Gretchen McKay

Into the (Wild) Woods of New Jersey

The Wildwoods’ free beaches stretch for five miles across the shores of North Wildwood, Wildwood and Wildwood Crest/Gretchen McKay











WILDWOODS, N.J. — Beach vacations, done right, have a magical way of getting you to eat, drink and do things you’d normally steer clear of on a regular weekday. Take roller coasters. I hadn’t been on one in years, ever since a wild ride on the Phantom’s Revenge at a Kennywood school picnic left me dizzy for weeks.

Yet, there I was under the stars on a recent Tuesday, my knees stuffed under a bar in a seat high above the Atlantic Ocean on The Great White, a rickety beachfront wooden roller coaster on New Jersey’s Wildwoods Boardwalk. After first stuffing myself silly with funnel cakes, mango-flavored teppanyaki ice cream and a cold beer.

One of the newer treats on the Wildwoods Boardwalk is “ice pan” teppanyaki ice cream./Gretchen McKay

Biking, boogie-boarding and boating on vacation? Par for the course. But hurtling down a 25-foot drop into a dark tunnel under the boardwalk before creak, creak, creaking 110 feet back up so my daughter and I could plunge, screaming, 100 feet back down toward the ocean? Not in my wheelhouse.

Yet something about the ocean air and pulsing energy of this two-mile stretch of the Jersey Shore made me throw caution to the wind. Crazy-crowded and loud once the sun goes down, the boardwalk takes tacky to unrivaled heights with its gaudy souvenir shops, endless pizza stands, and vendors hawking 25-cent games of chance. But that’s what also makes it a hoot. Not to mention a nostalgic dose of old-fashioned kitsch.

The two-minute coaster ride is a perfect metaphor for the Wildwoods, the collective name for the “sister” beach towns of North Wildwood, Wildwood City and Wildwood Crest at the tip of Southern Jersey. Driving into town, there’s so much activity and so many people. With more than 8 million visitors each summer season, Wildwoods is the most-visited family vacation destination at the Jersey Shore, surpassed only by Atlantic City. And where are the highrise beachfront hotels? But like the Great White, the island grew on me. By the time I left, I was already planning a trip back. Here’s why.

Wildwoods’ beachfront out-and-back wooden roller coaster, The Great White at Morey’s Piers.

You can’t help but love the beaches, which are so insanely wide that it takes a good 5 minutes to walk from the boardwalk to the water’s edge. Plus, they’re free. (Although you will have to pay to park; bring plenty of quarters to feed the meters.) The Wildwoods also is a great town for cycling, with a recently expanded bike path, and boasts a handful of museums in which to kill time when it rains, including the working Hereford Inlet Lighthouse, the National Marbles Hall of Fame and a converted ’60s motel devoted to doo-wop.

There’s also free fishing and crabbing, free entertainment most summer nights along with Friday night fireworks and some of the coolest architecture on the East Coast.

Whereas neighboring Cape May celebrates Victorian design, the Wildwoods lives and breathes doo-wop. During the 1950s and ’60s, brothers Wilbert and William Morey built a small empire of candy-colored motels on the island inspired by the MiMo-style hotels they saw during winter vacations to Miami’s South Beach. They were much smaller, of course, but just as stylized, with playful, futuristic architectural details such as acute angles, delta wings, cantilevered roofs and lots of flashing neon.

The Googie or doo-wop style, as it came to be known, was an immediate hit with tourists, and eventually the area became home to some 200 such family-owned motels, says Dan MacElrevey, president of the Doo Wop Preservation League. With their kidney-shaped pools, plastic palm trees and garish fluorescent signs, “they were different and more fun.”

Built in 1958 and now restored, the Caribbean Motel in Wildwood Crest, NJ, was the first motel in the Wildwoods to use full-size plastic palm trees. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is famous for its unique crescent-shaped pool/GWTIDA

As tastes changed and beach-goers sought more modern accommodations, many of those buildings fell into disrepair and were demolished. The remaining 96 or so might be gone altogether had a group of business owners and architectural buffs not gotten together in 1997 to form the preservation league, with its mission of keeping the architecture and spirit of doo-wop alive in the Wildwoods.

“They realized how cool it was and that it needed to be preserved,” says Mr. MacElrevey, an original board member and also a key force in an artifact-filled Doo Wop Experience museum that opened in 2007.

How much does Wildwoods love the Googie style? Enough that its Acme and Wawa markets and Walgreens all have neo-doo-wop-inspired signs.

