Wildwood, NJ, is a gloriously tacky beach town of motels, roller coasters and fried dough
By Marci Alboher, Time Out New York, June 22-29, 2000
For years I shuddered at the mention of my hometown. When college friends asked me where I was from, I mumbled “Jersey shore” and left it at that. If they pressed because they were familiar with the shore, all the worse for me, because then I’d have to admit that it wasn’t Margate, Spring Lake or some other affluent area. How I longed to have grown up in a conventional suburb like everyone else. Instead, I came of age in a series of honky-tonk seashore communities, where my parents owned a succession of small motels. From age 16 on, my home was one I could barely say with a straight face—Wildwood, NJ, mother of all cheesy beach towns, with more tattoos per square foot than your local veteran’s hall, a nightlife catering to South Philadelphia’s prom-age set and an amusement-packed boardwalk.
These days, I’m glad that I grew up in such a kitschy place. When I visit my mother on summer weekends, I revel unabashedly in Wildwood’s tackiness. While the rest of America has been taken over by chain stores, Wildwood can boast that the nearest shopping mall is some 30 miles away, and there is nary a Starbucks, Blockbuster Video or Gap in sight. Instead, the town has authentic ’50s diners and scores of vintage motels with names like Bali Hi, Astronaut and Ship Ahoy—each with a garish neon sign and props to accentuate its theme.
The buildings are so distinctive that, in the mid 1990s, Philadelphia architect Steven Izenour launched a project where students from the University of Pennsylvania and Yale come to Wildwood to study its style. Neon signs, cantilevered roofs, kidney-shaped pools, plastic palm trees and exotic themes are the hallmarks of what has come to be called “Doo-Wop Architecture.” Now, architecture students from several schools make pilgrimages to Wildwood, and town planners and business owners are racing to capitalize on their newfound cred.
The area known as Wildwood is a five-mile-long island beach community (also known as Five Mile Island) that is actually made up of three separate towns: North Wildwood, Wildwood and Wildwood Crest. Connected to the mainland by several bridges, Wildwood is home to the raucous boardwalk; North Wildwood and the Crest are more sedate, toned-down residential neighborhoods, but they too are packed with restaurants and motels. These towns had their heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, when they were a summer getaway for Philadelphia’s working class, whose infatuation with automobiles made driving holidays de rigueur. At the time, the motel was just emerging as an American institution, and vacationers chose their lodging from gaudy signs evoking romantic locales that were beyond their pocketbooks but not beyond their imaginations. Inside the motels, efficiencies with kitchenettes, game rooms, free ice and color televisions made for the ideal family holiday.
Wildwood’s main attractions today are the same as they were 50 years ago: the motels, the boardwalk and the beach. While many parts of the Jersey Shore lament erosion and engage in expensive dredging to maintain their sandy shores, Wildwood’s “too much sand” problem is reminiscent of that annoying friend who just can’t gain weight. Since the turn of the century, the town has struggled with an ever-expanding strand (the boardwalk has even been moved east several times to bring it closer to the sea). Along this sprawling shorefront runs a boardwalk that is alive day and night with two and a half miles of games of chance, roller coasters, miniature golf courses, batting cages, go-cart tracks and novelty stores. All three major boardwalk food groups (fried, salty and sugared) are well represented.
There are two types of eating in Wildwood: on the boardwalk and in a restaurant. Some contend that with Mack’s pizza (3218 Boardwalk at Wildwood Ave), Kohr’s frozen custard (locations along the boardwalk) and countless purveyors of saltwater taffy and fudge, there is no need for a real restaurant, let alone one with a tablecloth. But if you feel a tablecloth will counter some of the damage done to your diet and complexion by boardwalk grazing, here are a few of the best.
Little Italy (5401 Atlantic Ave, Wildwood Crest, 609-523-0999) is the kind of Italian restaurant you’d never find on a quiet street in Venice. It serves up pasta heavy on the red sauce in a dining room painted with murals of the leaning tower of Pisa and the Colosseum. The food is reliable, portions are huge, and the average entrée, with salad and bread, costs about $15, which is reasonable by Wildwood standards. For a take on a small-town steak house, head to Neil’s Steak & Chowder House (222 E Schellenger Ave, Wildwood, 609-522-5226; 12oz steak costs $15 and comes with salad, veggie and potato), which offers an array of basic steaks, chops and seafood in massive portions (notice a trend?). When you tire of the plastic palm trees, it’s time for Sunset Bay (400 W Spruce Ave, North Wildwood, 609-523-0411, www.sunsetbay.net; average entrée $14), a beachfront complex where the real palms and the Jamaican band at the Castaways Beach Grill will transport you to the Caribbean. Castaways offers a casual grill menu; the nearby Sunset Bay restaurant has a wider selection, with an emphasis on seafood and grill choices inspired by the tropics. Make a night of it by staying in the complex for minigolf and ice cream at Shipwrecked Dunes Golf Course.
