THERE'S A FEELING you get, walking toward the Wildwood Boardwalk at night; an anticipation that hits you all at once when that wide, eclectic, electric expanse unfolds before you.
There's nothing else quite like it in New Jersey, a tourist destination defined by first kisses, cotton candy and rock 'n' roll, muscle cars and muscle shirts, a mix of Northeast Philly, South Jersey, Quebec and everywhere in-between, all aglow in neon and wedged into a 1.8-mile promenade beside an endless beach.
"There's nothing wrong with quiet, but every now and then you have to get your freak on. That's what the boardwalk is, a place to get your freak on," said Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr.
There have been moments over the last two years, during both Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy, when that boardwalk was eerily quiet, the whole island cleared out in anticipation of impending disaster. The Wildwoods escaped both storms with little damage. Many a tourist and many more kids have complained about the Wildwoods' wide beaches, but those buffers may have spared the islands.
Routinely named the best in the state, beaches are free in all three municipalities that have a beachfront: North Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and Wildwood, where the sand's so wide its routinely used for major events like youth soccer tournaments, concerts and dirt bike races.
* North Wildwood City Council President Patrick Rosenello is a little biased, but he thinks the best beach is near the mouth of Hereford Inlet in North Wildwood. There's room for fishing, Jet Skis, swimming and maybe a beer or two - though be careful with kids because some areas have no lifeguards.
* On the boardwalk, the Morey family has a near monopoly on thrill-seeking - three major piers with haunted boats, upside-down coasters and, for the first time, sushi, at the new Artbox artists' co-op on Morey's Adventure Pier.
* Even if the ocean's flat, you can surf all day on the new "endless wave" at the Splash Zone Water Park, Schellenger Avenue and the Boardwalk.
* Wildwood Crest might be the quieter, more mature town of the three, but it's done the best job of preserving its stately doo-wop architecture along Ocean Avenue. Staying in one of the Wildwoods' neon-edged midcentury hotels is a Jersey tourist right of passage. More on this historic district at doowopusa.org.
* Escape the "I'm With Stupid" T-shirts and cheap stuffed animals in the basement of the Boardwalk Mall at East Garfield Avenue, where a veritable pinball wizard awaits.
Randy Senna is a unique Wildwood character - and that's saying something. A showman who once operated arcades up and down the Jersey coast, he recently dusted off dozens of retro pinball machines, arcade and video games and old-time shooting games he's collected over the years to create the Hoarder's Retro Arcade.
Yes, it got its name because he was on the A&E TV series "Hoarders."
"We offer games that are fun. That is what we sell; we sell fun," he said.
* If you're looking for the best boardwalk pizza, you'll have to choose between legends. But choose wisely. Picking Mack's Pizza or Sam's Pizza Palace could divide families, pit couples against one another or put you in a bad light among your peers.
* If you're looking for a meal, Mayor Troiano said one of his favorite dinner spots is Joey M's La Piazza Cucina Italiana Restaurant, 4600 Pacific Ave.
* Dress it down a bit at North Wildwood's Maui's Dog House, 806 New Jersey Ave. Try homemade franks with a ton of toppings and their specialty - salty potato balls dipped in melted butter.
* Find a taste of Philly at Keenan's Irish Pub, 113 Olde New Jersey Ave. in North Wildwood's bar district, serving up Nick's Roast Beef. There's also a Tony Luke's at 6200 New Jersey Ave. in Wildwood Crest.
* There are plenty of places to get a hot stack of flapjacks in the Wildwoods, tons of retro diners and landmarks that serve up an admirable breakfast. But if you're looking for a little place hasn't changed in 50 years, try Larkin's Restaurant, 2600 New Jersey Ave.
* The Jersey Shore wasn't meant for rain, but at the Wildwood Historical Society's George F. Boyer Museum, 3907 Pacific Ave., wet weather means bigger crowds.
"Sure, it's great in the rain or if you're too sunburned too," said helpful manager Audrey McKenzie. Get swept up in the nostalgia, whether it's memorabilia from North Wildwood's legendary Zaberer's Restaurant, which burned down spectacularly in 1992, or from long-scrapped boardwalk rides.
"It may look a little overwhelming, but you can really focus on your own history and be here for hours," McKenzie said. "Wildwood's always been a unique place."