As Kirk Hastings writes in “Doo Wop Motels: Architectural Treasures of the Wildwoods,” “These structures are actually a lot more than just buildings. They are imagination run wild, with soaring ramps and crazy angles. They are visual wonders … they are nostalgia, reminding us of a simpler, more optimistic time …. Most of all they are fun. There is a magic there that is hard to explain.”

Today, the state-designated Wildwoods Doo Wop District is home to the largest concentration of preserved midcentury doo-wop buildings in the U.S. So when you stay in one of its motels, you’re living history.

One of the most famous is the Caribbean, built in 1958, saved from demolition in 2004 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. The first to “plant” plastic palm trees in the Wildwoods, it appears ready for blast off with a “levitating” ramp, canted glass walls and recessed “spaceship” lighting. Other notables include the Polynesian-themed Waikiki, the air-travel themed Pan American and the Chateau Blue Motel, built in 1962 with a heart-shaped pool.

If you prefer neo-doo-wop, the boutique StarLux Hotel across the street from the huge Wildwood sign, originally built in 1957, is the bomb. A $3 million renovation in 2000 created lodging the Jetsons might consider checking into, what with its angular roof lines, all-glass lobby and lava lamps in each room. More adventurous guests can also bed down in one of two vintage Airstream trailers in a lot across the street.

The Wildwoods is not luxurious, but like some of the roller coasters you’ll find along the Jersey Shore, it’s quaint and quirky, like a vacation into the past. As singer Bobby Rydell, who in 2014 was immortalized in a mural on the boardwalk, crooned in the ’60s: “Woah, woah, woah those Wildwood days.”

If you go

Getting there: The Wildwoods, N.J., is about 400 miles from Pittsburgh, but the 6½-hour trip is an easy highway drive via the Pennsylvania Turnpike to New Jersey’s Atlantic City Expressway/Garden State Parkway. Take Exit 4B and stay on Route 47 East until it becomes Rio Grande Avenue, which leads right into Wildwood.

Where to stay: There are more than 8,000 hotel, motel and bed and breakfast rooms for all budgets on the island, including many in vintage doo-wop style motels.  The retro StarLux (305 E. Rio Grande Ave., Wildwood; 1-609-522-7412) is the island’s boutique hotel, and has a new miniature golf course for the kids. One of the larger hotels on the island, the Adventurer Oceanfront Inn (5401 Ocean Ave.,Wildwood Crest; 1-609-729-1200) offers 2-, 3- and 4-room suites geared to families with pool and ocean views.

Where to eat: The Wildwoods is not a foodie town, but that’s not to say you’ll go hungry. The boardwalk is home to all your favorite eats, from pizza and cotton candy to fudge, taffy and buckets of hand-cut Curly’s Fries, a beach staple since 1974. Some of it is incredibly cheap: A hot dog can be had for $1 and I lost count of the many $6.99 breakfast specials offered on the boardwalk. Off the boardwalk, we enjoyed authentic Neapolitan pizza at Poppi’s Brick Oven Pizza (4709 New Jersey Ave., Wildwood), decent Mexican at Bandana Mexican Grill (5607 Atlantic Ave., WIldwood Crest), and some of the largest mussels I’ve ever seen at Dog Tooth Bar & Grill (100 E. Taylor Ave., Wildwood).

Other local favorites include Schellenger’s for seafood (3516 Atlantic Ave., Wildwood), Duffer’s for ice cream (5210 Pacific Ave., Wildwood) and Laura’s Fudge for saltwater taffy and candy (357 E. Wildwood Ave., Wildwood). Keep in mind that Wildwood Crest is dry.

Activities: Bikes are easy to rent ($10 and up/hour) and are allowed on the boardwalk north of its famous 17-foot-high sign and colorful concrete beach balls at Rio Grand Avenue until 11 a.m. After that, pedestrians have to share the wooden walkway with the town’s famous Sightseer Tram Cars ($3 each way), which as day turns to night is no small feat given the crowds — when a voice warns “Watch the Tram Car, please!” it’s not kidding.

Old-school Italians will be happy to teach you how to play bocce from 7 to 11 p.m. daily at Wildwood Bocce Court (6300 Ocean Ave.) and you also can take a free fitness class each day at 8:30 a.m. on the beach pier at Heather Road, Wildwood Crest. If you swim, there’s comfort in knowing the beaches have  lifeguards and Wildwoods also has several designated surfing areas.

Singer Bobby Rydell, famous for creating the Wildwoods, NJ, anthem “Wildwood Days,” is honored with a mural on the wall of the Monster Truck building on Wildwood’s oceanfront boardwalk. It was unveiled in 2014/Gretchen McKay

The Wildwoods Boardwalk, which stretches 38 blocks, boasts three amusement piers featuring more than 100 rides and attractions. There’s also a waterpark.

