The drive through these Jersey Shore towns offers 1950s nostalgia, breathtaking beach views and boisterous boardwalk action.
The Starlux Motel in Wildwood displays the town's architectural trademarks -- angular lines and plastic palm trees. (Photo by Rob Baker, Special to SunSpot)
During the 1950s, rock and roll was sweeping the nation and hulking, American-made Jetsonesque vehicles were hitting the road. The nuclear family wanted to get out and "see the U.S.A." They wanted the luxury of tropical escapes without the expense of the Caribbean. Turquoise- and pink-flecked resorts cropped up with plastic palm trees, kidney-shaped pools, neon signs and names that conjured far-away lands. Today, there are more than 200 Doo Wop (named for the musical style of the 1950s) buildings in The Wildwoods -- the largest collection of mid-century commercial architecture in the country. Visitors can take a trolley tour of some of these structures and view 1950s memorabilia at the Doo Wop Preservation League.
Of course, The Wildwoods existed long before the '50s. Located on the barrier island of Five Mile Beach in Cape May County on the Jersey Shore, The Wildwoods consist of North Wildwood, Wildwood and Wildwood Crest. Five Mile Beach was first described in 1609. Seeking a new route to China, English navigator Henry Hudson and fellow explorer Robert Juet entered Delaware Bay. However, Hudson encountered shoals and turned his ship around, heading north on the Atlantic Ocean. Juet glanced toward the shore and noted that it was "a very good land ... and a pleasant land to see."
Before Juet made his observations, the Lenni-Lenape tribe (also known as the Delaware, belonging to the Algonquin nation) occupied the land. When the Native Americans eventually departed, offshore farmers brought their animals to the island on flatboats to allow them to graze. Around 1870, fishermen built shacks at the island's north end and became its first white settlers. They named their land Anglesea. The Victorian Hereford Inlet Lighthouse was built there in 1874.
City on the sand:
Wildwood's beaches provide plenty of room to spread out and get creative. (Photo by Rob Baker, Special to SunSpot)
Modern Wildwood was born in 1880 when Sarah Andrews was sent there to recuperate from illness. Andrews and her husband, Aaron, became friends with Philadelphian Joseph Taylor. They returned the following year and purchased seashore homes at the center of Five Mile Beach. The Andrews and Taylors met Nelson Robert, Latimer Baker and Robert Young and formed the Holly Beach City Improvement Company. Holly Beach Borough was incorporated in 1885. Latimer Baker and two of his brothers, Philip Pontius and J. Thompson, were impressed with the land and organized the Wildwood Beach Improvement Company to the north of Holly Beach. The Borough of Wildwood was incorporated in 1895. In 1905, Philip Baker purchased the land south of Holly Beach and named it Wildwood Crest. It was incorporated in 1910. In 1912, Holly Beach and Wildwood became the City of Wildwood.
Sun and snacks:
The Wildwood boardwalk features amusement piers, games of chance and plenty of snack stands. (Photo by Rob Baker, Special to SunSpot)
Families and young adults converge by the tens of thousands to enjoy the towns' incredible array of activities less than an hour from Atlantic City and a scant 10 minutes from Cape May. More than 400 restaurants, 30 nightclubs and four entertainment piers with enough rides to rival Disneyland and embarrass Ocean City, Md., should keep the troops busy. But -- hold on to your wallets -- there's more. The 38-block boardwalk offers more than two miles of arcade games, food stands, ultra-gaudy souvenir shops and attractions. Exhausted, yet? You haven't even explored the bevy of sports and recreational offerings. This is the place to brush up on your bocce, horseshoe, volleyball, tennis and shuffleboard skills (free courts are scattered throughout the beach). Or, take up kite-flying, parasailing, whale-watching and, of course, fishing.
Wait! You haven't even heard about The Wildwoods' crown jewel, yet. Unlike most New Jersey beaches, The Wildwoods' free beaches are impressively wide -- more than 1,000 feet in some areas. As many East Coast beaches fight an enduring battle against erosion, Wildwood beaches actually grow each year -- by as much as 100 feet in some instances. With its amazingly fine sand, it has been billed as "the world's largest and cleanest free bathing beach."
