John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) is the gateway for many travelers entering and leaving New York City. If one leg of your journey is an international flight, you might easily have a scheduled layover of six hours, maybe longer.
You’ll probably be tempted to spend some of that time exploring. Hitting the tourist highlights of Manhattan might be a stretch, however – from the airport, which sprawls over the southernmost reaches of Jamaica, Queens, you should allow at least three hours roundtrip travel time. (If you leave the airport on any itinerary, you might also need to clear customs and immigration, as well as security.)
Why not use your time wisely and stay in Queens instead?
If you’ve looked out the window on a previous flight into JFK, you’ve probably seen the long, narrow Rockaway Peninsula, edged with sand and washed by the Atlantic Ocean. As the most famous lyrics by the Ramones will remind you, the best-known neighborhood on the peninsula, just across a causeway from the airport, is “not hard, not far to reach”: Rockaway Beach. It’s a year-round destination, although some businesses are open only during the summer months.
That said, if your layover is three hours or less, leaving the airport is unwise. You’ll probably spend much of that coming or going, and anxious about the prospect of missing your next flight. It’s better to grab a beverage or a bite inside JFK, make your way to your departure gate, and relax.
If your layover is a bit longer, you might consider a nearby “beach” that’s on the way to the Rockaways, but where you’re unlikely to see any sand. The close-knit mini-neighborhoods that make up Howard Beach are crowded with many low-rise houses – some, along waterways, sit on stilts – and are home to old-school Italian-American eats. New Park Pizza serves excellent slices and whole pies, to be enjoyed indoors or at a picnic table. Lenny’s Clam Bar is more polished – the entryway is lined with autographed photos of its many celebrity customers – and its menu is much more extensive. We’re drawn to the seafood, especially the combinations of shrimp, scallops, calamari and scungilli.
From the airport, New Park and Lenny’s are 15 minutes or less by taxi or hired car. An additional 15 minutes will whisk you along Cross Bay Blvd. and through the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge to deliver you to Rockaway Beach. It’s also possible to reach the Rockaways by mass transit – but on most days you’ll need to take the JFK AirTrain to the Howard Beach-Airport subway station, transfer to a southbound A train and travel one stop to Broad Channel Station, then transfer to a shuttle train and travel one further stop to Beach 90th St. A taxi is much faster, less confusing and almost certainly less frustrating, too.
Rockaway Beach Bakery might be your best first stop. Locals as well as beachgoers visit for danishes filled with seasonal fruit, sandwiches on house-made biscuits and croissants, cake and pie by the slice and many more baked confections that change daily but disappear early. Arrive later than mid-afternoon and you’ll probably find a rolled-down security gate and the legend “gone surfing.”
A surfboard marks the entrance of the nearby Rockaway Beach Surf Club, which boasts a lively indoor bar beside a sprawling patio and a Mexican food stand known as Tacoway Beach (summer only). You’ll want to arrive here early, too, and place your food order before queueing up at the bar – cocktails come quickly, but fried-fish tacos can’t be hurried.
Unlike Tacoway Beach, which is located a few blocks from the ocean, Rippers (summer only) is within earshot of the water and a surfers-only section of the beach, anchoring one of several vending concessions along the five-and-a-half-mile boardwalk. Burgers and fries are its reasons for being; both taste better when a salty breeze is blowing onshore.
The Rockaway Bazaar, another concession a short walk to the west, hosts two fistfuls of food vendors under one roof. Our favorite of these, the Red Hook Lobster Pound (summer only) serves its signature lobster rolls two ways: cool, with lemon mayo (Maine style) or warm, with butter (Connecticut style). Perhaps you’ll be traveling with a dining buddy and can try both.
Parallel to the beach and boardwalk, but a little ways inland, Rockaway Beach Blvd. is lined with dozens of businesses where you can sit down for a bite. Many have roots in Latin American cuisine. But steps off the boulevard, you can pair smoothies with hearty Nigerian chow – made, when possible, with local produce – at The Cradle NYC. Consider efo riro, a spinach stew.
A few blocks away – and a welcome haven, après-beach, if the heat and sun have been too much – is the shaded interior of Uma’s. A cool Uzbek salad might be just the thing, but don’t let us dissuade you from the manti, steamed dumplings plump with ground beef or butternut squash. We’re also partial to the house-made halva ice cream, topped with more halva as well as black and white sesame seeds.
If your taste in ice cream leans more toward the Northeast U.S. than toward Central Asia, Mara’s Ice Cream Parlor is immediately across the street. Some three dozen flavors await your pleasure. Cup? Cone? Shake? Sundae? Even when the line stretches out the door, usually there’s room to sit in the shady, sand-filled backyard.
Even when every table at Bungalow Bar is full, the outdoor deck is not as raucous as the local surfer joints. This casual restaurant – think soups, salads, sandwiches and mains, with or without seafood – sits on the sheltered bay side of the Rockaway Peninsula, and offers a panoramic waterfront view of Jamaica Bay and the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge. You’ll also catch sight of air traffic arriving and departing JFK – a reminder that you have a plane to catch. Too soon, too soon!
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