And the beach was packed with sunbathers, even where swimming is off limits because of erosion that’s left only a narrow strip of sand.
Several shops cater to Rockaway’s famous surfing scene. Storm damage forced Boarders, which sells and rents surfboards, to discard more than $30,000 worth of inventory, but owner Steve Stathis says the most popular spot for surfers is off Beach 90th Street, and it gets crowded.
Rockaway is located on a peninsula with the bay and the ocean sides several blocks apart. On the bay, Rockaway Jet Ski rents jet skis and offers guided jet ski tours. If the buzz and speed of jet skis aren’t your style, owner Robert Kaskel also rents kayaks.
The nearby marshlands are sure to please nature-lovers, he says: “We have nesting grounds for all kinds of birds and turtles.”
Kaskel also owns a bar and restaurant with live music, Thai Rock. The venue suffered $1.5 million in storm damage, but Kaskel reopened with a smaller menu.
Other places to check out include Blue Bungalow, a beach-themed home and gift shop; the Irish Circle restaurant, a local favorite since 1940; Sayra’s, a new wine-and-tapas bar; and the soon-to-open Playland complex with a boutique motel, bars, restaurants and shopping.
Restoring the beach and boardwalk is a long-term project. Construction equipment abound and red flags mark areas where swimming is not yet allowed.