WILDWOOD - Need more proof that New Jerseyans hate having to pay for beach badges?

For the third time in four years, Wildwood - where the beaches are free and gigantic - has been named the state's best beach.

Wildwood and neighbors Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood took top honors in the annual contest run by the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium to make people feel more connected to and protective of the state's 127-mile coastline. Residents and tourists voted in an online poll.

The beaches market themselves collectively as the Wildwoods and entered the contest as one entity. Access to all three is always free, which accounts for much of their appeal.

"They're nice and free, and they're always clean," said Lynda Jarrett, 59, of Lewisburg, Pa. "I've been coming here since I was 5 years old. I love everything about Wildwood. This beach is my medicine. It's what keeps me coming back each year."

Joint marketing also paid off for the six municipalities of Long Beach Island, which came in second in the contest. They placed third last year.

Ocean City, the family resort that won the 2009 contest, came in third this year.

The other winners were, in descending order: Sea Isle City; Cape May; Asbury Park; Seaside Heights (which moved up one spot from last year, possibly due to the absence this year of Snooki); Island Beach State Park; Cape May Point, and Sandy Hook, the first time the national recreation area made the top 10.

Cape May County took five of the top 10 spots in the contest. The Wildwoods, Ocean City, Sea Isle City, Cape May and Cape May Point are all part of the state's southernmost county, where tourism is by far the largest industry.

This year's contest also selected winners for each of the state's four coastal counties. In Monmouth County, it was Asbury Park. In Ocean, it was Long Beach Island. Brigantine won in Atlantic County, and Wildwood, obviously, won in Cape May County.

The winners were announced at a news conference in Sandy Hook, where Jon Miller, a coastal expert from Stevens Institute of Technology, said New Jersey's beaches came through the winter quite well.

"The beaches are in extremely good condition," he said. "This winter was relatively mild in terms of the number of storms that impact the coast. It might be surprising considering the amount of snow we got."

The three major offseason storms - in October, right after Christmas and in April - hit at relatively low tides and did not have extremely large waves that cause the worst erosion. As a result, Miller said, the beaches are well built up and able to withstand a summer pounding.

Wildwood has always been among New Jersey's most popular beaches. Motorists headed to the beach down the main drag roll up to a giant sculpture that spells out "Wildwoods" in 15-foot-tall letters on the boardwalk. On the ground in front of it are 29 brightly painted cement beach balls.

The Wildwoods boast three of the only five beaches in New Jersey that don't require people to buy beach 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 here are a half-mile from the boardwalk in many spots. Due to the prevailing ocean currents and natural topography of the coastline, sand that washes from other towns' beaches piles up here.

In fact, the walk to the water is so far that Wildwood once entertained a proposal to let a vendor offer camel rides to and from the surf.