Ride the surf:
The Great White barely makes a dent on Wildwood's enormous beach. (Photo by Rob Baker, Special to SunSpot)
While the three towns flow together seamlessly and are within minutes of one another, there are a few characteristics unique to each.
Often considered "Wildwood-light," the less commercial North Wildwood (formerly Anglesea) is a nature-lover's paradise. The Hereford Inlet Lighthouse, situated on the south side of Hereford Inlet on the New Jersey Coastal Heritage Trail, boasts English cottage-style gardens. The best time to explore the gardens, which serve as a butterfly sanctuary and feature more than 170 plant varieties, is between June and mid-July when most of the flowers are in bloom.
Some of the widest beaches in The Wildwoods are found here. In fact, they're so wide that tram service is provided (for a small fee) to shuttle sand-seekers from the street to the shoreline. In addition to recreational activities on the beach, you'll also find an abundance of saltwater fishing and surf fishing opportunities. In the late 19th century, Anglesea rivaled Gloucester, Mass., as the East Coast's fishing capital. Today, the town sponsors various fishing tournaments and events. If you prefer the great outdoors to the confines of a motel, the North Wildwood Camping Resort features all wooded campsites.
Although The Wildwoods aren't known for their quality shops, North Wildwood's Seaport Village features a handful of stores and open-air stalls selling crafty trinkets and higher-end souvenirs than you'd find in Wildwood.
North Wildwood may be more residential and family-friendly than Wildwood, but it does have a handful of nightlife options, such as the Anglesea Pub, Westy's Irish Pub, Jimmy's Pub & Grub and Moore's Inlet.
Located between North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest, Wildwood is the center of the action. There's so much to do here, you'll want to extend your trip by at least a week. The best way to enjoy the kaleidoscopic sights, sounds and smells is to just give in.
Teenagers, kids and party-animals gravitate toward the boardwalk, the resort's focal point. Extending from 16th Avenue in North Wildwood to Cresse Avenue in Wildwood, it is famous for its amusement piers, snack stands and games of chance. The boardwalk is always crowded and noisy, but the decibel level reaches a fever pitch during the Hot Rod/Classic Car weekends held in May and September. During these events, antique or customized cars cruise into town with squealing tires and revving engines.
Hot rods and classic cars line the boardwalk during special annual events in Wildwood. (Photo by Rob Baker, Special to SunSpot)
Even when the cars aren't crowding the boardwalk, there's so much going on it's hard to focus. The Boardwalk Tram transports passengers to any point on the boardwalk to the tune of the recorded litany: "Watch the tram car, please." Barkers stand outside their game booths promising prizes to passers-by. Shoppers line up at Laura's Fudge and Douglass Fudge for sweet souvenirs. Snackers satiate their junk food jones with soft-serve ice cream, hot pretzels, pizza and gyros. And then, there are the rides. Wildwood's amusement piers -- Nickel's Midway Pier, Morey's Pier, Mariner's Landing and Morey's WildWheels Pier (the latter three are owned by the Morey Organization) -- beckon daredevils with more than 100 rides and the promise of cheap thrills.
Highlights include cool kiddie rides and go-karts at Nickel's Midway Pier; the 110-foot-tall Great White wooden roller coaster, with 3,300 feet of track and 50 mph speeds at WildWheels Pier; and The Giant Wheel, the tallest Ferris wheel on the East Coast at Mariner's Landing. Between Mariner's Landing and Morey's Pier, there are also two Raging Waters parks with interactive play areas and water slides.
Wildwood's amusement piers offer tons of non-stop action, including rides on The Giant Wheel. (Photo by Rob Baker, Special to SunSpot)
If rides and midway games aren't your idea of a good time, the boardwalk offers many other diversions. Pet live sharks and stingrays in the touch pool at The Seaport Aquarium. See if you can resist purchasing seashell art, cheap body decorations and T-shirts displaying crass phrases at The Boardwalk Mall. Browse for some juicy reading material at Atlantic Bookstore. Escape the heat at the Strand Movie Theater. And enjoy the assorted year-round conventions and special events at the Wildwoods Convention Center, at the south end of the boardwalk.
