Tuesday 25 April 2017

Doo Wop delights of the Jersey shore

John Spain and family take a traditional American holiday on the Jersey Shore, home of the famous Doo Wop motels from the 1950s

The pier, Atlantic City which is half-way between New York City and Wildwood
The pier, Atlantic City which is half-way between New York City and Wildwood
James Dean-era Mercury at a vintage car rally, Wildwood
Harry Spain at his favourite pizza corner on Wildwood Boardwalk
The Boardwalk, Atlantic City
A sand castle competition, Wildwood
Atlantic City Theme Park

John Spain

New Jersey is the state that stretches south from New York for 200 miles. It has a spectacular coastline dotted with traditional American seaside towns. The names are redolent of early rock 'n' roll era America, from Asbury Park (Bruce Springsteen's old stomping ground) in the north, all the way down to Wildwood in the south, with Atlantic City at the half-way point.

This is the real seaside America, with huge beaches, faded clapboard houses, boardwalks, rollercoasters, amusement arcades, shiny diners and soda bars, as well as all the Doo Wop motels from the 1950s with their big neon signs with names such as The Bonanza, The Satellite and The Kon Tiki. You feel like you've walked into a real-life version of Grease.

A holiday on the Jersey Shore is deep immersion in blue-collar American vacationing and it's a unique experience because it's 100pc American... you won't be bumping into European tourists there. It's where generations of families from New York, Philadelphia and all the other cities within driving distance have gone -- and still go -- on their annual vacation.

The Doo Wop era in the 1950s was when the Jersey Shore took off, thanks to all the GIs who had returned after the war. Everyone started a family, bought a car and wanted a vacation at the beach every summer. The motor hotel, or motel, was born and the Jersey Shore was where everyone on that side of America went. Wildwood was the coolest town on the Shore, with dozens of motels built with Doo Wop architecture, pure fantasy with a touch of art deco.

The Doo Wop motels were designed in a variety of styles -- Airport Terminal, Caribbean Island, Ocean Liner, Polynesian. They were given exotic names such as The Monaco or The Pyramid to conjure up faraway magic for ordinary Americans who might never get to the south of France or Egypt.

These days the motels are being preserved and restored to their original fantastic glory. And Wildwood is still going strong, with all the old amusements now adding to

that special retro appeal.

All of which makes it a shame that it remains undiscovered by so many Irish visitors to the US. The reason is simple: none of the Irish tour operators offers a package that combines a week in New York with a week or two on the Jersey Shore. That's the bad news. The good news is that it's easy to organise yourself on the internet... you just google 'New Jersey Vacation Rentals' or 'Wildwood Doo Wop Motels' and you're away.

The weather is another reason why the Jersey Shore is a good choice if you're spending a week with the family in New York, after which you want to work on your tan but you don't want another flight to Florida or California. Driving 200 miles south along the Jersey Shore to Wildwood instead of the same distance north up to Cape Cod makes all the difference if you want hot sunshine. In Wildwood, it will be in the 80s (Fahrenheit) in June and September and touching 90 in July and August.

We went to New Jersey with our three teenagers after a week in Manhattan in June. We hired a car with Sat Nav and pretty soon we were driving across Manhattan as confidently as native New Yorkers, heading out through the Holland Tunnel and south towards New Jersey. Close to New York the Jersey suburbs of the Big Apple are a bit downmarket, Sopranos territory. But the mood changes as you reach the countryside.

With the Sat Nav directing us, half an hour after we had left Manhattan, the disembodied voice was telling us 'Turn left onto Garden State Parkway' and we were soon rolling down one of the most beautiful motorways on the east coast, surrounded by trees on both sides. The forests continue all the way down the Parkway for 200 miles to the bottom of New Jersey -- one reason why they call it the Garden State.

The Parkway is 10 or 20 miles in from the coast, and it's easy to turn off anywhere and visit one of the seaside towns. We saw the exit for Atlantic City, but casinos and floor shows are not really our thing so we kept going all the way to Wildwood, the town famous for creating the Doo Wop motels.

