END 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.
What's to see
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.
Owners Jerry Green and his brother-in-law Jim Lombardo, who met in the 1950s, remember the days when Bob Horne and Dick Clark were spinning records at the Starlight Ballroom, and such performers as Tony Bennett, Little Anthony and the Imperials and Bill Haley would fine-tune their acts before heading north to Atlantic City or south to Baltimore; when the Adventurer Motor Inn across the street was a boccie court; and when the motels with such names as Lollipop and Buccaneer started coming to town.
The motels were and still are popular destinations for pipe-fitters from Paterson and South Philly fruit vendors.
"Most families save up all year to come here," Green says. "Ninety-nine point nine percent are working for a living, got kids."
Green and Lombardo, unlike most motel and boardwalk shop owners, stay all year, walking their dogs in winter down deserted streets.
"There are a lot of memories, a lot of friendly people," Green says. "We don't plan on going anyplace. It's too easy; it's too nice."
Wildwood native Robert Bright has a wealth of memories, which he gladly shares with visitors to the Wildwood Historical Society. The little museum is one of only a few businesses thriving on Pacific Avenue, once the main drag. Like many downtowns, it has seen better days.
Inside, the rooms are filled with Wildwood's past, from a fossilized tree to fading sepia-tone photos. Bright, 91, remembers when the boardwalk featured bear wrestling.
Boardwalks came to the East Coast in the late 1800s. An enterprising train conductor named Alexander Boardman devised wooden sidewalks to help keep sand out of his passengers' shoes. The first boardwalk was introduced up the beach in Atlantic City; some of the early ones were rolled up and stored at the end of the summer.
Bright's father, Oliver, helped build one of Wildwood's first permanent boardwalks.
Bright remembers the U-boats off the coast during World War II and the Miss America Pageant, held here in 1931-1932. And he remembers when cars first came to the island.
Pointing to a 1905 photo of a race on then-dirt Central Avenue, Bright urged a closer look at the description below. The racers were Henry Ford, Louis Chevrolet and Walter Chrysler.
"The smell could almost turn your stomach," he says of the castor oil used in the engines instead of motor oil. "They'd race up and down in clouds of smoke, and we were loving it."
Maybe all those young drag-racers peeling out from the stoplights here in the years since come by it naturally.
Jack Morey spent his early childhood watching the cars roll into Wildwood from his home atop the Pan American Hotel, a luxe accommodation his father built on the beachfront in Wildwood Crest.
The Pan American was one of the Morey family's earliest ventures, which have since grown to include a string of motels and three of the boardwalk's amusement piers.
Wildwood of that day was a place where you could drive and dream - and that's exactly the mood Morey is working to recapture.
In 1997, he helped found the Doo-Wop Preservation League, which offers bus tours of the motels and has a little museum of its own, with such items as Atomic-Age motel-room lamps designed to look like orbiting planets.
"We've been riding a nice little wave," he says of '50s and '60s nostalgia. He recently opened the Starlux motel, renovating the original rooms but adding a curvilinear glass lobby and kidney-shaped pool.
After Morey teamed up a few years ago with a Philadelphia architecture firm on a motel renovation, they began to talk about seriously studying Wildwood. The architects - also instructors at the University of Pennsylvania's architecture school - developed a graduate studio devoted to Wildwood.
Since then, the interest has led to courses at Kent State and Yale. "It's legitimized this piece of American cultural history," Morey says.
Susan Snyder, an architect with the Penn project, says she is smitten with Wildwood. Keeping the resort's individuality intact is the challenge, she says. "You don't want it to look like all the Main Streets. Good taste would mess up the place."
Imaginative plans have grown from the architecture programs, including a bike path that would skirt newly built dunes; bathhouses and concessions that carry the boardwalk theme to the vast beach; maybe even cable cars to carry the walk-weary to the water.
On the sand
In the long walk from beach to boardwalk, visitors may find motocross or monster trucks buzzing in the expanses of sand between the piers.
Out on the avenue, late-afternoon parades often crisscross the streets of North Wildwood. Among the most entertaining are mummers' parades, with groups of men colorfully dressed, mainly as women, dancing in the streets to songs like "Good Ol' Rocky Top," which blare from the back of pickup trucks stocked with cold brews for the performers.
As a group of mummers dressed as devils dances by, Irene Gommell of Port Charlotte, Fla., and her daughter Susan Cooke of Vernon, N.J., watch from their folding chairs, front row on Atlantic Avenue.
Like many, they're here for a convention. But it's hardly their first visit. Cooke's been coming here for 18 years, Gommell for 10 before she moved south.
"It's good fun," Gommell says. "There's a lot right here that's not far away."
Her list includes Atlantic City, 20 minutes north; Cape May, 20 minutes south; and the outlets in Rehoboth Beach, Del., a 70-minute ferry ride from Cape May.
And, of course, the boardwalk.
