A Safe-cation in New Jersey’s Wildwoods
A COVID-time Road Trip along the Jersey Shore
By Christopher Ludgate
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
I’ve stopped trying to wrap my head around how bizarrely fast time’s gone since March and why the days still meld into blurry conceptual hybrids like Saturthurmonday for us before having to ask Alexa “What day is it?’
When the wrath on the Northeast U.S. eased a bit, I sat at my desk longingly in my NYC apartment with more new frustrations about the restrictions to my deprived wanderlust. My New York Times Travel Show bag sat at my feet still, full of 2020s prospects.
What the Doctor Ordered
How therapeutic the daydreams grew of something peaceful, picturesque, familiar, and of course, responsible to cancel out my masked — er — caged bird syndrome.
I wanted to breathe in the salty air from a balcony. I wanted to dig my feet into the sand. I wanted to drink and dine and banter in the open-air café by the bay. I wanted my go-to road-trip to the Jersey Shore, safe-cation style.
Open Road to Jersey Coast
I hopped on the ferry at Astoria landing near my place and quickly made it over to Penn Station for an easy 10 minute NJ Transit trek across the river to Jersey.
I hadn’t been on a subway since winter. Bikes and ferries have been my new jam here in NYC anyway. Even while in quarantine mode, they were my respite for very isolated joyrides to nowhere.
The freeing sensation of being on the open road in the sunshine was instant. With my go-to travel buddy, Steve, I was off to make the first attempt at a safe-cation, exploring the nostalgic beach town of The Wildwoods and ease into remote beachfront therapy in Cape May.
A New Look at the Nostalgic Wildwoods
The bright, new, colorful Wildwoods Grand Gateway, which was unveiled earlier this summer with lots of fanfare, proudly welcomes visitors on Rio Grand Avenue off of Exit 4A of the Garden State Parkway. It’s a reminder, or an introduction, to what distinctly sets The Wildwoods apart from other Jersey towns.
The $13.7 million renovations, with its unmistakeable giant surfboard, clearly reflect the nostalgic aesthetic of the five-mile island comprised of Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, and North Wildwood.
The island has seen its ups and downs like so many other iconic Jersey Shore towns at various times. The new digs signal that its character is cherished and valued by its residents as well the many that have long heralded this family destination.
And since we are not resigned to virtual travel, for now, I wanted to have a look!
Like a lively invitation to celebrate, those sentiments extended further down the road towards an entrance to the boardwalk of Wildwood’s free beaches. There, those giant animated decorative beach balls seen by the gateway continued to pepper the path which evidently has become a requisite photo-op for beach and boardwalk revelers.
Cool & Funky Starlux
“We wanted to dress it up,” said Jersey native, Jack Morey referring to the new gateway which he was instrumental in planning with the Chamber of Commerce and many others. We chatted in the lounge of his Starlux Hotel, surrounded by Classic Americana décor like old Crosley radios and lava lamps.
The sky blue kidney-shaped pool complete with a whirl-pool had ample guests bathing within the designated area below the stretch of outdoor balconies.
Easygoing Beach Leisure
The available bikes and games areas enabling a little adventure, glow-in-the-dark put-put attraction, and ice cream shops flesh out the property as an all-in-one classic destination.
“It’s a cool, different, and sorta funky place, ” Morey said of its reinvented Doo-Wop style structure just steps from the beach – and a bike or trolley ride away from famed Morey’s Piers on the legendary boardwalk. The long-established elaborate amusement park founded by Morey and his brother, Will is iconic.
“Towns along the Eastern seaboard have always had peaks and valleys along the way,” expressing how neighboring towns support each other.
Green and public space initiatives have been a great part of The Wildwood’s improvements with Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority, Morey revealed, highlighting his own Socratic outlook on the future of the community.
Classic Americana Diversion
Noting downtown Wildwood’s distinctive style, Morey asserts confidence in its being “bold, brash, tacky, and proud.” But there was a charm in this beach town, as well. Morey has said that “nostalgia is something you feel more than see,” but either way, we found the nostalgia refreshing in these roller-coaster times.
Like most businesses these days, the Piers, which usually takes about 1,500 people to run, has an implemented hybrid of its operations functioning for tourism and locals to play safely.
Room to Breathe
The open-space restaurants have been arranged to accommodate with “plenty of room and fresh air.” Morey relates, “People need to feel comfortable.”
The hotel’s CoVid safety guidelines inform that a state of the art ‘HydroStatic Sprayer” and the recommended CDC chemicals are used to disinfect the hotel rooms, its kitchens, and common areas.
A Dip into the Doo Wop Scene
The Doo-Wop style has long been embraced as being part of the soul of The Wildwoods. Some have nicknamed it Little Las Vegas with its ubiquitous neon lights. Dan MacElrevey, President of Doo Wop Preservation League, waxed on about Doo Wop as Let’s Go to the Hop played on the museum’s sound system. This was our visit to The Wildwood’s Doo Wop Experience Museum.
The scene began here when the Surfside Restaurant opened in the 1960s with its architecture that reflected the flashy, colorful, optimism of the era.
