WILDWOOD - Wildwood, where Jersey Shore enthusiasts can enjoy the state's widest beach and never purchase a beach tag, was the big winner yesterday in the Garden State's first Top 10 Beaches contest.
The Cape May County resort, with a beach that measures nearly a half-mile at its widest point, was voted best beach overall in a survey sponsored by the New Jersey Marine Sciences Consortium, a coalition of environmental and tourism groups. More than 15,000 people cast ballots online and at regional events between February and April.
South Jersey beaches, nearly all of them in Cape May County, trounced their northern competition on the Top 10 list. The poll asked participants to rate towns along the state's 127-mile coastline on the basis of several characteristics including water quality, access, and aesthetics.
Neighboring Wildwood Crest came in second, followed by Ocean City, North Wildwood, Cape May, Asbury Park in Monmouth County, Avalon, Point Pleasant Beach in northern Ocean County, Beach Haven in southern Ocean County and Stone Harbor.
Survey respondents also named Wildwood the best beach town for events and tourism. Wildwood Crest was named tops for family vacations and Island Beach State Park, in central Jersey, was voted best for ecotourism, according to the survey, released at a news conference in Sandy Hook timed to kick off the Memorial Day weekend.
"People come to the Jersey Shore for the beaches and this proves that when people look for a good beach, they look for the factors that we offer in Wildwood," said Wildwood Mayor Ernest Troiano Jr.
"We're fortunate and proud to have the widest, cleanest and safest beach in the state. And it's free."
Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, North Wildwood and Atlantic City are the only beaches in the state that don't require visitors to purchase a beach tag. The cost of a daily tag elsewhere ranges from about $5 to $10; seasonal tags sell for an average of about $20.
Troiano said the only complaint the town of 5,000 year-round residents ever receives about its beaches seems to be how big they are.
Most like the size, which leaves plenty of room for volleyball, kite-flying and other activities. But "some people have said it's too long a walk to the water's edge," Troiano said.
"It's kind of an embarrassment of riches considering so many other towns are plagued by beach erosion," he said.
Wildwood City Commissioner Bill Davenport said he has often joked that towns up the coast "should color their beach sand so we'll know who to return it to when it washes ashore down here."
The Wildwoods - as Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood are collectively known - are among the few New Jersey Shore towns that haven't been re-engineered in beach-replenishment projects.
"When it comes to a natural beach, ours are the only ones that aren't manmade," Troiano said. "The sand hasn't been pumped in. That we are an all-natural beach is a very fortunate accident of geography, and maybe people appreciate that."
Diane F. Wieland, director of Cape May County's Department of Tourism, said she appreciated that seven of the Top 10 beaches are in her jurisdiction
"We really hit the jackpot," Wieland said. "We're certainly going to be using this information in every one of our television and print ads, brochures and on signage. Fifteen thousand people can't be wrong."
One of those people was Lisa Sharkey, 32, a lifelong Wildwood resident who voted in the survey.
"Wildwood has taken some knocks over the years, with problems with our downtown and boardwalk," Sharkey said. "But people really should come and look at this beach. It's incredible."
The Pleasures of Wildwood
Year-round population: 5,000
Summer population: 300,000
Beach: 1.5 miles long
Beach tag fees: None
Public restrooms: Schellenger and Leaming Avenues
Parking: Lots and street meters
Information: www.njwildwood.com or 800-992-9732