Inside the trendy Rockaway Hotel, a laid-back beach getaway in NYC

August 21, 2023

Photos courtesy of Kyle Knodell unless otherwise noted.

The lobby of The Rockaway Hotel and Spa has a distinct scent – fresh and perfumy. It’s reminiscent of walking into a posh hotel on Miami Beach. But Rockaway Beach is not Miami. It’s a true Queens neighborhood with bungalows lining the streets leading over to the boardwalk and expansive Atlantic Ocean-facing beach. Locals lugging sandy beach chairs or grocery bags to and from their houses greet each other by name. Directly across the street from The Rockaway is Happy Jack’s Burger Bar, serving pub food and named for a former NYPD police officer and Korean War veteran. Attached to the hotel is the Greenhouse Cafe selling matcha lattes and “rocket fuel” coffee. The hotel, by architect Morris Adjmi, is tall and modern but fits into the neighborhood well from the outside. The interior is much trendier than anything else on its block — or any of the nearby blocks for that matter.

Stairs lead up to a sleek space with minimalist decor and a table featuring pottery and dried florals. The cool, dimly lit open space is a reprieve from the hot city streets. To the left, a soft electronic beat comes from an outdoor restaurant/bar area leading out to a pool flanked by loungers and cabanas. The contemporary design by Curious Yellow Design has a mid-century flair, combining organic elements like cane and concrete in neutral tones with fresh greenery and colorful tile.

Photo © Lidia Ryan

The hotel, opened in 2020, is a welcome addition to her hometown for the college-aged barista at Greenhouse Cafe who, as she serves two young beachgoers in soaking wet cutoff shorts, says going away for school has made her appreciate Rockaway more. 

Curious Yellow Design describes the look of the interior: “Our Rockaway Hotel design rewinds to the 1960s: a seductive beach where urban grit meets surfable waves.” At Margie’s, the hotel’s upscale dining option, a gallery wall features images of beachgoers in the early to mid-1900s. A vintage photo of a couple posing in swimsuits is actually Margie herself, the grandmother of two of the owners — Rockaway natives.

In fact, more than one photo of Margie is sprinkled throughout the carefully curated art that adorns the hotel. Other pieces are beach scenes from Rockaway artists and photographers, such as Susanah Ray.

Photo © Lidia Ryan

That initial scent, by the way, is a signature one created by Rockaway Candle Co., especially for the hotel. It will be turned into a candle to be sold at the gift shop. Here, neon bathing suits, surfwear, art, and coffee table books attract hotel guests and passers-by alike. The ferry from Manhattan drops beachgoers off right down the street — strategic placement for the hotel. 

“Images of America: Rockaway Beach” with a sepia-toned vintage photo of men in old-timey bathing suits sits on a shelf hovering above a magenta floor. The scene is a perfect representation of what The Rockaway aims to do: honor history and community while giving trendy New Yorkers millennial-era luxury.

Accessible by public transit, the Rockaways have always been a beach destination for New Yorkers. Beachside bars (like Rippers and Caracas), taco joints, and surf shops cater to a hip summer crowd, but the owners saw an opening in their neighborhood for a high-end boutique hotel complete with a spa, rooftop lounge, event spaces, and a pool. 

“A couple of the owners were born and raised here and had restaurants here. They’d see a lot of bachelorette parties, and think, ‘Where are they staying?’ That sparked the idea,” shared Margo Comis, Director of Guest Experience at the Rockaway. “A lot of people were like, ‘No way, this is not going to make it.’” Again, Rockaway is not Miami. 

And she admits she was one of those naysayers at first. When she was laid off from her Manhattan-based hospitality job during COVID, her husband’s family, who is from Rockaway, suggested she check out a new hotel they knew was opening in their neighborhood. “I was like, ‘What do you mean a hotel in Rockaway?’ But I came here and I was blown away. I was in a hard hat, and I met in a two-queen bedroom because there was no office space yet, and I was like, ‘This place is going to be sick. I’m going to work here,’” she said.

