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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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: wildwoodsnj.com or 1-800-992-9732.