And for architecture fans, the Doo Wop Experience museum (4500 Ocean Ave., Wildwood, across from the convention center) offers guided “Back to the ’50s Neon Nights” bus tours every Tuesday and Thursday at 8 p.m. during the summer season ($13 adults/$8 kids; 609-523-1958). Or pick up a map for a self-guided tour at the free museum, open Tues., Thurs.-Fri. from 5 to 9 p.m., and 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

Info: or 1-800-992-9732.

Throwing a party for the bride, mom-to-be and more

Ready to party? You’re in good company.

This is the time of year when people crawl out from under their rocks and start thinking about how to best celebrate some of life’s major milestones.

The latest crop of soon-to-be high school and college grads await their diplomas. Scores of expectant moms are counting down the weeks to Baby on their swollen fingers (July being the busiest birthing month).

Somewhere between those two is wedding season, which kicks off around Memorial Day and peaks in June.

Countless graduation parties and wedding and baby showers are in the works. And that, in turn, means there’s a heck of a lot of hosts and hostesses wondering what the heck they’ve gotten themselves into.

Decisions, decisions. From the guest list to the decorations to planning the perfect food and figuring out how to keep teenagers from sneaking a taste of that yummy-sounding rum punch you can’t wait to try … it can be overwhelming, to say the least.

But you don’t have to drive yourself nuts.

Earlier this month, I hosted a bridal shower for my oldest sister Kathy’s daughter. Laura is the first of my parents’ 20 grandkids to get married, so I tread — quite happily — into virgin territory. The experience reinforced my belief that the secret to staying sane when entertaining large groups boils down to two things. First, choose a theme. Then, delegate to family and friends.

I know — themes are hokey, best suited to kids’ birthday parties. Yet choosing a single idea on which to hang your party hat is an easy way to coordinate the myriad details: the menu, the decorations, the music, the invitations. And that takes sooo much pressure off.

Every bride (and host), of course, is different. I took my cue from Laura and fiance Matt’s honeymoon plans. They’ll spend their first week as a married couple in Jamaica, so a Caribbean bridal shower seemed apropos, with a taste-of-the-islands buffet, tropical decor and a showpiece shower cake that screamed — in a laid-back, island kind of way — “Married life’s a beach!”

A Caribbean-themed bridal shower gives a taste of the islands.

A quick search through some favorite cookbooks turned up recipes for a terrific mango salsa and coconut shrimp. Two new books dished up a pair of fiery, island-style entrees that would whet the bride’s appetite for sunny Ocho Rios: shredded spicy pork tacos and wet-rub jerk chicken. Because rum is Jamaica’s national drink, I’d also fill the punch bowl with a fruity planter’s punch.

On shower day, another sister, Kristin, and I covered the dining room table with a bright floral tablecloth she bought at Target to which Laura’s bridesmaids attached a hula grass skirt. For the centerpiece, we filled a giant vase with sugar (to simulate sand), added a fat candle and carefully placed inside shells Kristin had picked off the beach in North Carolina. Guests were greeted at the door with leis and umbrella-decorated cups of rum punch.

The real eye candy was the tiered shower cake on the sideboard. Which brings us to our second point about allowing people to pitch in and help: The smart hostess recognizes her limitations, and asks those who know what they’re doing to do. My weakness is baking. But my neighbor Alice Leich, a pastry chef with Parkhurst Dining Services, is a whiz at turning flour, sugar and butter into edible works of art. I asked if she’d do it for me.

Nothing says "beach" like a cake with a tiki hut on top

I’ll admit to a few nervous minutes waiting for the cake to be delivered the morning of the party (did I get the date right?). I also didn’t know what, exactly, Alice had designed other than the fact the white cake would have orange-flavored icing under a coat of colored fondant. Turns out, hiring a professional cake maker was genius on both our parts.

The cake rose from the fondant-covered wooden platform like a sand castle on the beach. Only this one you wanted to eat. A bright-blue bottom “ocean” layer was embellished with fat yellow fishies, while from the middle “beach” layer edible palm trees sprang at jaunty angles. On top was a thatched-roofed tiki hut. With a bright red heart on the door.

My niece took one look and squealed with delight, “Oh, Aunt Gretchen!”

Planter’s Punch

PG tested

Rum-based Planter’s Punch is a traditional drink of welcome in the Caribbean. I served mine in a punch bowl, and kept it cool with homemade pineapple juice ice cubes studded with fresh mint.

