The Rockaway Hotel is a part of a tight-knit local community that includes the much-fêted Rippers, Rockaway Brewing Co. and Tacoway Beach: breezy staff are made up of Queens locals, the hotel supports more city-based small businesses than we can count on two (sun-kissed) hands, and owners Terence and Dan even named its restaurant after their mom. But this is no quaint cottage: this six-storey Scandi-style block has over 16,000 sq ft of outdoor space – and puts it to good use. There’s an outdoor heated pool with loungers; a rooftop with views of surfers and the city; and a mind-clearing yoga deck facing the ocean. Every room has a view (choose between the sparkling Atlantic or genteel Jamaica Bay) and features photography by NYC-based creatives – a theme that continues throughout, with its curated collection of 150 art pieces. The Rockaways are laid-back, kind-natured and neighbourly, and like the Ramones who would hitch a ride here from the city, this hideout makes no apologies in celebrating its home turf.
11am, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 3pm, but you’ll be able to check in earlier if your room is ready.
Double rooms from £137.73 ($168), including tax at 14.75 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional resort fee of $49.00 per room per night on check-in and an additional room tax of $3.50 per room per night on check-in.
A grab and go breakfast can be purchased at the Greenhouse café, or make a leisurely morning of it with a sit-down meal at Margie’s.
It’s fair to say that the Rockaway Hotel + Spa is a de facto gallery of sorts: there are over 150 pieces of art from local and nationally renowned artists. Each piece was curated by the hotel’s so-called Chief Social Impact Officer, Michi Jigarjian – and many were sourced from nonprofit arts groups. Look out for the works of Rockaway locals Tom Sachs and Roe Ethridge, plus photography by surf-snappers Susannah Ray and Joni Stembach, furniture by Giovanni Travasa, murals by Ivan Forde, ceramics by Michelle Cortez and a piece by Alessandro Teoldi made out of airline blankets in a nod to nearby JFK.
At the hotel
Outdoor heated pool, spa with infrared sauna, yoga classes, priority rooftop access and exclusive use of loungers, bikes to borrow, restaurant, coffee shop, bar, use of beach chairs, towels and umbrellas. In rooms: WiFi, TV with Chromecast, free morning coffee, robes, Goldie’s bath products
Our favourite rooms
All rooms are thoughtfully designed with sustainable furnishings and Rockaway quirks, but if you like to start your day with a blast of fresh air then opt for a deluxe ocean view room with rattan-chair adorned terrace. Those looking to stay a while (and why wouldn’t you) might like to book a bungalow. These residence-style hideaways have spacious, light-bathed living areas and modern kitchenettes, plus a bath tub for post-surf soaks.
The heated outdoor pool is open from sunrise to sunset, and Rockaway Hotel guests benefit from exclusive use of the loungers (upholstered in Sunbrella fabric, no less).
There’s an infrared barrel sauna (known benefits include better sleep and clearer skin; sign us up), plus daily wellness classes including hatha yoga, vinyasa flows and ‘sculpting’ cardio sessions. You can book in for a treatment, too – expect all the traditional options plus seaweed and green clay body wraps, CBD and aloe facials and ‘grounding’ massages using sea extracts and white tea.
Surfers would do well to leave some room in their bags or boots – Rockaway has plenty of unique boutiques to browse. Head to Boarders, Off Season and Breezy Point, plus the Swellife (surf-inspired casual wear) and Zingara Vintage (thrifted beach towels, bags and dresses).
The hotel has a number of ADA compliant rooms. These accessible rooms have a roll-in shower, visual fire alarm, visual telephone signaler and TTY outlets.
Connecting rooms can be organised for families, and there are activities to keep kids busy (crafts, painting classes, water safety sessions) but there’s no formal kids club or crèche.