The scene caught on and spread through the town for years, but in 2002, when the Surfside was under threat of demolishment, the birth of the Preservation League happened.
A Musical Twist
“[Doo Wop] is part of Wildwood’s personality,” MacElrevey continued, “It’s not generic… This is where Chubby Checker first performed The Twist. At the Rainbow Club in 1961. The Comets played there, too. So many.” Checker continues to hold Wildwood close to his heart evidently, too according to MacElrevy.
It was a very illuminating visit for me and Steve. The museum of time-capsule artifacts opened in 2006 as a haven for Doo Wop nostalgia, complete with an exterior bandshell event space. And near its entrance, a blooming neon garden is underway these days.
Table by the Bay, Please!
With a 38 block stretch of restaurants, there were definitely options. Old New Jersey Avenue nightlife might be a hybrid these days, but there was indeed life out there. It was good to see.
Steve and I headed over to Bill Bumbernick’s The Surfing Pig by the bay which is all the rage now for its exclusively open-air dining. Its ambiance and menu are always the major draws during the season, I had heard through the grapevine. Luckily, we had reservations, because there was a two-hour wait.
The six-year-old hot spot – or maybe wildly popular spot is a better phrase now – began as a little breakfast shack that sat 12 people. It has expanded to a considerably larger space that includes a waterfront area where I watched the sunset, sipping tequila as the boats docked.
It was the perfect place for my first dining out since quarantine. I was still doing take-out at home. Here, it was such a delight to be around a lively, relaxed crowd enjoying drinks, and delicious food, and easy banter, and the laughter from the bar on a beautiful summer night by the water. Responsibly spaced.
The restaurant has an authentic farm-to-table practice and has always geared towards using locally sourced ingredients Bumbernick – a former software developer – disclosed.
The restauranteur gladly recommended a few apps and dishes. Steve had the Summer Grouper, and I had, well, everything else I could fit in my happy belly. There wasn’t even room for ice cream from the quaint shop by the hotel.
Diversity and Safe Spaces
A lot of us can appreciate free and fun these days. We met John Donio, President of the Downtown Business Improvement District, while at the museum which was across from the expansive new space, Byrne Plaza. Donio was very enthusiastic to give us some ideas.
In the spirit of keeping up appearances, investors, including small business owners in close proximity to the plaza agreed that it would be a catalyst for an uptick in their businesses as well.
It was a total team effort to make the Plaza a reality due in no small part to Tom Byrne and his family, Will Morey and many others, including the Cape May County Open Space Board. Even local volunteers.
“The events at Byrne Plaza have been adapted to follow all the guidelines to keep all of our visitors and locals safe. Because we are fortunate to have such a large outdoor space, our events have been largely unaffected by the pandemic… It gives families a safe and friendly outdoor environment to interact instead of being cooped up,” Donio explained.
“We have lots of new programming in the pipeline, many geared towards health, wellness, and the arts!”
An Ideal Safe-cation Destination
It’s reasonable that there was some trepidation about setting out for a getaway in the middle of a pandemic. It was a given that some would disregard guidelines no matter where I went. I knew I’d been behaving and can’t control everything. I figured that I needed to poke around about places to go and their guidelines and stats. Lo and behold, the good old beach therapy was the way to go. This whole experience of quarantine has been a lesson in stillness. And that’s not a bad lesson to practice sometimes, even when traveling I discovered.
With our coasting through familiar Jersey towns, it seemed unreasonable to not go all the way to Cape May – the classic seaside resort town on the tip on Jersey – to cap off the seaside nostalgia road-trip. I had never really done the beach thing there. I was always running around exploring its hidden nooks and history.
I was aware that ever-popular Harry’s Restaurant at the Montreal Beach Resort was accommodating our CoVid times with a new custom take-out window and even more open-air dining space. They already had the ideal spot.
“We are really lucky we already have the perfect layout to accommodate during this,” affable Jonathan Hirsch, third-generation MBR management, revealed.
And I knew that there were private cabanas as part of the facility’s Beach Club complete with dedicated Harry’s servers as well.
Harry’s also implemented a new dine-in service to enjoy their delicious menu overlooking the ocean from the balcony of the hotel’s sanitized rooms. If that didn’t scream safe-cation, I don’t know what would.
Remote Cape May Cabana
There in my remote cabana, as the sight of waves and pockets of life splashed around the beach, a great sense of repair and relief washed over me. I leaned back and breathed in the fresh salty air, digging my feet into the tan warm sand, decompressed, and living life again as it should be.
We had our refreshing Orange Crush cocktails and truly amazing New England clam chowder while embracing the views and the live electric guitar happy hour grooves from our balcony perched above the deck. The socially-distanced pool and jacuzzi adjacent were emptying out for dinnertime. And those cute blue retro bike rentals thinned at sunset, too. It was good to see people enjoying the summer.
Later, we strolled the familiar beach promenade, picking up our nostalgia taffy and fudge along the way, We streamed some comedy and chilled-out back at the hotel with some vino. We are in this together. Not everything has to be so complicated.