There's also plenty to do off the boards. On the beach, those of you who still have your pee-wees, aggies and milkies will rejoice upon spotting Ringer Stadium, a group of 10 square concrete platforms. The National Marbles Tournament is held here each June. (Or, visit the Marbles Hall of Fame at the George F. Boyer Historical Museum, dedicated to preserving the history of Wildwood.) The wide beaches also provide an excellent backdrop for kite-flying. Each Memorial Day Weekend, world-famous kite-flyers and kite-makers arrive for the Wildwoods International Kite Festival.
Go fly a kite:
Wildwood's wide beaches welcome recreational activities, such as kite-flying. (Photo by Rob Baker, Special to SunSpot)
Follow your junk food-fueled hectic day with a leisurely meal at one of Wildwood's many eateries. If you're in the mood for steak, shrimp or lobster, Schellenger's Restaurant offers all three. Want Italian? You can't go wrong with the satisfying portions and excellent service at Chiarella's. And, yes, there's even a Chinese restaurant, the wildly popular Dragon House. If you have any energy left after dinner, Wildwood offers dozens of nightlife options, including the Nile Club and the Casba Comedy Club, always good for a few laughs.
What Wildwood Crest lacks in boardwalk hysteria, the southernmost town makes up for in peaceful serenity. Unlike the other two towns, Wildwood Crest is lakeside. It is also a bit more expensive. This is where you'll find family-owned cottages and summer rentals, as well as some of the best restaurants in The Wildwoods. For breakfast, try the Admiral's Quarters. Lunch and dinner options include seafood at The Captain's Table, Mexican at Bandana's and authentic Italian fare at Little Italy.
Caribbean on the Crest:
Wildwood Crest boasts some of the area's most impressive examples of Doo Wop architecture. (Photo by Rob Baker, Special to SunSpot)
The big attraction here is Sunset Lake, known as much for its picturesque sunsets as its bounty of recreational activities. Visitors come to the lake to swim, sail or jet-ski (rental equipment is available from several outfitters). Fishing boats -- where the catch might include mackerel or sea bass -- run daily from April to October. The adjacent park provides a great picnic setting and children's play area. Other family-friendly activities abound at the Crest Pier, which hosts free outdoor concerts, craft shows, dances and basketball games.
Wildwood Crest has the distinction of being the only town in Cape May County to have taken part in a Revolutionary War battle. The Battle of Turtle Gut Inlet took place on June 29, 1776 between the brigantine Nancy and British warships. The Nancy was transporting a valuable gunpowder supply. Captain John Barry (who would later become the father of the American Navy) was aboard the Lexington near the mouth of the Delaware Bay. He noticed the warships pursuing the Nancy, ordered his men to help, boarded the ship, manned its guns and rescued the cargo. As the British attacked, Barry ordered his men to unload 50 pounds of the gunpowder before they abandoned the ship. The British sailors boarded the Nancy and were greeted by an explosion heard past Philadelphia. The British retreated and the remaining gunpowder was sent safely up the Delaware Bay. A marker commemorating the battle stands at the original site of the Inlet at Miami and New Jersey avenues, across from Sunset Lake. For more on the battle, stop by the Wildwood Crest Historical Society and Museum (at Crest Pier).
Bird's eye view:
As the tallest Ferris wheel on the East Coast, the Giant Wheel is a great spot from which to see the sites. (Photo by Rob Baker, Special to SunSpot)
Before partaking in The Wildwoods' many pleasures, be sure to make your reservations at one of the hundreds of 1950s-style motels and motor lodges coloring the landscape. For a '50s flashback, try the spacey Starlux (owned by the Morey Organization) or Stardust motels; the tropical-themed Caribbean and Royal Hawaiian; and any of the venues lining Ocean Avenue.
With their varied offerings, The Wildwoods beckon to thrill-seeking teenagers, solitude-searching couples and fun-loving families. Visit North Wildwood for a low-key, fishing-intensive getaway. Head to Wildwood for a fast-paced, non-stop assault on your senses. Or, stop by Wildwood Crest for a recreation-filled adventure minutes from the main event. Whether you're an American history buff, a Doo Wop fan or a watersports pro, the South Jersey Shore is an ideal vacation spot.