At the Rockaway, it’s about more than just environmental sustainability (although that’s a big focus: LED lighting, water saving practices, energy efficient flow systems and centralised hot water heaters are at play). Fabrics and materials are eco-friendly – take the heavy focus on rattan for example, one of the most sustainable tropical woods available – plus all timbers are sourced from legally forested farms. But it's the social sustainability that sets this hotel apart. The workforce is already largely made up of Rockaway locals, but they’re also running a free, eight-week program to train Queens locals in hospitality, directly benefiting the local economy. The hotel partners with local businesses (Goldie’s Natural Beauty; Locals Surf School; Rockaway Brewing Co. and more) to promote peninsula-based small businesses, and is working with the Campaign Against Hunger to finance a two-acre urban farm in Edgemere to help combat food insecurity in Queens.
We love the cerulean blue booths at Margie’s (best for lively conversation and communal eating). Choose a bar seat on the rooftop to see the bartenders in action.
Simple: 1960s retro beach chic.
The ground-floor restaurant – Margie’s – is lovingly named after Margie Murphy, a Rockaway local and grandmother to owners Terence and Dan Tubridy. Dishes include American classics (lobster mac and cheese, New England clam chowder and steak cuts) and reinvented twists on seaside favourites. We love the seared tuna burger with salsa bruja, the pear and goat cheese salad, the charred cauliflower steak and the cavatelli with slow cooked lamb shoulder. On the weekend, give the brunch a whirl – there are plenty of sweet and savoury dishes to choose from including truffled croque madames, chicken and waffles, açaí bowls and the full elvis (malted waffle, peanut butter, whipped cream and bananas). There’s also the street-side Greenhouse café: a coffee house with your usual orders plus on-tap cold brew, drip coffee and frozen hot chocolates. Pick up a sandwich, salad or sourdough waffle (generously topped with butter and maple) too.
The sixth floor rooftop bar is a fine example of indoor-outdoor living – its marble-topped bar is positioned behind a wall of glass to protect punters from the elements on windy nights. That doesn’t detract from the views, though: look south towards the Atlantic, or north to Jamaica Bay, Brooklyn and the Manhattan skyline. Try the Shark Bite (ghost pepper tequila, cucumber, watermelon, lime and tajin), the Harvest Mule (applejack, pama pomegranate, cinnamon, lime, cranberry and ginger), or the Bisco Sour (faretti biscotti, old grandad, allspice dram, lemon and honey.
Breakfast is served from 8am and extended to a 3pm brunch on the weekend. Lunch is 11.30am–3pm Monday–Friday; dinner service starts at 5pm every day.
Room service is available whenever the restaurants are open – typically from 8am–10pm.
The Rockaway Hotel is a one-block walk from the ocean on Queens’ prized peninsula.
JFK is a 20-minute drive from the Rockaways. Contact the hotel directly to arrange your transfer.
Rockaway is easily accessible from the city centre: take the A-Train or S-Train to Beach 105 street station.
There’s a private carpark two blocks from the hotel. Self parking is free from November to April, valet parking is available during peak season (May–October) for $50 per night.
Our transport of choice? The NYC ferry. Set sail from Wall Street pier to Rockaway pier – the 54-minute journey passes through Upper Bay and Jamaica Bay. The pier is a five minute straight walk down Beach 108th street to the Rockaway Hotel.
Worth getting out of bed for
Start off at the beach just one block from the hotel. It’s the only surfing beach in NYC (book in with Locals Surf School; the waves here are relatively forgiving for rookies) but also has plenty of space to just towel-down for the day. Head to the sand by 67th street for good surf; between 90th and 98th street for eateries; or between 105th and 116th for peace and quiet. Explore much of the peninsula on foot thanks to the five-mile long boardwalk. Hike east to Fort Tilden – following the trails through lush bushes to abandoned concrete batteries dating back to the Second World War. Climb up Battery Harris East for a rather surreal vista of deep blue ocean, wild greenery and the NYC skyline. The Gateway National Recreation Area is worthy of a stop-off too: the barracks have been converted into galleries by the Rockaway Artists Alliance. Head to sTudio 7 Gallery for exhibitions in a cavernous auto-repair plant. Jamaica Bay is one of the country’s largest nature preserves within city limits, and you can explore the maze of waterways and islands at sunset with Rockaway Jet Ski.
