Wildwoods Boardwalk offers dozens of attractions,
including world-class roller coasters and a
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.
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.
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
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
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
high-rise 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.
can’t help but love the beaches, which are so insanely
wide that it takes a good five 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.
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.
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.
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
tastes changed and beachgoers 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
realized how cool it was and that it needed to be
preserved," says MacElrevey, an original board member
and also a key force in an artifact-filled Doo Wop
Experience museum that opened in 2007.
much does Wildwoods love the Googie style? Enough that its
Acme and Wawa markets and Walgreens all have neo-doo-wop-inspired
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."
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Wildwoods Boardwalk, which stretches 38 blocks, boasts
three amusement piers featuring more than 100 rides and
attractions. There’s also a waterpark.
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.
wildwoodsnj.com or 1-800-992-9732.