As the sun shifted lower and cast a rosy tint across the T-shirt shops, the tram, which runs end-to-end on the boardwalk, was full. People were coming out for the evening and going in for the night.
Tourists flock to the boardwalk until after midnight. They eat pizza and hot dogs, sample "world-famous" Curley's fries, try ice cream from Kohr Bros., win stuffed animals at the arcade (Pokemon and Scooby Doo are big this year), and climb on the rides.
There are nearly 200 amusements, from battings cages to water slides and spinning teacups.
The piers are clean and the rides are brightly painted, laced with the sugar-soaked smell of funnel cakes. The double-decker carousel is a delight. Grandest, though, is the Ferris wheel, which towers 175 feet over the pier. It's the tallest thing for miles, and so were we, sitting at the top and pondering the widest beach around, the coolest motels and the glittering boardwalk. Taking it all in, I wondered, Who needs Miami and Hawaii?
"When those lights come on at night," architect Snyder says, "the rest of the world disappears."
When you go
Getting there: Wildwood is 144 miles from Baltimore. The most pleasant route is to take Interstate 97 south to U.S. 301-50 across the Bay Bridge, then Route 404 to Lewes, Del. From there, catch the Cape May-Lewes Ferry across Delaware Bay. From Cape May, Route 109 winds north across Cold Spring Inlet to Wildwood Crest, Wildwood and North Wildwood.
The ferry is $20 one way including driver, then $6.50 for each passenger older than 5 and $2 for passengers younger than 5; a $5 reservation fee per vehicle is required. The crossing takes about 70 minutes and is a lovely break from the highway.
Alternatively, you can take Interstate 95 north from Baltimore to Wilmington, Del., to I-295. After the Delaware River crossing, take Route 49 east. Get out and stretch your legs in Millville and visit Wheaton Village (1501 Glasstown Road, 800-998-4552) to see some of the most beautiful blown glass in the country at the Museum of American Glass. Mason jars, paperweights and Tiffany lamps are among the 6,500 objects on display.
Return to Route 49 and continue to Route 55 south. Pick up Route 47 south and follow it south - the road goes straight into Wildwood.
Amenities: 43 rooms, weekly rates, efficiencies, pool, sundecks. Rates start at $96.
Amenities: The Starlux is the embodiment of Atomic Age fantasy, with neon, glass and curves galore. Rates start at $140.
Amenities: The quintessential doo-wop motel, with its curved ramp from the parking lot, glassy lobby, signature neon sign and plastic palm trees, and C-shaped pool; 30 rooms; rates start at $63.
Amenities: Traditional rooms, efficiencies, oceanfront suites; 78 rooms; rates start at $137.
Amenities: This historic Queen Anne Victorian four-story B&B has a wraparound porch, lawn games, carriage suites, whirlpool and fireplace; 10 rooms; rates start at $110 and include breakfast.
What you get: Sure, there's the revolving dessert case, but how often do you get diner food under chandeliers? Prices start at $4.50 for breakfast, $6.95 for early bird dinner specials.
What you get: Serves Mexican food in a tiny, brightly decorated cantina. Burgers, Mexican entrees and salads, along with similar fare on the kids' menu; prices start at about $5 for appetizers, $5.75 for sandwiches, $10.50 for dinners.
What you get: This place boasts $2 pizza by the slice that is bigger than a dinner plate. You can also get a range of entrees, from grilled swordfish to lobster.
Order "The Wildwoods Boardwalk 100th Birthday Celebration Vacation Planner 2000" by visiting the Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce Web site, www.gwcoc.com. Or call the office at 609-729-4000. The planner is free.
An ideal day
6 a.m.: Eat a quick breakfast on your motel balcony, head to one of the bicycle rental shops along the boardwalk and rent a surrey for the family. Enjoy the ride from end to end and relish the quiet of the boardwalk.
8 a.m.: Head out to the beach, set up for the morning, rent an umbrella from a lifeguard and enjoy watching the gentle surf, kids swimming, a good book.
11 a.m.: Move up to the motel for a dip and dive for quarters with the kids in the swimming pool. Dry off slowly in the sun.
Noon: Get out of the sun and walk to one of the numerous diners and restaurants along the beach for lunch and maybe an ice cream float for dessert.
1:30 p.m.: Find a shady spot for a nap.
3 p.m.: Head back to the beach for walking, people-watching and dabbling toes in the water. Visit the boardwalk games and rides. Walk up the beach to the amusement piers. Check out the shops and arcades.
4 p.m.: Ride lots of rides now before the lines build up. Buy the discount ticket book.
6:30 p.m.: Step up to Jumbo's on the boardwalk for pizza and seafood.
8 p.m.: Take a drive over to Back Bay to watch the sun set.
9:30 p.m.: Kids are asleep and you're standing on the balcony watching the Wildwood world go by for a few minutes, before you, too, fall into bed and fall fast asleep.