Suitably seafood-focused beach lunches can be found at Edible Island (fresh poke bowls) and Red Hook Lobster Pound (lobster rolls). The fish taco at Tacoway Beach (now located at the back of the Rockaway Beach Surf Club) is renowned: tuck into flash-fried whitefish topped with cabbage slaw, chipotle crema and guacamole in a grilled flour tortilla. Leave your surfboard in the rack of Uma’s and ready yourself for an Uzbek feast. Start with bichaki and saucer-sized manti (dumplings filled with seasoned meats and vegetables) or a salad of smoky roasted peppers, fried eggplant, fresh tomatoes and a healthy dose of garlic. For a real taste of Uzbek dining, make sure to order the traditional plov rice dish. Rippers is your go-to for loaded burgers, and Whit’s End is a staple for pies and chicken parm bolognese. There’s also a Rockaway outpost of famed East Village eatery Caracas Arepas bar – the Venezuelan stuffed corn cake sandwiches make for excellent pre or post-surf fuel.
Family-run Rockaway Beach Bakery serves up pecan sticky buns, blood-orange danishes, doorstop-slices of croissant loaf and breakfast scones. Stop by the Locals Collective for quality coffee, fresh juices, or a Rockaway frozé, paired with a breakfast burrito, açaí bowl, or bowl of steel cut overnight oats.
Rockaway Brewing Co. has a taproom and a front yard with picnic tables: all you need for a pint of IPA after a day at the beach – although the pop-up food residencies and live music on weekends mean you can easily spend the entire evening here. The unpretentious Wharf Bar & Grill might be harder to find than most (it’s behind a gas station on unassuming street), but the floating dock affords an unbeatable view of sunset over Manhattan.
Not since our year of the lord 1970 – with $30k SoHo lofts and bartered Basquiats – has anyone remarked on New York prices in a positive way, but I would like to start this review with a crucial Public Service Announcement. The ferry to Rockaway costs $2.75, and is – in a million ways – the coolest.
It might be the fact that the ferry dock is next to the heliport. It may be that it kind of looks like a yacht. It may be the wine (organic) on board. And it might be the reminder – something that can easily slip out of sight – that New York is a city surrounded by water.
Even before we set sail, the sense of seaside is already in the air, with fresh juice stands and salty-cheeked couples carrying both laptop bags and surfboards. As the ferry whips us away from the city, silver shoals of fish pop up out of the water, and beyond them, Coney Island rides throw fairgoers into the air.
Get ready to have your head spun too, because the Rockaways are delightfully weird. Like a scene put together by a collage artist with a taste for the surreal. It clashes together a thousand things which shouldn’t quite go together but do: arepa trucks and Irish flags, roses and shingle siding. Christmas lights on balconies in August, kickboxers on the beach, and planes flying low out of JFK over bright white sand dunes.
Sitting like a central diamond on the long brooch of the island is the Rockaway Hotel. A stone’s throw from the ferry – the hotel’s crowning flag waves a hello as you disembark at the dock – at ground level, it’s enveloped with technicolour murals by artists like Julia Chang; above the murals, the hotel’s siding mirrors the whipped-sea blue-greys of the beach houses around it. At the door, a trio of low-ride cruisers await: the kind of bike with wide handlebars that call you to ride them, in lazy curves, into the sunset.
We walk into a lobby that unfolds into a perfectly-judged scandi-surfy-sexy threeway – blonde wood, soft white walls, and decadent low seating around a fireplace you can imagine lit in winter. As we check in, we park the last of our city hangover with the glass of rosé champagne poured at the desk by Raheem, who we very swiftly love, and who, like the lion’s share of the staff here, was born and raised on the peninsula, so is full of expert tips.
Where we are, the island is a slender three-blocks-wide at most, so views explode from either side. One way, the boardwalk and the ocean, with all its wildly beautiful mood swings. The other way, Jamaica Bay: grassy marshes, birds and butterflies – and the Manhattan skyline, which rises out of the water like turning up the volume on a song you love.
Up on the roof deck, as the sun starts to dip and glare red, we add a third view too: perfect shrimp cocktail with sauce hot enough to elicit a cough, and a mezcal riff on a Paloma.
