New Jersey: The one-rowdy ocean resort is now a family-friendly destination -- and it's basking in the warm glow of neon nostalgia

July 30, 2000|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Driving into Wildwood, N.J., I had a haunting I-know-this-place feeling, remembering beach vacations of the 1960s. With tiki torches and exotic neon names such as Kona Kai and Hi Lili glowing against the night sky, it's as if Frankie and Annette never left.

There's no confusing this resort with Hilton Head or Ocean City. Wildwood is smaller, and its streets are dotted with two-story '50s- and '60s-era motels, vintage vamps with curvy balconies, rickrack rooflines and shapely pools accessorized with plastic palm trees and painted burros.

It's a place to twist and squeal through racing roller coasters on the boardwalk, fly down a motel swimming pool slide crowned with Rolling Stones-red lips, or watch migratory butterflies drifting above the surf.

A visit to Wildwood, says Jack Morey, president of the resort's Doo-Wop Preservation League, is a "no-brow experience, not low or high."

The league's mission is to preserve the kind of middle-of-the-road fun that made Wildwood so popular five decades ago, when America was car-crazy and motel balconies were built to overlook guests' chrome-jeweled cruisers in the parking lots.

Wildwood is a resort with a colorful past, some of which it would just as soon forget. The '70s and '80s were rough and tumble, a time when, as some locals remember it, anyone who could reach the bar could get a drink.

Shaking that rowdy reputation has been tough, especially because Wildwood shuns the cream-and-teal conformity so popular at other resort towns.

While the three small beach communities that fan out across the 5-mile-long island may be a bit frayed around the edges, those who work and play here say that families are the heart of Wildwood. Many people who slipped away during the crazy years may not remember Wildwood's charm. But to paraphrase cultural historian J.B. Jackson, sometimes things have to be forgotten so they can be rediscovered.

Up and down the island

Folks have been coming to Wildwood's three communities - Wildwood Crest, Wildwood and North Wildwood - to walk, ride and dance on the boardwalk since 1900. And, unlike most New Jersey beaches, Wildwood's are free.

Morning is a great time for exploring the beaches because bicycles are allowed on the boardwalk until 11 a.m. Rentals can be found up and down the nearly 3-mile stretch, everything from single-speed touring bikes and kids' bikes to tandems and surreys - side-by-side cycle Cadillacs that can seat from four to eight people.

It's an easy ride from end to end, past the Convention Hall, the arcade games, T-shirt shops and amusements piers, past the old Strand movie theater.

As we entered North Wildwood in our surrey, our son on the seat between us and our daughter in the kid-size basket on the front, loudspeakers were playing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Many riders and walkers stopped, put their hands over their hearts and sang along. At the end of the boardwalk, as in Wildwood Crest, a bike path picks up and rolls farther down the beach.

The view here is expansive because, unlike Maryland's Ocean City or Virginia Beach, there's no shadowy presence of high-rises pressing against the shoreline. Seven or eight stories is about the max for Wildwood's hotels.

Like Ocean City, Wildwood has a range of places to hang your sun hat, and the prices are fairly equivalent. For a week, a three-bedroom unit costs anywhere from $1,800 to $2,800, depending on beach proximity. A similar-size house off the beach costs about $1,200 to $1,500. And there are those kitschy motels, which are often not on the beach, but start as low as $65 a night for two people.

The bike ride is also an excellent time to check out the three beaches, which share a super-fine, soft sand, but that's about all.

At North Wildwood, dunes and sea grasses dot the beach as it heads to the quiet northern end of the island. But at Wildwood, the beach stretches out to almost a quarter of a mile at its widest point. The natural drift of sand along the shore, coupled with the effects of dredging north and south of Wildwood, add about 35 feet of beach a year.

On the busiest days, when the three beaches hold as many as 250,000 people, you can still find an empty spot for volleyball or a Frisbee toss.

But forget quick trips back to the room; returning to get a cold drink or go to the bathroom can be a hassle.

Cars and trucks with permits are allowed on the beach in Wildwood between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. This setup can be perilous because drivers do not follow a designated route, and they tend to speed across the soft sand. Letting kids have free run is especially hard.

However, just to the south, the beach of Wildwood Crest is narrower, quieter and no vehicles are allowed. The Crest and North Wildwood are more popular family destinations.

'Alot of memories'

At the southern end of the boardwalk in Wildwood Crest is Green's Bicycle Rental, one of many local businesses handed down from parents to children.

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