  • 2 ounces dark rum
  • 2 ounces orange juice
  • 2 ounces pineapple juice
  • 1/2 ounce lime juice
  • Dash grenadine
  • Orange slices and cherry for garnish

Combine rum and 3 juices in a shaker with ice. Shake well, and strain into an ice-filled Collins glass. Top with grenadine. Garnish with an orange slice and a maraschino cherry.

For a thirsty crowd, multiply the recipe by number of servings and serve in a pitcher with ice.

Wet Jamaican Jerk Seasoning

PG tested

I wasn’t sure how much heat my guests could tolerate (Scotch bonnets are among your hotter chile peppers) so I substituted a mixture of serrano and habanero chilies.

  • 2 bunches (12 to 18) scallions, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 4 Scotch bonnet peppers, minced
  • 8 medium cloves garlic
  • 5 tablespoons ground allspice
  • 3 tablespoons dried thyme
  • 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 2 tablespoons white distilled vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons pineapple juice
  • 1 tablespoon dark molasses
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 large limes, juiced

Place all ingredients in a food processor fitted with a steel chopping blade. Process mixture until smooth, 11 to 15 seconds. If mixture appears too dry, add more lime juice. Place in a stainless steel, glass or ceramic container with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate. Will keep refrigerated up to 3 weeks.

When using wet jerk marinade, make shallow slits in the meat and rub marinade onto them. Allow meat to marinate at least 5 hours, or overnight. For hamburger the slits aren’t necessary but overnight curing is.

Makes about 3 cups.

“Damn Good Food: 157 Recipes from Hell’s Kitchen” by Mitch Omer and Ann Bauer (Borealis, 2009, $27.95)

Mango Salsa

PG tested

Sweet mango gives this easy salsa recipe a tropical feel. If you can’t find ripe fruit, don’t feel bad substituting frozen mango chunks. I did, to great success. Serve with fresh tortilla chips, on top of tacos or stuffed inside a burrito.

  • 1 large ripe mango, peeled and cubed
  • 2 small carrots, peeled and diced
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 1 orange, peeled and cut into cubes
  • 1 fresh green chili, finely chopped (more if you like it really hot)
  • Handful of fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients and refrigerate for 30 minutes before serving.

Serves 4 to 6.

“World Food Cafe: Global Vegetarian Cooking” by Chris & Carolyn Caldicott (Soma, 2002)

Lime-Cilantro Dressing

PG tested

With or without the chiles, this dressing is great for light tender greens. You could also serve it on a mix of romaine and tomatoes, or with thinly sliced cucumbers.

  • 3/4 cup vegetable or olive oil, or a mixture of the two
  • 1/3 cup fresh lime juice (from 2 limes)
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated lime zest (colored rind only)
  • 1/2 cup (packed) roughly chopped cilantro
  • Fresh hot green chiles to taste (I used 2 serranos, but you could also use jalapeno), stemmed and roughly chopped
  • Salt

Combine the oil, lime juice, lime zest, cilantro, chile and a scant teaspoon salt in a blender jar and blend until smooth. Taste and add more salt if you think it needs it, keeping in mind that dressings should be highly seasoned. Pour into a jar, secure the lid and refrigerate until ready to use. Shake well immediately before use.

Makes 1 1/4 cups dressing.

“Mexican Everyday” by Rick Bayless (Norton, 2005)

Spicy Shredded Pork Tacos

PG tested

This recipe takes some time because it requires hand-shredding the meat, but it’s so worth the effort. Fresh citrus juice and ground cinnamon add a rich flavor of the islands. My kids had barely finished the leftovers (it’s even better the next day) when they starting bugging me to make some more. For my crowd of 30, I doubled the ingredients.

  • 2 tablespoons dry adobo, homemade or store-bought
  • 4-pound boneless pork shoulder, cut into 5 or 6 pieces, each about 2 inches wide
  • Juice of 1 grapefruit
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more as needed
  • 4 Mexican chorizos (about 1 pound), removed from casings
  • 2 medium yellow onions, finely diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon each dried oregano, ground cumin, ground cinnamon and ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • Kosher or fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 18 corn or flour tortillas

Marinate the pork: Rub the dry adobo into the slices of pork, seasoning all sides well. Put in a roasting pan large enough to hold in a single layer. Pour citrus juices over pork and turn to coat all sides. Refrigerate at least 2 hours, or as long as overnight; turn the pork in the marinade occasionally.

Make the filling: Remove pork from marinade and pat dry; discard marinade. Heat oil in a Dutch oven or large casserole over medium-high heat. Lay only as many of the pork slices in the pot as will fit comfortably and cook, turning the pieces as necessary, until browned on all sides. Transfer pork pieces to plate as they brown and add remaining pieces to the pan, replenishing oil if necessary.