Back in our room, teak and rattan turn rose-gold in the last of the light. From our cinema-screen-sized window, the skyline really does shimmer. In and out of focus, stars or a mirage.
Lying back on the bright white bed, Mrs Smith looks for an answer. On Google rather than in the recesses of her mind, but let’s not ruin it. The city lights are played with by pressures in the atmosphere, she tells me: heat and humidity. And the technical term – yes, really – is ‘twinkliflying’.
Over breakfast, under awnings by the pool, we plot our day. This is the plan: I, a sloth, will embark on My Morning of Rest and Relaxation, lazing by the pool on a canary yellow striped beach towel, listening to Motown and eating a cryogenically frozen coffee with a spoon from the in-house coffee bar. Mrs Smith – for whom a red flag is a magnet, or else she wouldn’t be with me – will go surfing: riptides and regular shark-spotting only adding an extra sprinkle of je ne sais quoi.
Afterwards (she’s alive!), when I meet her for a taco, I have never seen more freckles on her face – far from a constellation, a new galaxy – and she cannot stop talking about surfing.
In fact, she has worked out a plan. We could live here on the Rockaways, she insists. She pulls up Zillow listings. Or… we could live in Manhattan and take the ferry over each morning? Look, the timetable totally works out! I look at her and her resting face is the kind of happy you could call basking. She is fantasising about her second lover: the sea.
The Rockaways are a place where it makes sense to fall in love with beach life. Yes, this ocean can be a fickle lover – there are days when golf carts tour the shore to warn people of strong currents – but it seems, in so many ways, to be a place made with people in mind.
The boardwalk is broad enough for bikers and bladers. As the sun sets, groups of teenagers splash in seafront showers. There are lifeguards on tall umpire chairs, there’s even public sunscreen, but it’s the beach itself, too – speckled with giant blue clamshells, danced on by plovers. It is a place where all of life happens.
A mother cuts her son’s hair, moving along the length of the sand to get better light. A surfer older than my father dons his Rockaway tuxedo. There are fishermen and families, barbecuers and dancers. It’s a place for everyone to go, and this is an ethos that the hotel has embraced too – offering local kids free swimming lessons in the pool, plus breakfast before and lunch to take home afterwards.
On our last afternoon, we borrow the hotel’s low-riders and cycle to the westernmost end of the island: Breezy Point Tip. As we glide past Jacob Riis beach with its extraordinary queer history, houses fall away and the scene turns castaway.
I cannot recommend pushing a bike through sand dunes, but when we emerge, arms aching, onto the last beach of the island, it’s suddenly worth it. I’m looking at Mrs Smith as her face transforms. Shock… then suddenly tears.
Behind me, not far off the shore, a whale – an actual, bonafide, humpback whale, ribbed and winged and as big as a bus – has lifted out of the water. She spins me around, hands shaking slightly, so I catch the champagne-pop explosion of its blow. For nearly half an hour Mrs Smith keeps her eyes locked on the horizon, and as we cycle home, she keeps saying, still in disbelief: ‘Whale, I saw a whale.’
Back at the hotel, we raise a glass to her new life as a professional surfer and whale-watcher at Margie’s, the hotel’s ground floor knock-out, with stamped tin ceilings, mid century light fixtures and gentle jazz standards lilting, live, through candlelight.
Maritime Italian, it’s inflected with just the right cocktail of Fifties, Sixties and now: seafood platters overflow (one’s even called the Kraken), pasta dishes, too, are almost unfeasibly copious, and there are lashings of rich, smoky red sauce which Mrs Smith eats by the spoonful.
We meander to bed via a tour of the hotel’s walls: extraordinary photographs and paintings which show the role of the beach and the sea – particularly this beach and this sea – in so many lives and worlds and stories. A surfboard being waxed under the raised, aqueduct-like Rockaway train line; the shaven head of a teenager contemplating getting into the water for the first time. The excitement, the awe, the beauty.
Back in our room, twinklifying Manhattan in miniature waits. 54 minutes, and an entire world away.