Economizer’s guide to local summer recreation in Mercer County; the Princeton area in particular

Yes, we live in one of New Jersey’s wealthier counties and, within that, some of Mercer’s more culturally advantaged communities.  But it is still chic to ferret out bargains whenever possible, as a matter of principle, good discipline, and in imitation of esteemed historical figures (Thoreau: “Simplify, Simplify”).  Here is a list of suggestions for either individuals or families with a “staycation” day on their hands that makes full use of local amenities that are second to none, and all within a quick drive within the county.  This is not a Chamber-of-Commerce plug, necessarily; just a selection born of experience and (relative) penury: the mother of resourcefulness and recreational imagination.

When the weather heats up, diamonds are forever—especially those of the green and grassy kind - and thoughts turn to our own purveyor of America’s pastime, the Trenton Thunder. This local team just happens to be the New York Yankees Double A minor league affiliate and seats at Arm & Hammer Park (just off Route 29) can be had for around $12 each (significantly cheaper for groups).  There is nothing finer than whiling away a balmy summer day watching the great American pastime.  With the Thunder, you get the chance to observe actual New York Yankee ballplayers who may be rehabbing from injury (recently Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte) or see the next big-league player to be called up, if they are putting up stellar numbers.  Parking is a negligible $3, but if you arrive early enough, I am told that you can avoid even that.  Bring a paper or a (library) book for before the game, and watch the major league hopefuls warm up with a zeal that is often lacking in their MLB counterparts.

A picnic at Princeton Battlefield State Park is an ideal daytime break when the weather starts to turn sultry.  The park is the epicenter of one of the most important surprise defeats of the British army during the American Revolution, occurring after Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware.  The vast patchwork lawn is kept trimmed all summer long, and is spacious enough for some barefoot Frisbee.  The park also abuts hiking trails that lead to the Delaware and Raritan Canal.  Pitch your blanket next to the 2nd generation Mercer Oak, which replaced the original tree that marked where Gen. Hugh Mercer fell in the Battle of Princeton.  The nearby Clarke House museum also offers colonial-era furnishings and Revolutionary War exhibits.

The Mercer County Parks Commission offers some very respectable public 18-hole golf courses in the Play It Again Sports is worth a short drive to pick up some golf clubs, often a pristine set that has been quickly discarded by an improving duffer.  For beginners, you often do not need the full irons and drivers that long-timers use, and can get by with a single driver (for long shots) and a few irons and a putter.  Each can be obtained for a few dollars used.  The last I heard, golf balls were a quarter apiece, for those prone to hooking and slicing beyond the fairway.
area, all for a yearly membership of $35 ($25 for Seniors).  Two local courses a stone’s throw from the West Windsor Library are the Mercer Oaks East and West, and the Princeton Country Club.  Each is a “championship” course, offering full-scale amenities such as a golf shop, restaurant and/or snack bar, carts, and instruction.  The Mercer Oaks locations rival private club membership in the quality of course landscaping and club house atmosphere.  As the days lengthen into the summer, you can take full advantage of their $12 twilight rate or, as I do, only play nine holes—perfectly sufficient to hone your short and long game—for only $10.  What about if you do not have clubs?  If after networking your family, neighbors or friends you are unable to borrow someone’s garaged set,

For frugal foodies, some time-honored recourses include our very own area Hoagie Haven which, although not quite the bargain of yesteryear, still offers a full-length sub sandwich that is perfect for two meals.  I am partial to the tried-and-true Pizza Cheesesteak and Eggplant Parm which are around $7-$8 for a humongous sub.  ‘Haven has followed in the path of the venerable food trucks up at Rutgers New Brunswick by offering such hyperbolic fare as the Mac Daddy and the Heartstop, each for a dollar or two more and throw in bacon, eggs, hash browns, hot sauce and pork roll.   If you are lucky enough to be close to a local  Taco Bell, their seven-layer burrito is all-vegetarian and around $2.39.  It is a full meal when you are hungry, one-and-a-half when merely piqued, and it holds its own if unrefrigerated for a good number of hours.  In addition, although I am a bit loath to divulge my secret, ShopRite has at least two locations in central Mercer that offer store-brand pre-cooked meals at a discount upon day of expiry, often for as little as $1.79.  Although I would not recommend transporting seafood to a picnic necessarily, their pastas are very tasty at room temperature, which in the summer is akin to being slightly warmed.  Grab a large bottle of Snapple iced tea and you are good to go either al fresco on a blanket or in your car headed for one of the aforementioned destinations.  If it is really warm out, at the end of the day head back into Princeton to Halo Pub for the best $2 cone you’ll get anywhere.  They are open until 11pm and have singular blends; IMHO the best being peach, coffee heath bar, and chocolate (brandied) hazelnut, which tastes to me like a Swiss or Viennese delicacy.


And what if it rains?  The Princeton University campus looks good under umbrellas, and the copious foliage will keep you drier than many a walk elsewhere.  The Princeton University Art Museum, near the Frist Student Center on Washington Road, is open every day except Monday, and is free at all times.  They offer “highlights” tours throughout the summer and have talks on themes (“Learning to Look”; “Napoleon in Egypt”) that enable children of all ages to create their own sculpture or marionette.  The exhibits are world class, including “Italian Master Drawings” exhibits and displays of well-known artists such as Munch and Rothko, borrowed from New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.  *Shameless Plug*: Use your MCL library card to check out a book on drawing (Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards is a classic), and go invest a mere few dollars in some charcoal and pads to sketch an African mask or a Greek Amphora. There is easy inspiration when the actual object that is centuries old is right in front of your face.

Continuing on the esthete trail, rain or no, Central Mercer also offers an amenity that you would often have to go into the city for.  Montgomery Cinemas at the Montgomery Shopping Center is a small “5-plex” cinema just north of Princeton that shows both mainstream feature films as well as more esoteric “repertory” flicks from all regions of the world—and is a welcome respite from the standard oversized “amphitheatre” experience that mostly caters to Fast and Furiously Explosive epics.  Rainy summer days occasion for me a little bit of introspection however, and at these times subtitled Cannes and Sundance selections seem to fit the bill aptly.  Showings prior to 6pm at Montgomery entail a two-dollar discount, so it is $8 for admission; these days, that constitutes a bargain, unfortunately.   Yet if your brood wants to see transformative robots and morphing cities, they can still do so within the same cinematic confines, but in the cozier setting of this local cinema.

- Richard P.

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