Bay Head – An Unspoiled Seaside Town
By Greta Cuyler
At the mouth of Barnegat Bay lies a quaint Victorian village with a family atmosphere that appears relatively untouched by time. Bay Head Borough is located on the Jersey Shore’s barrier island, nestled between Point Pleasant to the north and Mantoloking to the south.
Bay Head is less than one square mile so everything is within walking distance—pristine beaches, a popular wine and cheese shop, restaurants, a bakery, public tennis courts, gift shops, bed & breakfasts, even a bank.
“But there’s no honky-tonk, no bars and no loud noises,” said Mayor Bill Curtis. “There are no attractions and that’s what the younger people are looking for. The people who are here now like the quiet style.”
Even without a commercial boardwalk like the one in Seaside Heights to the south, there’s still plenty to do in this small town. Visitors can take a trip to Twilight Lake, a local waterfowl sanctuary. There’s a twice-monthly farmers market that runs from late June through August and free outdoor movie nights for locals and visitors alike. The Lenni-Lenape Indians were Bay Head’s earliest inhabitants in the 1600s, followed by New Englanders who became farmers, fishermen and seamen, according to the Bay Head Business Association. In 1876, David Mount, a Princeton banker, bought beach acreage from a retired sea captain. A few years later, he and fellow bankers Edward Howe and William Harris formed the Bay Head Land Company to develop the farms, woods, cranberry bogs and bayberry dunes into what is now Bay Head. The town began to grow between 1882 and 1919 when train service became available to and from New York and Philadelphia. Many of the streets in Bay Head were named after prominent Princetonians, Philadelphians and New Yorkers who were its founders and many current residents are their direct descendants.
In the winter months, the population of Bay Head is about 1,000 people, although that number swells to about 10,000 in the summer, Mayor Curtis said. Houses in Bay Head are built on small lots and tend to be close to one another. Land is valuable and home prices range between $400,000 to more than $5 million.
“The biggest change (over the years) is the lack of businesses,” Curtis said. “We used to have close to 80-85 businesses and now we’re down to about 40. From five hotels to one, and we’re down to two bed and breakfasts.” Some stores closed in the wake of competition from chain and big box stores or found they couldn’t make a living in the small town.
Bay Head town features 1.3 miles of beach with 11 public entrances. A project to install new sewer, water and gas lines along Route 35 is expected to be completed by the end of April and public parking is allowed along the main thoroughfare for day trippers looking for an easy walk to the beach.
The beaches are privately owned but open to the public and managed by the non-profit Bay Head Improvement Association. Founded in 1898, BHIA provides beach lifeguards, people who patrol the beaches and the sale of seasonal and day passes. The cost of access is $80 for a full season, $45 for a half season and $8 for a day badge. Children under 12 are free. Comparable beaches cost $110 for a seasonal pass and $10 for a day pass, BHIA director Tom Gage said. Dogs are not allowed on the beach in the summer. Food and beverages are prohibited, although water is allowed in clear, plastic containers.
“From the start, homeowners said ‘others can use my beaches, but I don’t want it set up as a picnic area,’” Gage said.
Bay Head’s roughly 75 beachfront homeowners pay for all of the beach maintenance—pushing sand onto the beach, building fences, protecting the dunes, plantings, etc.
And in late October of 2012, when Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast and devastated the Jersey Shore, Bay Head escaped much of the disaster that affected neighboring communities. That’s because a sea wall, originally constructed in the late 1800s and replaced with a 16-foot-high engineered underground rock wall in 1962, helped mitigate the damage.
Jennifer Irish, an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech, was part of a team that arrived in Bay Head in November 2012 to survey the damage in Bay Head and neighboring Mantoloking. Their study and report, funded by the National Science Foundation, is titled “Buried relic seawall mitigates Hurricane Sandy’s impacts.”
“From a few minutes after we got to the beach, we could tell the area was dramatically impacted and we could see stark differences between the two towns,” Professor Irish said. “It became obvious there was a story there from a coastal perspective. Oceanfront homes in Mantoloking were virtually missing. In Bay Head, they had significant and obvious damage and were flooded, but they were physically there.” In addition, the team noted Mantoloking had more areas that had been breached by water, leaving sections that connected the ocean and the bay.
Tom Gage agreed. “During Sandy, Bay Head suffered just like everyone else, but that section (with the sea wall) suffered least of all. The homes were damaged, but not washed away.”
Watching the seawall’s protection in the wake of Hurricane Sandy spurred the remaining homeowners to action. At an expense of approximately $200,000 each, homeowners to the north and south of the existing seawall extended the seawall into the north end of Mantoloking and up past the northern border into Point Pleasant. That work was completed in March of this year. “The new sections of wall are 18 feet high,” Gage said.
Every business was severely damaged by the storm, but 90 percent of those businesses were back in operation by the summer of 2014, according to Curtis.
“Bay Head is back and vibrant and I think it’s going to be even better than it was prior to Sandy,” Curtis said.
Take Route 195 East to Route 34 South (towards Brielle), Route 34 becomes Route 35 South and will take you directly into the Borough of Bay Head.
WHERE TO STAY:
THE GRENVILLE HOTEL & RESTAURANT 345 Main Avenue 732.892.3100 The four story hotel features 29 guest rooms (standard, midsize and suites). The restaurant is BYOB. Open for lunch and dinner and brunch on Sundays. www.thegrenville.com
THE BENTLEY INN BED & BREAKFAST 694 Bay Avenue 732.892.9589 An 1886 Victorian mansion located three houses from the beach. There are 21 guest rooms, off-street parking and more. www.bentleyinn.com
BAY HEAD SANDS BED & BREAKFAST INN 2 Twilight Road 732.899.7016 A 1910 shingle-style structure, featuring a parlor with original stained glass windows. There are eight bedrooms, each with an ocean or lake view and amenities. Located one block east of the Bay Head Train Station. www.bayheadsands.com
Bay Head is the final stop on NJ Transit's North Jersey Coast Line.
WHERE TO EAT:
BAY HEAD CHEESE SHOP & BOTTLES TOO 91 Bridge Avenue Seasonal soups, homemade quiche, hot/cold hors d’oeuvres, cheese, spreads, etc.
CURTIS’ CENTRAL MARKET 536 Main Avenue Offers breakfast and lunch. Also has groceries and liquor.
DORCAS RESTAURANT 58 Bridge Avenue Open during the summer only. Offers soups, salad, sandwiches, plus specials for lunch. Open Saturdays and Sunday for breakfast. Open for ice cream Thursday-Saturday evenings during the summer.
MUELLER’S BAKERY 80 Bridge Avenue Features fresh, handmade baked goods- pastries, cakes, bread, bagels, doughnuts, coffee, etc.
THERESA’S SOUTH 530 Main Avenue Offers dinner nightly and brunch on Sunday. Features homemade pastas and entrees from different cuisines. BYOB.