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Ireland Calling with John Spain
Wild About the Jersey Shore
September 3, 2008
Ireland Calling by John Spain
AFTER our week exploring Manhattan (see last week’s column), the Spain family wanted to hit the beach to recover after all the excitement of the Big Apple.
This is what many Irish families do, combining a week in New York with a second week or two in Florida or California or Las Vegas. But we did not want a second flight. And anyway, we have done beach holidays in Florida and on the West Coast. This time we wanted something different, so we headed for the Jersey Shore.
Apart from avoiding another flight, there was another reason for going to Jersey. Unlike Orlando or Miami Beach, where you end up holidaying with other Europeans, the Jersey Shore is 100% American.
And that’s what we wanted. It’s where generations of ordinary American families from New York and Philadelphia and other cities within driving distance have gone on their annual beach holiday.
It’s vintage Americana, and with teenage kids who are major fans of Grease and High School Musical, we thought it would be a blast. And we were right.
As we discovered, much of the Jersey Shore has remained unchanged over the years, with the old clapboard houses where you can rent rooms, the boardwalks, the roller coasters, the amusement arcades, the diners, and the Doo Wop motels from the 1950s and ‘60s with the big neon signs. It really was like stepping into Grease.
We ended up staying at the very end of the Jersey Shore in Wildwood, famous for its old motels, its boardwalk and roller coasters and its magnificent beach. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. We started in New York, as you read last week, tired and happy after our week of sight seeing. The first step was to hire a car.
“You’re not going to try driving out of Manhattan,” my wife pleaded, knowing how easily I can get lost in Dublin, where we live. Not a problem, I said, we’ll get one with a navigation system.
The Greenwich Village office of Avis had run out of the family size saloon we had ordered, so for the same money we were upgraded to a Chrysler 300 Touring. With Sat Nav. Pretty soon we were driving across Manhattan like native New Yorkers, heading out through the Holland Tunnel and pointing towards New Jersey.
Motorway junctions no longer held any terror for us. Half an hour later the disembodied Sat Nav voice was telling us “Take next left on to Garden State Parkway,” and soon we were rolling down what must be one of the most beautiful highways in the U.S., surrounded on both sides by trees.
We turned off the parkway now and then to have a look at fading seaside towns with names that resonated with rock history, like Asbury Park, Bruce Springsteen’s old stomping ground. About half way down we passed the exit for Atlantic City, but casinos and floor shows are not really our thing, so we kept going, all the way down to Wildwood.
The Jersey Shore — and particularly Wildwood — is what South Miami Beach used to be like before they turned it into an art deco shrine. It’s deep immersion in vintage American family vacationing, and for us it was a unique experience as a holiday.
The woman in the Doo Wop Preservation Society museum in Wildwood explained that the Doo Wop era of the fifties was when the Jersey Shore took off, thanks to all the GIs who had returned after the war. Everyone started a family, bought a car and wanted a vacation at the beach every summer.
The motor hotel, or motel, was born and the Jersey Shore was where everyone on that side of America went. And Wildwood was the coolest town on the Shore, with dozens of motels built with the crazy Doo Wop architecture in a variety of styles like the Ocean Liner, the Space Age, and (my favorite) the Polynesian Tiki, complete with giant plastic palm trees.
These days the motels are being preserved and restored to their original mad glory. Some even have reproduction fifties furniture. And Wildwood is still going strong, with all the amusements and the roller coasters now adding to that special retro atmosphere.
Strolling on the boardwalk on our first morning (after our eggs over easy and pancake stacks in a traditional diner) we came on a vintage car rally. There were early Mustangs, James Dean era Mercurys (the cars in the chicken race in Rebel Without a Cause) and Elvis era Cadillacs with fins.
The drivers all looked like what Elvis would have at 80. There was even an Edsell, the car that was such a disaster it nearly put Ford out of business.
