It was an embarrassing question to ask, like inquiring about the location of the Eiffel Tower while standing in its steely shadow. Excuse me, I practiced saying as I drove circles around Asbury Park’s small oceanfront, have you seen a 1925 brick Beaux-Arts building shaped like an X?
Only David Copperfield could hide such a rhinoceros squatting on a New Jersey shoreline marked more by empty lots than by overdevelopment. The problem, I realized on my third loop, was that I was looking too closely for my destination, the Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel. In my quest to spot a sign with the property’s name or address, I was missing the hulking structure basically jumping up and down before my eyes.
I see you, I see you, I rejoiced, as I parked in the circular driveway and greeted the doorman ready to assist with even the simplest of needs (in my case, confirming my whereabouts).
At the front desk, the clerk justified my confusion, explaining that the new owners had removed the name from the awnings and never replaced the lettering. She then got down to business: Parking is usually $10 (a good deal; you don’t want to tussle with the meters) and so is the WiFi (for a better bargain, use the free access across the street on the boardwalk and in the convention center). And don’t mind the wedding party; they’ll be blissed out soon enough.
With 250 rooms and a starting price tag of $89, the boutique hotel doesn’t gun for exclusivity. But it does emit an air of mystery with its deliberate lack of signage and incongruent decor.
Despite its seaside setting, the hotel’s only nod to the ocean is the aquarium in the seafood restaurant, Dauphin Grille. The lobby is a sprawling space with random clusters of modern furnishings divided by columns, a layout that’s anathema to feng-shui principles (lots of clogged energy). Whenever I tried to feel the floor’s flow, I’d end up in either a deserted room with scraggly fitness equipment or at a back table set with hot coffee and tea. Although maybe this was the spirits’ way of letting me know that I was out of shape or thirsty.
The hallways to the rooms are a psychedelic trip of colors and patterns. I struggled to find my room, first blaming the blinding decor, then realizing that I was navigating the hotel as if it were arranged like a long block, not the Roman numeral 10. Once I figured out which arm of the X I lived on, my commute time fell dramatically.
After the adventures in the hall, my room was a comforting sight, though hardly anodyne. With the mix of animal print carpeting and polka dot pillows, I could almost hear the carny welcoming me to the circus. To add to the mischief, the bed’s headboard reminded me of a giant graham cracker. By contrast, the bathroom was a study in Scandinavian sparseness, featuring blond wood and a shallow sink that threatened to overflow but never did.
In the younger days of the 86-year-old hotel, before guests lounged in chairs upholstered in faux albino reptile skin, a bridge connected it to a beach club on the Atlantic side. (The connector is now gone, and visitors must cross the street the traditional way.) In 1994, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi bought the hotel for $1.85 million, planning to install a Transcendental Meditation school and a holistic health center. The idea never broke through to a higher consciousness; the property changed hands two more times, most recently in 2007 (or as I call it, the Year of the Fallen Signage).
If you don’t recognize the Maharishi — he was the Beatles’ guru and spiritual adviser — the Berkeley has other names to drop. One biggie is Johnny Cash, who wrote his memoirs in a suite that now carries his name and is popular with newlywed Junes and Johnnys.
Marilyn Schlossbach, the restaurateur who opened Dauphin last year, carries her own scrapbook of the Berkeley, including memories of her prom night. “We opened the restaurant for nostalgic reasons,” said the co-owner of six eateries, including four in Asbury Park.
I met Marilyn in the restaurant’s vegetable garden, which grows near a koi pond and a sign that I could have hugged: Dauphin Grille at the Berkeley.
Marilyn was Mr. McGregor to my Peter Rabbit, approaching me after noticing an interloper sniffing around her beds of kale, peppers and herbs. Thankfully, she didn’t chase me with a hoe for plucking some produce lightly sprinkled with salt air.
After she went back inside to the Sunday brunch crowd, I considered walking around the building to see what other sites I had overlooked. But I was content with that sign. I could now turn my full attention to the fresh fig I’d recently discovered in a not-so-secret garden.
Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel
1401 Ocean Ave.
Asbury Park, N.J.