We finally repeated our “Portugal to India” bike ride of two years ago, and I have to say I love it just as much the second time around. And so many more discoveries!
This is a North Jersey section of the East Coast Greenway that will shock those who only know this part of the country as congested, smelly highways. It’s not very scenic, is it, one puzzled friend asked. Another person was surprised we never have to ride on U.S. 1 — and that there is a network of well-used paved trails going from one Union County park to the next.
Nope. Try this, in one of the state’s most densely populated counties:
Two years ago I dubbed this the “Portugal to India without leaving New Jersey” ride because we started in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood (the old Portuguese section, now also Spanish and Brazilian) and were aiming for Oak Tree Road, the heart of New Jersey’s Indian community. We ended up riding to New Brunswick. This year we plotted out a Venezuelan bakery stop in the city (a story for later) and improvised a Middle Eastern break. So, yes, this is all about the food.
We were on our bikes all day so this is a long post.
Here’s my caveat: we have done this ride on the weekend (the first time on a summer Sunday, the second time on Labor Day Saturday). You may have different traffic conditions if you go during the week.
We started this ride early because we needed to beat New Jersey Transit’s weekend restrictions on bikes. None are allowed on weekend morning trains to NYC arriving after 9 a.m. — that’s because one tunnel is always closed on weekends thanks to Hurricane Sandy damage, so the trains get packed. Heck, there were lots of people on the platform shortly after 7 a.m!
But at least you don’t pay to bring a bike on the train. Nor do you need any fancy permit.
Once in Newark, we headed to the back of the station and onto Ferry Street, straight to the Ironbound. And the eating began. Mine was a flaky tart with a very soft, creamy custard called a de nata; his was some sort of sweet, soft roll (that’s the one on the left). No idea what it was called, and the woman behind the counter only knew the Portuguese name.
At this point we’re already on the East Coast Greenway (a 3,000-mile route through cities from Maine to Florida). It takes us to the front of Newark Penn Station and then skirts the heart of downtown and passes by Rutgers Newark and New Jersey Institute of Technology. Ah, yes, the Whole Foods too. A sign of Newark’s revival.
Two years ago the Newark Greenway (a bike path with green paint) surprised us. I think this hexagon pattern on part of the route is new. Just needs an East Coast Greenway sign added to the signage.
Traffic throughout Newark was light, but remember it’s the weekend in a city of nearly 300,000. (Ok, there’s the drop-off/pick-up spot in front of the train station).
Weequahic Park is the first of several Olmsted-designed parks we cycled through on our ride. It takes us to Elizabeth, then through suburbs, all on quiet roads. Yankee fans, you go past a Phil Rizzuto museum in his hometown of Hillside (very limited hours!).
I had my heart set on these Nutella tarts at the Italian bakery where we had a little layover two years ago. They were sold only in a pack of four, and my two riding companions then had no interest in sharing. So I passed. This time I brought my bikepacking bag just so I could carry them. Imagine my heartbreak when they didn’t have any! I was told they will be baked again when the weather cools down. There’s my reason for repeating this ride in October or so.
Ok, his Sfogliatella pastry was wonderfully crisp, with a lemony cream, and a better choice than my black and white cookie. And they did sell raspberry tartlettes — in a pack of six. Maybe I should have tried carrying those, at least as far to as our friend in Cranford 6 miles away.
On the way to the bakery, I spotted this historical marker. Only as I write this blog am I learning that the Battle of Connecticut Farms (one of the last battles in the northern colonies, in 1780, that stopped the British from attacking Washington in Morristown) is just a tenth of mile past our turnoff from Chestnut Street onto Fairway Drive East. I love what you can discover on your bike. And another reason to go back!
We finally made it to “India” after a longer layover at the friend’s house in Cranford. The Brit had decided we should go to Dosa Express, which turns out is around the corner from the East Coast Greenway route (turn right onto Green Street from Benjamin Avenue instead of going straight across). This looks nondescript, but the line of customers never stopped, and it was 2 p.m. The parking lot is too small; yes, customers were waiting for someone to leave so they could pull in.
Do not ask me to describe what each kind of dosa is. Just order! And is that paper-thin one 18 inches long? Longer? Don’t know!
