Travel isn’t always airplanes and hotels.
This summer in Central Jersey, it may look more like a drive down Interstate 78 and a flight of hard cider around a firepit.
“I can’t tell you how many regulars drive to our Asbury (Hunterdon) farm from Montclair every weekend for date night, to pick up meat and produce or attend one of our special dinners,” said Charles Rosen, Ironbound Farm founder.
“They sit, eat and feel so deeply connected to our community. Maybe they were forced into it because of gas prices and costs, but I think they are feeling community in a way that we haven’t felt for two and a half years of isolation,” he continued. “I think people want to feel part of a community more than feeling like, ‘I need to get out of town.'”
With COVID-19 still lingering, unprecedented gas prices and inflation as well as a labor shortage, Central Jersey destinations are expecting a lot of visitors this summer as people are itching to return to a season full of festivals, outdoor attractions and dining.
A post-COVID rebound
Melissa DeFreest, vice president of tourism and communications at the Somerset County Business Partnership, thinks many people will continue to take COVID precautions by masking, social distancing and staying outdoors.
However, that doesn’t mean they will stay away from their favorite events, especially those that are finally making anticipated returns like the Downtown Somerville Craft Beer Fest, Rose Day Festival at Colonial Park, Somerset County 4-H Fair and the Somerset County Park Commission Summer Concert Series.
“After two years, people are definitely missing their festivals and just being able to be outside,” she said. “They’re longing for those events that have been canceled the past couple of years.”
Rutgers Gardens, the 108-acre botanic garden of Rutgers University, also expects an increase in visitors as people continue to look for outdoor, COVID-friendly activities. Staff noticed an increase in visitors in 2020 and 2021as well, although because the garden has free admission and doesn’t track its visitors, percentages aren’t available.
“We saw the popularity of the space increase during the early stages of the pandemic when families were looking for safe and fun outdoor activities that they could access easily,” said Lauren Errickson, director of Rutgers Gardens. “I think we might see similar increases this year. A lot of the outdoor activity trends are holding so people will probably continue to look for that.”
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Errickson recommends people visiting the gardens check out its All-America Selections Garden, Donald B. Lacey Display Garden, Helyar Woods and Cook’s Market, a farmers’ market that runs every Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Making the most out of every mile
With high gas prices draining wallets, Errickson thinks Rutgers Gardens will see more local visitors this summer, especially considering the botanic garden is near the New Jersey Turnpike.
“I think more local people will come here than have come in the past – I’m hoping we see more of our neighbors visit,” Errickson said. “If people can drive here from five to fifteen minutes away rather than spend an hour in the car, they can save money on gas, and also spend less travel time and more onsite time.”
To make the most out of any drive, DeFreest thinks more people will make their destinations into day trips. She believes people will connect more outdoor and indoor activities, such as by spending a few hours at Duke Farms in Hillsborough before heading to downtown Somerville for dinner, a Friday Cruise Night or a Saturday Summer Stage night. Other popular Somerset County destinations, she said, include Bridgewater Commons and Iron Peak Sports & Events in Hillsborough.
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“The day trips will become an overnight stay or a daylong planned trip, so they’re not just going to do a restaurant or to do a hike, they’re going to do the hike, the restaurant, the brewery and shopping. They’re going to make a day out of it,” DeFreest said.
In Hunterdon County, that’s now much organic – literally – due to the Hunterdon 579 Trail, a partnership and guide of the farms, markets and vineyards on a corridor that’s centered on historic County Road 579, which extends from the mountains in the northwest to the Delaware River Valley. It’s allowed the region’s many agritourism businesses to forge connections and open visitors’ minds to neighboring destinations.
“People will say the duck fat bread on our charcuterie board is unbelievable and I’ll say, ‘That’s from Bobolink Dairy, and it’s eight minutes from here,'” said Rosen, who is also a Hunterdon 579 Trail co-founder. “I’m moving people from my place to their place, and we’re all doing that together. Revenue is up for all of us.”
A busy season with less employees
However, that revenue doesn’t come without obstacles. The labor shortage continues, as the New Jersey unemployment rate was 4.2% in April, the latest available figure. DeFreest said the shortage is still an issue in Somerset County, particularly on hospitality businesses that thrive during the summertime.
“Hopefully it doesn’t stick around, but people are probably going to have to get used to longer wait times and hours being different so they can be accommodated with the same level of service,” she said.
DeFreest suggested that people make dining reservations whenever possible or leave themselves a few extra minutes when heading out to attend events, as lines to check in may be longer.
Rosen said the labor shortage has been a problem for Ironbound Farm, too, whether he’s looking to hire a farmer or dishwasher.
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“I have to tell people, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have a table available,’ and they say, ‘There’s a table right there.’ I have a 180-acre farm — I could put a lot of tables here. It’s not that, it’s that I have nobody to service that table,” Rosen said.
“People have expectations — it’s the good and bad of becoming a more popular region,” he continued. “The good part is people want to be here. The bad part is if they take an hour drive to be there and then you can’t service them, they get frustrated. We are all just trying to give the best experience.”
Jenna Intersimone has been a staff member at the USA Today Network New Jersey since 2014, after becoming a blogger-turned-reporter following the creation of her award-winning travel blog. To get unlimited access to her stories about food, drink and fun, please subscribe or activate your digital account today. Contact: JIntersimone@Gannett.com or @JIntersimone.