The beach at Wildwood, like the rest of the Jersey Shore, is superb and very well run. Lifeguards sit in their towers and the beach patrols enforce the rules with humor.
But their job is easy because, unlike the Irish, Americans don’t litter, there are no gangs of teenagers with beer cans, no rowdy behavior and no ghetto blasters. The atmosphere was friendly and laid back. And the Atlantic breakers rolling on to the shore were big enough for surfing, which all the teenagers do (you can hire the boards).
At night Wildwood really comes alive. It has the longest boardwalk in America and the famous Moreys Piers with mind blowing roller coasters and thrill rides. The boardwalk has all kinds of fast food outlets, shooting ranges, shark tanks, chambers of horror, basketball games, dodgems, amusements and so on.
My son Harry found a pizza counter on the boardwalk which had his name over it, so you can guess where he wanted to eat every night. All told, it was teenage heaven.
Years ago, Wildwood was where Bill Haley and the Comets first rocked around the clock and Chubby Checker first did the twist. The place was famous for its teenage dance halls and all the teenage idols of the early rock ‘n’ roll era played there in summer. It still has that atmosphere, and we loved it.
One surprise was the strong Irish connection, with big green shamrocks over so many stores and bars and so many Irish flags in the front yards of houses fluttering beside the Stars and Stripes.
It’s become fashionable for Europeans to be cynical about the American flags in front of ordinary American homes, but we found it moving and admirable, particularly when we talked to local people. Iraq may have turned into a longer battle than anyone foresaw, but the intentions of these folk were always honorable and they still are. They are the ones who make the sacrifice everyday, as they worry about their kids in uniform. They have more integrity than all the anti-war academics put together.
We stayed for two weeks in an apartment in Wildwood Crest, the lower end of the sprawling town which borders the Cape May nature reserve. It has some of the most beautiful Doo Wop motels and is well away from the bright lights of the boardwalk, so it’s quiet. Plus the white sandy beach is superb, 100 yards wide and spotless.
Eating out was great fun (seafood is the big thing with lobster, crab and shrimp served by the bucket) and half the cost in Ireland. But then everything was cheaper — our weekly supermarket shop at home costing around *240 euro (or $360) cost us $168 in the Acme supermarket in Wildwood Crest. And if anything we bought more expensive items over there, like extra steaks for the communal barbeque.
One great spot we found was Fitzgerald’s Crest Tavern on Pacific Avenue, with good food and a convivial bar with friendly customers, many of them locals, the kind of ordinary folk who make America the great country it is. Chatting in there I found the people to be proud, patriotic, straight forward, conservative and strong on family values, as well as being hugely generous and full of fun.
Two things remain with me after our Doo Wop holiday on the Jersey Shore. Firstly the integrity and dignity of the people we met, whether they were for Bush or against him, for McCain or Obama, for staying in Iraq as long as it takes or for pulling out immediately.
There’s so much talk on this side of the Atlantic about how America is in trouble. All I can say is that as long as America has people like the folks we met, it’s going to be okay.
The second thing that struck me forcefully is how well the Americans run their beaches and their seaside towns, even in New Jersey where it can get very busy. I went jogging down Wildwood Crest beach every evening I was there, and where thousands of people had spent the day no litter was visible.
I go jogging down the beach on the north side of Dublin where I live and after a sunny day when the crowds are out, the bottles, cans, plastic bags of half eaten food, even baby diapers, are strewn across the sand.
The difference is simple. Americans take pride in their beaches because they are their beaches. They have a sense of ownership. They have a sense of pride in doing the right thing.
Maybe it has something to do with 800 years of colonialism, but too many people in Ireland lack this sense of ownership so they leave litter behind them, and there are no beach patrols anywhere to stop them.
Our American holiday in June already seems like a dream and we’re back to reality now, with the kids back in school, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen back in his office, and the country facing a catastrophic economic downturn.
So from next week this column will be back to normal dealing with the issues, and I’m not looking forward to it any more than you.
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