The latest addition to the dining scene is Restaurant Maureen & Martini Bar (3601 Atlantic Ave, Wildwood, 609-522-7747; average entrée $25), whose imaginative contemporary drink menu, offering 19 types of martinis, could be a sign that Wildwood may soon be catering to more than the beer–and–hot pretzels crowd. The food is sophisticated and eclectic, almost a novelty in these parts, and the sign alone—a 27-foot neon martini glass—is worth a gander.
Choices include inns, bed and breakfasts, and even luxurious townhouses, but it should be illegal to spend a weekend on the island without staying in a motel. The summer season has traditionally lasted from Memorial Day to the end of September, but in recent years many resorts have stayed open longer. Rooms sell out far in advance, so call right away—and be warned, motel rate cards are about as complicated as the periodic table (rates vary depending on room type, number of occupants, date and day of the week). One place I visited had a mind-boggling 14 different room types. All rates quoted are for a standard room for two people in high season (late July) and may be slightly higher on weekend nights.
The original tongue-and-groove paneling in certain rooms and multicolored spotlights at Eden Roc (5201 Atlantic Ave, Wildwood, 609-522-1930, www.edenrocmotel.com; $108 per night, with a three-night minimum) make this motel a classic of the genre. Still, you’ll feel more like you’re at a bed and breakfast, thanks to owner Linda Goldstein’s personal touch. Guests are treated to an itinerary-planning session with Goldstein upon arrival and are given use of her lending library.
The Memory Motel (7601 Atlantic Ave, Wildwood Crest, 609-522-3026,www.memorymotel.com; $70) gives Doo-Wop a modern twist with its oversize guitar sign, wall portraits of rock legends like Jim Morrison, and hot-pink doors. In 1998, owner Peter Ferriero left his corporate job to follow the Rolling Stones on tour. Once home, he decided to open the motel of his dreams. Targeting baby boomers reliving their past, the Memory sports a Jumping Jack splash pool (whose slide emerges from Jagger’s giant plastic lips), nightly movies playing outdoors, and movie- or music-themed rooms.
More proof that Doo-Wop need not mean dated is the Starlux (305 E Rio Grande Ave, Wildwood, 609-522-7412, www.moreyhospitality. com; $139), a newcomer scheduled for a June 30 opening. The latest brainchild of the Morey Organization, the family-operated behemoth that owns most of the boardwalk’s piers and enough hotels to qualify for a Wildwood monopoly, this contemporary take on Doo-Wop promises to blend a 1950s sensibility with modern amenities. The Morey family built most of Wildwood’s original motels, so all eyes are focused on the unveiling of the Starlux.
From the fabulous lollipop-face sign to the real lollipops at the front desk and the candy-colored room doors, The Lollipop Motel (23rd and Atlantic Aves, Wildwood, 609-729-2800, www.lollipopmotel.com; $99) is a great choice for families with young kids.
At the Royal Hawaiian Beachfront Resort (on the beach at Orchid Rd, Wildwood Crest, 609-522-3414, www.royalhawaiianresort.com; $136 per night), plastic palms sitting on a concrete island in the middle of the pool beg you to think like a 1950s Wildwood vacationer—if you can’t go to Hawaii, why not drive to a place that looks like a caricature of it?
For those of you wondering, my mom still owns a place in Wildwood (the Spanish-themed Madrid Ocean Resort in the Crest). Sitting by its pool with the sand at my feet, the boardwalk in the distance, and the smell of fried dough wafting through the air, I realize that, while I’m still a long way from Spain, home really ain’t so bad.
By car, take the NJ Turnpike South to the Garden State Parkway. Continue on Garden State Parkway until Exit 4B, turn right on Rio Grande Ave (Route 47) to Ocean Ave. The drive takes about three hours. Or take a NJ Transit bus from Port Authority (212-564-8484). For more information, visit www.beachcomber. com (a Cape May County search engine), www.jerseyshore-online.com, www.moreyspiers.com, www.doowopusa.org and www.gwcoc.com.