We had booked on the internet but all the motels offer pretty much the same deals. They all have their own pools, some have a hot tub or two and many have basketball and a communal barbecue area. Plus, you can step straight on to the sand if you're in a beach-front motel. The standard motel room has two double beds plus a pull-out sofa, full bathroom, TV, small fridge, etc. Bigger rooms for larger families often have full kitchens -- these rooms are called 'efficiencies' -- so you can do your own thing.

Strolling on the boardwalk the next morning (after our eggs over-easy and buttermilk pancake stacks in a traditional diner), we came across a vintage car rally. There were early Mustangs, James Dean-era Mercurys (the cars in the chicken race in Rebel Without a Cause) and Elvis-era Cadillacs with fins. The drivers all looked like Elvis at 80. There was even an Edsel, the car that was such a disaster it nearly put Ford out of business.

The beach at Wildwood, like the rest of the Jersey Shore, is superb and very well run. Life guards sit in their towers every 100 yards and the beach patrols enforce the beach rules with humour. But their job is easy because Americans don't litter, there are no gangs of teenagers with cans and no rowdy behaviour. The atmosphere is friendly and laid back. And the Atlantic breakers rolling on to the shore are big enough for surfing, which all the teenagers do (you can hire the boards).

At night, Wildwood really comes alive. It has the longest boardwalk in America, off which there are the famous Moreys Piers -- three huge piers that jut out into the sea and have mind-blowing rollercoasters and thrill rides. And the boardwalk itself goes on for a few miles (it has tram cars) and has all kinds of fast food outlets, shooting ranges, shark tanks, chambers of horror, coconut shys, dodgems, amusements and so on. There's even a boardwalk chapel with a preacher saving souls in the open air in the small hours.

Back in the day, Wildwood was where Bill Haley and the Comets first rocked around the clock and Chubby Checker first did the twist. The place was famous for its teenage dance halls and all the teenage idols of the early rock 'n' roll era (like Buddy Holly) played there in summer.

Wildwood is a sprawling town with three sections, North Wildwood, Wildwood itself and Wildwood Crest. Wildwood Crest borders the Cape May nature reserve, has some of the most beautiful Doo Wop motels and is well away from the boardwalk, so it's quiet. Plus the white sandy beach is superb, several miles long, 200 yards wide, and spotless. For Irish families, it's the place to go.

Eating out is great fun (seafood is the big thing with lobster, crab and shrimp served by the bucket) and half the cost of Ireland. The restaurant portions are gargantuan, so eating out is not what you do every night. But regular breakfasts in a real Doo Wop diner are a must; our favourite was The Pink Cadillac -- a '50s original, where you can still get three plays on the juke box for a quarter.

We thought The Caribbean was the best original Doo Wop motel in Wildwood Crest, with retro '50s furniture and lots of 'efficiency' rooms with full kitchens. It was built in 1958 and has been completely restored. It was the first motel to use the full-size plastic palm trees that now adorn most of the Doo Wop motels and are so realistic you don't realise they're phoney. Also worth considering, if you want the real deal, are The Bristol Plaza, The Astronaut and The Singapore, all dating from the '50s and '60s and all beachfront.

A word of caution: The Doo Wop motels are best suited to families who don't mind sharing one big room. And the pools in these older motels are small. An exception is the famous Starlux, which was completely rebuilt on the inside about 10 years ago to provide two- and three-bedroom suites, all in the Doo Wop style. All these motels have websites.

If you want a full-size two- or three-bedroom luxury apartment for your holiday in Wildwood Crest, the place to go is the upmarket Seapointe Village, where we stayed for some of our visit. It has much bigger pools and hot tubs, and has its own private beach. If you have young children, some of the pools at Seapointe are perfect and the tennis, gym, beach deli hut etc, will keep your teens happy.

The downside is that Seapointe is a new complex, but what you lose in character you get back in facilities. Plus you can enjoy the Doo Wop thing just by driving around, eating out and exploring the boardwalk at night.

If Elvis really is still alive, he's living in Wildwood.

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