Green soon becomes Oak Tree Road, so you can go explore this strip of Indian restaurants, snack spots, sari shops, jewelery stores and more. (The East Coast Greenway comes close to it again at the corner of Berkley and Middlesex Turnpike/Thornhall.) We wanted to check out an ice cream shop we’d read about in the New York Times — that unfortunately is at the far end of Oak Tree Road. It’s a busy two-lane/direction road at that point, and the sidewalk alternative runs out. Go through parking lots. And it’s on the northern side, just after the third(!) Patel Brothers grocery store and across from the Raceway gas station. Be a confident cyclist if you are going here.
I promise you will not know many of these flavors — sitafal? kesar pista? thandai? Ask for a taste. Someone who recognized us from Dosa Express (guess we stood out like sore thumbs) explained what some were (and volunteered that there’s a good Indian bread store next to Dosa Express). We in turn explained our bike ride and the East Coast Greenway.
Good thing we are biking so many miles given the calories we are eating!
We weren’t looking forward to going back down Oak Tree Road. Fortunately, we were able to turn off after a short stretch, onto Wood Avenue, cross under a busy road and the railroad tracks and meet up with the East Coast Greenway. You’re then at the Metro Park train station, should you want to call it a day after closing in on 30 miles.
But we continued. Metro Park is full of big corporate offices so I can imagine there is lots of rush-hour traffic. But all is quiet on a weekend. We went through Roosevelt Park (note that the path is rocky in places — stick to the road?). I want to find this wacky sculpture/fountain near the veterans memorial on our next ride.
Soon we were at the wonderful Middlesex Greenway (hint: it’s right after Lotte Market, a newly opened Korean grocery store). Last time we turned right toward downtown Metuchen. This time we thought we’d test out the official East Coast Greenway route and turned left.
This is only a 3 1/2-mile trail (so 7 miles out and back) but that bridge over U.S. 1 adds a big hill if you feel you need a bit more of a challenge. And it’s cool to see housing being built right off the trail, even if it has noisy I-287 at the other end. We got off at Dudash Park and followed the East Coast Greenway to King Georges Post Road.
This gets into big warehouses and then a multi-lane county road. Again, all quiet on a holiday weekend, but we decided we didn’t like the look of it and opted for the alternate route we discovered two years ago. So back to the Middlesex Greenway and to Metuchen. We turn left on Middlesex Avenue for a long block (or take the sidewalk along the park) and then go right on New Durham Road. This is another wide road but only one lane in each direction, a residential feel and a 35 mph speed limit. (There’s room for a bike lane, Metuchen! Perhaps a proper road diet with a center turn lane too.) This 1.5-mile stretch is the busiest of our alt route, and there is a turnoff for I-287. Traffic coming from the interstate is controlled by a light. Honestly, this was better than our Oak Tree Road adventure, and there’s no other way to cross the interstate. (Maybe if the Middlesex Greenway one day extends to Durham Avenue, there will be a quieter alternative to much of it.)
We turned left at the light onto Talmadge Road, then the first right onto Ethel Road. One lane in each direction, low speed, but wide enough for a bike lane (please!). We were on it for a long time. There’s some residential/shopping at the light at Stelton Road but also a lot of light industrial. But you don’t expect to see giant 18-wheel trucks, and it feels very safe. Plus there’s this to offer encouragement:
Ethel ends at a T-intersection with Suttons Lane, and you’re now at the outskirts of Rutgers’ Livingston campus (Rutgers just sprawls, like New Jersey). We turned left (go right and you could bike to the basketball arena), and here is where we came up with a better version of our route from two years ago. Instead of taking Suttons all the way to the end and then Road 2, turn right on Road 3. Bike lane! You’ll go past some Rutgers dorms. Turn right on Road 1. Before you get to Cedar Lane, you’ll see a wide path. Take it. (Bike lane ends just before Cedar). Turn right onto Cedar and it will take you down across River Road (traffic light) and into Johnson Park, where you pick up the East Coast Greenway again on your right. Go left through the park and eventually over the bridge into New Brunswick if you prefer.
That’s what we did. The train station is there, but this time were set on riding all the way home. We wanted some empandas from a Colombian/Venezuelan bakery we’d scouted online. Alas, when we got there, there really wasn’t anything left. New Brunswick has no shortage of Hispanic eateries, but exploring that will be another day. (Any recommendations?) We still had another 17 or so miles to ride and we didn’t want to run out of daylight.
But… but … we would be going right past the Phoenician Market in North Brunswick Why not a Middle Eastern stop? No spinach pies, but we bought a mix of baklava.
And then it was a mad road ride home. Once again, we just made it before dark.
How many miles? I’m not sure, because my cycle computer has been acting up. But we think it was 75 to 80.