The Wildwoods, as they are called, have been the butt of many jokes about saggy pants this year, but residents and those who love the towns at the Jersey Shore say they have more to offer than meets the eye.
Jack Morey, who with his brother runs the beachfront amusement park Morey's Piers, says the Wildwoods are different from most of the other resort towns along the Jersey Shore.
He's still tickled by the way a consultant described the towns back in 1996: "One of the last, greatest, tacky-with-a-capital-T beach resorts, and we needed to take tacky to new heights."
Morey admits that the memo didn't go over very well ... at least at first.
"I can assure of you of that," Morey said. "But, you know, what's the definition of 'tacky' and so forth. We think it's a place where people can laugh at themselves, let their hair down; a place where they don't have to keep up with the Joneses and so forth."
Preserving the lighthearted look of the '50s
The Wildwoods are known for the '50s era "doo wop" motels and their distinctive architecture.
The Doo Wop Preservation League has preserved many neon signs in its museum, salvaged from motels that were demolished during a building craze about a decade ago.
League president Dan MacElrevey says his group jealously guards what's left, while not preventing renovations and updates.
"We do that intentionally. We have areas that are new," he said. "But most of the motels and the neon — even if they are restored, like Shalimar was and the Caribbean — they make a point of preserving the architecture and the flavor of the '50s and '60s. That was a great time in America."
At his day job, MacElrevey manages some of the classic motels. He says Wildwood could emulate South Beach in Miami.
"It's very similar to what happened in South Beach. South Beach was going through a period where they were not as popular, and they picked up on the art-deco theme and the theme of their buildings, and today it's one of the finest, most interesting resorts on the East Coast," he said.
The Wildwoods are more than tacky buildings and a boardwalk. The island is broken down into three areas: North Wildwood has mostly residential homes and fewer motels; Wildwood has most of the boardwalk, amusement piers and moderately priced accommodations; and Wildwood Crest takes things a bit more upscale.
Adding a little epicurean taste
James Barnabei owns a fine-dining restaurant, Marie Nicole's in Diamond Beach, right next to Wildwood Crest — but he doesn't like to call it that. Even so, major magazines single it out as a place that caters to those who dine rather than those who merely grab dinner.
"We've been a Wine Spectator award winner for the last nine years," he said. "We have a complete selection of drinks and martinis and wines that we are famous for."
Barnabei says people shouldn't have to leave town for a fancy meal.
"One of the initial reasons I opened this restaurant, going back in 2000, was every time we went to Cape May to dine when we went to the Wildwoods," he said. "I didn't think there was a reason to do that. There were plenty of people in the Wildwoods who were looking for something like this."
Insurance agent Tom Byrne loves the Wildwoods for the fishing.
"There are spots to surf-fish off the beach. People are catching striped bass and weakfish and red drum off the corner up there in North Wildwood," Byrne said. "Offshore, in the canyons, we have some of the best white marlin fishing in the world.
"We have days ... where you are getting 20 or 25 shots of catching white marlins," he said. "Even in Venezuela and places like that, it rivals that type of fishing."
Byrne, who heads the Greater Wildwoods Tourism and Development Authority, says the convention center helps draw people even after summer vacations are over.
"The facility's just been great. It's greatly increased our shoulder season," he said. "We're working on a few more projects that will make us even more year round."
The lingering effect of Sandy
Now, everything isn't sunshine and salt water taffy in Wildwood. Morey says it's been a very tough year with a rainy start to the season, combined with the stubborn notion of some would-be visitors that the entire Jersey Shore was washed out by Superstorm Sandy.
"I think Sandy has had other effects. Obviously to our communities to the north, it has really been devastating," Morey said. "I can't even compare our trauma to theirs, but I think that Sandy has had a lingering effect that has caught us all a little by surprise.
"Sometimes, I think that maybe the mind heals slower than the body. While most of the Shore resorts were mostly healed, I'm not sure people are ready to just sort of go back yet."
Business owners are hoping the sun will stay out and weather will remain warm into the fall to keep the tourists coming and the cash registers ringing so their balance sheets move into the black.
A bigger question is how much of an anomaly this year was. Will it be more back to normal for 2014, or will the Sandy effect linger?
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