For the third time in the past four years, Wildwood - the south Jersey resort town where the beaches are free and gigantic - has been named the state's best beach.
Wildwood and its two neighbors, Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood, took top honors in the annual contest run by the New Jersey Marine Sciences Consortium/New Jersey Sea Grant and the Richard Stockton College Coastal Research Center as a way of making people feel more connected to and protective of the state's 127-mile coastline. Residents and tourists voted in an online poll.
The three beaches, which market themselves as a single entity called The Wildwoods, entered and won the contest that way, too. Admission to all three beaches is always free, which accounts for a big part 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 second-place winner, the six municipalities on Long Beach Island. They placed third last year.
Ocean City, another south Jersey family resort which won the 2009 contest, came in third this year.
The other winners were, in order of finish: 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 thus 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.
But it's Wildwood, or The Wildwoods, that draw the most loyalty from beachgoers.
Motorists heading 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, kicking sand in the faces of most other New Jersey beaches. Due to the prevailing ocean currents and the natural topography of the coastline, sand that washes away from other beaches piles up here.
In fact, the walk to the water is so far that Wildwood once seriously entertained a proposal to let a vendor offer camel rides to and from the surf before deciding against it.
Wildwood also is a hotbed of `50s doo-wop culture and is home to many oldies festivals and antique car cruise nights. The three-town resort says it has the largest concentration of preserved doo-wop architecture in the country, and last year was named one of America Online's 10 Architectural Wonders of the United States. Even the Wawa convenience store and gas station on the main drag into town is done up in neon colors and angular roof lines.
Wildwood and North Wildwood share a nearly two-mile boardwalk that has its own in-your-face charm, with the usual pizza and fudge shops alongside T-shirt shacks and body piercing outlets. It has three amusement piers with a gargantuan roller coaster and a freakishly tall Ferris wheel.
"This is where I've been coming all my life," said Joan Daug of Waterford, N.J., who was visiting the resort with her husband, Andy. "I always thought it was a nice family place. That's why I liked it."
"There's car shows on the boardwalk, fireworks," Andy Daug added. "There's always something going on here."