WILDWOOD - Like a great pipeline from the frozen North, carloads of families from the Canadian province of Quebec have been bringing a French flair to the shores of Cape May County for decades.
The French Canadian connection once seemed like a bizarre tourism niche, with Speedo-clad Quebecois bronzing on our beaches and clashing with our culture, but hotel and campground owners and tourism officials say the Quebec market can make or break their summer.
"Without them, you could forget it," said Dennis Krause, owner of Wildwood's Le Voyageur Motel, where signs in French ask guests to wash their feet before entering the pool. "They're the best clientele."
When the exchange rate is favorable, Quebecois drive down in droves, filling up the French-themed hotels in the Wildwoods, like Le Voyageur, and the campgrounds in outlying Cape May County for most of July and August.
In the 1990s, a plummeting Canadian dollar kept the Quebecois away. Last year, the exchange rate was on par and they came in record numbers.
"There's years when French Canadian visitors can make up 20 percent of our total visitors," said Diane Wieland, Cape May County's tourism director.
A recent Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey poll found that six of 10 New Jersey residents planned to visit the Shore this summer but that those visits may be shorter than in the past.
In other words, vacationers who in previous summers might have spent a weekend at the Shore may stay only a day now; those who in the past might have come for a week may stay only for a weekend now.
Tourism officials had several reasons to worry about their Canadian visitors too, over and above the hundreds of miles they drive just to get here.
Canadians are losing about 15 to 20 cents on every dollar they spend here, and starting this week anyone traveling in and out of the United States by car is required to have a passport.
Roxanne Heroux, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Automobile Association in Quebec, said 31 percent of Quebecois who responded to an Internet poll this spring said the economy would affect their vacation plans this summer.
"A lot of people plan to stay home or stay in the area," she said.
Things could change, Heroux said, because June is expected to be "very chilly" in Quebec.
And therein lies the secret.
The No. 1 draw for Quebecois to Cape May County isn't the boardwalks, beaches or amusements. They come for our Atlantic Ocean water, which to them seems warm.
"I guess it's all relative," said frequent Wildwood visitor Frank Ghilarducci, 59, a married father of three, by phone from Montreal. "It's pretty harsh up here."
Quebec is generally a frigid place, he said, where the idea of swimming outdoors is a dream, an extreme sport, an activity only seals and polar bears can enjoy.
On a recent sunny weekday at the Beachcomber Campground in Cape May, the thermometer was close to 75 degrees with no humidity, and Quebec City resident Chris LeBlond was broiling.
"This is hot. Our Quebec is like your Alaska," she said, already in her bathing suit and sandals. "Right now in Quebec City it's seven degrees Celsius."
That's about 45 degrees, confirming Heroux's assertion that June in Quebec is "very chilly."
Some say the quest for warm water is what led Quebecois to Cape May County in the first place. One of the first popular U.S. vacation destinations for Quebecois, Wieland said, was Old Orchard Beach in Maine, but they quickly learned that the water there was painful and turned their lips blue.
Quebecois continued on their journey south, Wieland said, dipping their toes at various resorts until they came to Cape May County in the early 1970s and felt what they consider bathwater.
Cape May County didn't have reason to argue, and officials launched an unlikely marketing blitz north of the border, even maintaining a tourism office in Montreal for more than 25 years until it closed in 1995.
No one can say for sure if the myth of warm water or the public relations effort drew Quebecois down first.
Ghilarducci, who is staying at Le Voyageur for three weeks this summer, said the Wildwoods in particular welcomed the Quebecois from day one. He has vacationed here with his parents and children, and hopes soon to bring his grandchildren.
"All in all, it's a good place," he said. "We feel welcome there. I see the same people every year and it's like family."
At the Quebec-by-the-Sea Motel, owner Lester Katsanis said the origins of Wildwood's love affair with French Canadians began at his hotel when original owners Jim and Martha Dare fell in love with Quebec on their honeymoon there.
"He fell in love with the French influence and named this place after it," Katsanis said.
The Dares actively promoted their hotel to newspapers and radio stations in Quebec in the 1960s, Katsanis said. In 1976, the mayor of Quebec City sent the Dares the city seal, and it still hangs in the motel lobby today.
"He did this with weather reports, not cell phones or the Internet," Katsanis said of the Dares. "The weather reports drew them here."
Despite the obstacles this year, Katsanis said reservations remain strong this summer, a sentiment echoed by other hotel and campground owners, and by tourism officials.
"This year, we've sent about 4,000 informational packets to households in Canada," said Ben Rose, director of marketing for the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Authority.
Wieland, the county's tourism director, said that the average visitor to the county stays about 3.5 days but that Quebecois stay 10 days or longer, thanks in part to a two-week, government-mandated construction holiday in the province.
To make up for the exchange-rate hit, travel costs and long stays, many Quebecois bring campers or tents and stay at one of the dozens of campgrounds on the Cape May County mainland.
Tammy Gomez, co-owner of the Beachcomber Campground, said French Canadians annually make up 25 to 30 percent of her summer business.
"They'll spend the entire day at the beach and come back here and cook," Gomez said. "We love them."
Krause, of Le Voyageur, noticed that Quebecois also like to cook at his motel, using small kitchens in the rooms or the barbecue grills before and after visiting the beach.
Given the French cuisine and cafes to which they are accustomed, travelers from Quebec don't always care for the pizza shops and diners they find in South Jersey.
"There are some decent restaurants," Ghilarducci said. "We're not going down there for the food, though. It's the atmosphere."