The hotel opened in September 2020 and the following summer was when business really picked up, says Comis. With travel restrictions still in place, New Yorkers looking for a staycation flocked away from the city’s sizzling concrete to The Rockaway to sip cocktails by the pool — the most “exclusive” part of the hotel, as it’s not accessible without a hotel stay or a day pass — or to sit on the shore (the hotel offers complimentary beach chairs, towels, umbrellas, and bicycles to bring to the beach). 

“Rockaway is such a melting pot of so many people just like the city is. When you’re here on the weekends you see the blend of people this place welcomes. It’s so diverse and so beautiful to see,” says Comis about summertime in Rockaway. “It’s a lot of fun…you can party all day or bring the kids and just relax.” 

On many weekend days, there’s a DJ or even live music playing poolside at the hotel. On a recent August afternoon, the pool area is bustling with kids splashing around, meeting new friends, and adults enjoying cocktails and bites from the poolside menu. And speaking of cocktails — and bites — the signature one is ironically called the Shark Bite. Just this month, Rockaway Beach made headlines for a shark attack, and there’s been another shark sighting since.

But there’s “always been sharks at Rockaway,” says Comis. “It’s terrible what happened,” but local businesses are not concerned, she says. “There were surfers out there the next day. You can watch them from the roof.”

As the only legal surf beaches in New York City, the Rockaways attract surfers all year round. “In the middle of winter, you’ll get (guests) saying ‘there’s a crazy swell coming,’” said Comis. In turn, there’s a laid-back casual surf vibe to, not just the hotel, but the whole area. 

One family at the pool is here from Europe, soaking in those last precious post-checkout moments in the sun. Comis said, aside from locals, the hotel sees a lot of international travelers who spend a night or two at the hotel, just 10 miles from JFK, before embarking on a long journey home. But an important factor in creating this hotel was keeping in mind those who are already home. The residents of Rockaway. 

Like the barista, there are a slew of local students who work at the hotel and come back each summer. The bartender lives in Puerto Rico but likes spending his summers in Rockaway. It also created permanent jobs for residents who were having to schlep hours into the city each day. When it first opened, The Rockaway worked with a program called The Hospitality Way to train people for jobs in the industry; many from the program still work at the hotel. “It’s special,” said Comis. A few days a week, the pool is used to teach children from the community how to swim.

The hotel participates in a beach cleanup with the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy. On Thursdays, the rooftop lounge hosts Dinner and a Band, inviting local restaurants to take over the kitchen and serve their food to guests to the tunes of local music.

Recently, Red Hook Lobster Pound took over the space, and then the owner’s niece got married at the hotel. There have been roller skating nights; in the winter the pool area is enclosed and given an apres ski vibe; there are art, food, and music events. It’s as much a community gathering place as it is a hotel.

Comis shares this as she gives a tour of the space. There are three floors of guest rooms, each with its own color scheme. All the rooms have a water view, either ocean or bayside, the latter of which boasts the NYC skyline, and some have balconies. Prices range from just over $200 for standard rooms to close to $900 for bungalows (full apartments).

“It’s still very much summer in Rockaway in September,” said Comis, noting that there’s still time to book a getaway. “Each room blends beachy pops with Scandinavian modernism, all topped off with rattan furniture, teak finishes, and vintage Indonesian tiles,” describes Curious Yellow Designs. 

The rooftop is where the best views can naturally be found. The ocean-front deck is often used for workout classes during which some of Manhattan’s trendiest fitness classes are brought out to Rockaway for guests and locals to take advantage.

Set back a couple of blocks from the beach, the hotel gazes out over rows of identical roofs neatly leading to the impressive shoreline and vast ocean. On the other side, the city skyline hovers over Jamaica Bay, and that patio is where Sunday reggae nights happen. 

“Sunday sunsets — I’m up here vibing out,” said Comis.


Photos courtesy of Kyle Knodell unless otherwise noted.

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  1. E

    The Rockaways in the summer! Went there all the time when I was a little girl.
    The hotel looks great!

  2. L

    What happy memories we had and now
    Will continue to have ,
    So nice to see it coming back
    Your hotel is beautiful
    I wish you good luck
    Lauren Berger

  3. T

    Great review of FAR ROCKAWAY and hotel 🏨