A series of local roads collectively known as Ocean Drive runs along the south Jersey coast, passing through a number of family-oriented beach resorts, starting at Ocean City (pop. 11,701), “America’s Greatest Family Resort,” 10 miles south of Atlantic City. Ocean City was founded as a religious retreat in the late 1870s and hasn’t strayed far from its roots: Every summer morning (at 9:20am on the dot), life on the Boardwalk promenade comes to a standstill as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America” blare out from loudspeakers and the American flag is raised at the beachfront amusement park, which has been owned by the same family for more than a century. Located at 6th Street and known as Gillian’s Wonderland Pier (609/399-7082, daily summer, Sat.-Sun. spring and fall, free, fees for rides), this old-time funfair has over 30 rides, including a giant Ferris wheel and a 1920s carousel. A block south, you can cool off on a hot summer’s day at OC Waterpark.
Vacation homes, marinas, miniature golf courses, and a pair of toll bridges mark Ocean Drive for the next 20 miles.
At Stone Harbor, six miles north of Wildwood, the Wetlands Institute (1075 Stone Harbor Blvd., 609/368-1211, daily summer, Sat.-Sun. fall-spring, $8 adults) is one of the best places to experience the abundant natural life of the New Jersey shore. An observation tower looking over 6,000 acres of saltwater marshland provides excellent bird-watching opportunities, and there’s also a museum with a touch-tank and aquarium.
On the Jersey Shore, fun in the sun reaches a peak at raucous Wildwood, a trio of interconnected towns housing dozens of nightclubs and New Jersey’s biggest beachfront amusement parks. The largest of all, Mariner’s Pier on the pier at Schellenger Avenue, has 28 rides, including one of the largest Ferris wheels on the East Coast. At 25th Street is Surfside Pier, and a little farther south is Adventure Pier, which is home to the Great White, the only wooden roller coaster in the U.S. to be built on a pier. All three of these are owned by the Morey family, prime movers behind Wildwood’s retro-rediscovery, and an all-ride, all-pier pass (609/522-3900, around $59) is available for a full day’s fun. Batting cages, go-karts, and some of the wilder rides are not included in the pass price.
Away from the sands in the local chamber of commerce, the National Marbles Hall of Fame (3306 Pacific Ave., 609/729-4000, free) features thousands of glass balls and more marble-shooting paraphernalia than you’ve ever seen. The city also hosts the National Marbles Championship every June.
For many visitors, the best reason to spend time in Wildwood is that the area boasts an extensive collection of 1950s roadside architecture—mainly motel after motel, all sporting exuberant Las Vegas-style neon signs. Many of these motels are closed in the November-May off-season, but in the warmer months you can step back in the past by staying the night in one of these classic “doo-wop” motels—like the Mango Motel (209 E. Spicer Ave., 609/522-2067) or the renovated Lollipop Motel (2301 Atlantic Ave., 609/729-2800).
Chili dog and coleslaw lovers will want to chow down at Maui’s Dog House (806 New Jersey Ave., 609/846-0444), at the north end of town, while other retro-minded visitors will want to stop for a meal at the chrome-and-glass Doo Wop Diner (4010 Boardwalk, 609/522-7880), two blocks southeast of the main pier. On the boardwalk, look out for the popular burgers-and-pizza diner Route 66 (2700 Boardwalk, 609/523-6466).
For more details on places to stay and things to do—like late summer-early fall’s massive and rowdy Monsters on the Beach monster truck rally—contact the Wildwood visitors center (1 NJ-47, 800/992-9732).