WILDWOOD - Ridiculously wide beaches that don't cost a penny, a funky boardwalk, and tons of chrome-and-neon doo-wop-style architecture have made the Wildwoods a prime vacation resort for decades.
They've also made the three-town resort winner of this year's Best Beaches contest.
Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, and North Wildwood submitted a joint entry in the contest, run by the New Jersey Marine Sciences Consortium/New Jersey Sea Grant and the Richard Stockton College Coastal Research Center as a way to make people feel more connected to and protective of the state's 127-mile coastline.
Residents and tourists voted online, and scientists weighed in on technical and environmental grounds to pick a winner.
Following the Wildwoods, in order of finish, were Ocean City; the communities along Long Beach Island, which submitted a joint entry; Asbury Park; Sea Isle City; Cape May; Island Beach State Park; Seaside Heights; Cape May Point; and Avalon.
Wildwood won the first contest in 2008. Ocean City won last year.
"We like Wildwood because of the incredible free - key word free - beaches," said Doris Jordan, 81, of Lewistown, Pa., who was vacationing with her husband, Lou, 86. They spent their honeymoon there 51 years ago and took their daughter there when she was a child.
"It's a trip down memory lane," she said.
"The people here are very genuine," her husband added. "There's nothing that would take us in any other direction but here."
The Wildwoods boast three of the only five beaches in New Jersey that don't require people to buy badges to get onto the sand and into the water. Maybe it's because they have to work so hard to get to the surf.
The beaches are a half-mile from the boardwalk in many spots. Due to ocean currents and the topography of the coastline, sand that washes away from other beaches piles up in Wildwood.
Wildwood also is a hotbed of '50s doo-wop culture and home to many oldies festivals and antique-car cruise nights. It claims the three-town resort has the largest concentration of preserved doo-wop architecture in the country, and this month it was named one of America Online's "Ten Architectural Wonders of the United States." Even the Wawa on the main drag is done up in neon colors and angular roof lines.
The Jordans saw the style when it was new.
"What we thought was wonderful with the neon and all is now considered classic architecture," Doris Jordan said. "In fact, we just read about it in National Geographic."
The resort's website has a vivid description of doo-wop architecture: "Plastic palm trees towered over kidney-shaped pools, and whimsical names and flamboyant themes gave similarly styled buildings individual character. Vivid imagery and vibrant aqua, oranges, and pinks bombarded the eye of the motoring public, as neon signs beckoned to travelers, each blatantly attempting to outdo their neighbor."
Wildwood and North Wildwood share a nearly two-mile boardwalk that has its own in-your-face charm, from the usual pizza and fudge shops to T-shirt shacks and body-piercing outlets. It has three amusement piers with a gargantuan roller coaster and a freakishly tall Ferris wheel.
Going to Wildwood is a ritual for soon-to-graduate high school students fresh off the prom. Hundreds of neon-colored T-shirts and sweat shirts are for sale, proclaiming "Seniors 2010."
"It's more fun for a younger crowd," said Brenna Hassler, 19, of Philadelphia. "There's a lot to do here for young people. It's cheap and a lot of fun."
There's fine dining, as well as offerings that fall into their own category, like a dish offered at Pete's Pork Roll that would make Elvis salivate: fried butter.