Add chorizo to pot and cook, stirring to break up any big pieces, until browned, about 5 minutes. Add onions and garlic, stirring to pick up any brown bits from the bottom of pot. Add spices and toss in the bay leaves. Stir in canned tomatoes and season with salt and pepper to taste. Return pork to pot, turning to coat with sauce. Bring to a boil, then adjust heat so sauce is simmering, and cover pot. Cook until pork falls apart easily when poked with a fork, 11/2 to 2 hours. Skim fat off the top of sauce occasionally as pork cooks.

Remove pork to a large plate. Coarsely shred pork with 2 forks and stir back into sauce. Check seasoning and add salt and pepper if necessary. Pork can be prepared up to 2 days in advance. Let cool completely and refrigerate. Rewarm pork over low heat, adding a small amount of water if necessary to make sauce smooth.

To serve: Wrap tortillas in aluminum foil and place in a 350-degree preheated oven until warmed through and softened, about 15 minutes. Place a heaping tablespoon (or 2) of the filling on each tortilla and roll up. Serve hot with your favorite salsa.

Makes 18 tortillas, plus 6 main course servings.

“Daisy: Morning, Noon and Night: Bringing Your Family Together with Everyday Latin Dishes” by Daisy Martinez with Chris Styler (Atria, 2010, $30)


I’m not much of a baker so I asked my friend Alice Leich, a pastry chef with Parkhurst Dining Services, to make my niece’s shower cake for me. Using a recipe from “The Cake Bible,” she cleverly shaped the different-sized cake layers (9 in all) into a tiered beach scene, with brightly colored fondant: fish swimming in the ocean on the bottom, sandy beach in the middle, tiki hut on top. Of course, it would taste just as delicious as a two-layer cake.

  • 1/2 cup egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1 cup milk, at room temperature, divided
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons vanilla
  • 3 cups sifted cake flour
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease and flour two 9-inch-by-1 1/2-inch round cake pans, or grease and line bottoms with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl lightly combine the egg whites, 1/4 cup milk, and vanilla.

In a large mixer bowl combine the dry ingredients and mix on low speed for 30 seconds to blend. Add the soft butter and remaining 3/4 cup milk. Mix on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened. Increase to medium speed and beat for 1 1/2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the egg mixture in 3 parts, beating for 20 seconds after each addition. Scrape down the sides.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pans and smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake 25 to 35 minutes or until a tester inserted near the center comes out clean and the cake springs back when pressed lightly in the center. The cakes should start to shrink from the sides of the pans only after removal from the oven.

Let the cakes cool in the pans on racks for 10 minutes. Loosen the sides with a small knife and invert onto greased wire racks. Invert again so the top is up, and cool completely before wrapping airtight.

“The Cake Bible” by Rose Levy Beranbaum (Morrow, 1988)

Italian Meringue Buttercream

The filling for my niece’s Caribbean Bridal Shower Cake was flavored with vanilla, Grand Marnier and orange zest. Pastry chef Alice Leich also brushed the cake before it was filled with a simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water brought to a boil) flavored with Grand Marnier; syrups add moisture and flavor to the finished cake.

  • 1 cup fresh egg whites
  • 2 1/2 cups sugar, divided
  • 1/2 cup water
  • Dash lemon juice
  • 1 pound, 10 ounces unsalted butter, softened

Place egg whites in a mixer bowl fitted with a whisk attachment.

Reserve 1/3 cup sugar. Combine the remaining sugar, water, and lemon juice in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Wash the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in water to remove any sugar crystals.

When the syrup temperature reaches 200 degrees, start beating the egg whites on medium high. When the whites become foamy, stream in the reserved 1/3 cup sugar. Continue to beat to stiff peaks.

When the syrup temperature reaches 240 degrees, remove the saucepan from the heat and stream the syrup into the meringue, continuing to beat on medium speed.

Balancing cooking the syrup and beating the egg whites can be intimidating when working with the small quantities that can be accommodated in a home mixer. If the egg whites reach stiff peak before the syrup is ready, turn the mixer to a low speed until the syrup is ready to use. If the syrup temperature climbs above 240 degrees, simply add a little water to bring the temperature down, then continue to heat until the temperature climbs back up to 240.

Continue whipping the meringue until just slightly warm, then add the butter and whip until smooth.

Flavor to taste with extracts, liqueurs, purees, curds, or melted bittersweet chocolate.

Buttercream may be stored at room temperature for several days or in the refrigerator or freezer for longer periods. After storage, it must be mixed on low speed at room temperature with a paddle attachment to refresh its creamy texture.

Alice Leich