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Home Vacation 24 hours in Wildwood, New Jersey’s thrilling island getaway

24 hours in Wildwood, New Jersey’s thrilling island getaway

by Staff

For so many New Jersey families, a trip to the Jersey Shore doesn’t mean a stop in Point Pleasant, Seaside or LBI – it’s a long, soul-testing journey all the way down the Parkway, to Wildwood.

The southern journey is so worth it: The beautiful (and mercifully free) beaches, the lively boardwalk stretching for miles and the exhilarating amusement and water parks draw over nine million visitors to the island every year.

Wildwood’s longstanding reputation as a destination for all things Shore leisure predates even the creation of America itself. The Delaware Indians, also known as the Lenni Lenape, were the earliest known inhabitants of the island around 1609 – coming to play, fish and relish in the island’s surf. They would refer to the land as “five miles of health and happiness.”

Then in 1717, four investors bought the land, primarily using it for farming and fishing. It wasn’t until the early 1890s when Philip and Latimer Baker (aka the Baker Brothers) bought the land and named it Wildwood due to the island being a wild, overgrown forest. So began the modern development of Wildwood into what it is today.

You’ll often hear of the Wildwoods, plural, as the island is home to four municipalities: North Wildwood, West Wildwood, the City of Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, as well as Diamond Beach (part of Lower Township).

As summer 2023 rolls on, the Wildwoods are again packed with visitors filling the dozens of doo-wop style motels, lounging on the exceedingly wide beaches and strolling the two-and-a-half-mile boardwalk – Jersey’s greatest stretch of planks, with seemingly endless games, food, drinks and a trio of piers delivering thrills to more daring visitors.

Of course, you need more than 24 hours to truly indulge in all that Wildwood has to offer, but hey, it’s a start. So here’s a banner list of the best things to see, do and eat at New Jersey’s island getaway.

Enjoy and watch the tram car, please.

Wildwoods Beach Ball Sign in Wildwood, NJ. (Lauren Musni | NJ Advance Media)

The iconic signs

Whether it’s your first time or 50th time visiting Wildwood, it’s basically town law that you must pose for picture with the Wildwoods beach ball sign. The sign, located at the cross between Ocean Avenue and West Rio Grande Avenue, was installed on the boardwalk in 2007 and has since been an icon for the town — call it the Jersey Shore’s version of the Hollywood sign. This is always my first stop when I visit and this was no different — though these giant signs don’t make for the best selfies!

Welcome to the Wildwoods Sign in Wildwood, NJ. (Lauren Musni | NJ Advance Media)

There’s also a retro “Welcome to the Wildwoods” sign on Rio Grande Ave when you first enter the town. In addition to the sign being built in 2020, the city added new sidewalks and a park. The neon sign may resemble the famous sign in Las Vegas, but it gives a sneak peek into Wildwood’s popular “doo-wop” vibe.

The forget-about-it hot dog with a side of salty balls at Maui’s Dog House in Wildwood, NJ. (Lauren Musni | NJ Advance Media)

Hot dogs, please!

Since 1999, Maui’s Dog House has served the North Wildwood masses with their specialty hot dogs. Maui D’Antuono and his wife, Liz take traditional German franks, mixing beef, pork and veal then combine them with all sorts of toppings. The “forget-about-it” is topped with house-made chili, raw onion, spicy mustard, clumps of cheese a lovely sprinkle of freshly cooked bacon – it was well-spiced, filling — maybe even a work of art as their website claims. I also ate up their salty balls – small potatoes cooked in a brine of salt and spices then served in butter. Celebrity chef Guy Fieri was also a fan when he visited the hot dog house on an episode of “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” Maui’s Dog House also ranked No. 6 on our best hot dogs joints list.

Beer Flight and Pretzel Sticks from Mudhen Brewing Company in Wildwood, NJ. (Lauren Musni | NJ Advance Media)

Flying with the Mudhens

This killer brewery opened in 2018 sits right on the Rio Grande main drag, you can’t miss it heading into town. Sit back and relax with a chilled beer, or maybe a flight? Mudhen Brewing Company is the best brewery in town, pairing a dozen of their on-tap craft beers with a delicious food menu rivaling any eatery in town. The brewery features plenty of open space with their biergarten, patio, upstairs bar, outdoor bar, main dining room and garage bar. If you’re not a beer aficionado, they serve a selection of cocktails, seltzers and wines. Plus, they have an expansive menu of salads, burgers, sandwiches, desserts and more. Their beer flights are exceptional for those who are a little indecisive – like me – to give more than just one beer a try. Their Shorezy beer on tap is a summertime ale that was light and refreshing pairing fabulously with their pretzel sticks.

Mocean Waverunners in Wildwood, NJ.(Lauren Musni | NJ Advance Media)

Skiing across the seas

Wildwood is the Jersey Shore’s ultimate hub for water sports. There’s parasailing, jet skiing, kayaking, water paddling – you name it, the island probably has it. The town maintains several water sport services and equipment rentals like Mocean Waverunners. The jet ski rental company on West Rio Grande Avenue offers rides of up to 80 minutes (prices vary from $70-$125) where guests check-in at their office and are taken by boat to a private three-mile freestyle riding area. I was skeptical at first, assuming we would be riding circles somewhere amid the busy boat traffic. Wrong — I had such a fun time just riding around at my preferred speeds. It was also reassuring that the staff stuck around to make sure everything went smoothly. Drivers must be at least 16 years of age with proof of identification and any driver less than 18 years of age must be have a parent or guardian co-sign. Passengers must be at least 44 inches tall.

Pepperoni Pie from Sam’s Pizza Palace in Wildwood, NJ. (Lauren Musni | NJ Advance Media)

Snack Time

After jet skiing for almost an hour and a half, I was hungry again (a theme on this trip). And what better way to cure that than with pizza? Sam’s Pizza Palace is a Wildwood legend, whipping up its classic pies since 1957. It’s a cash-only restaurant on the boardwalk between Juniper Avenue and Eat 26th Avenue with several tables inside and a little takeout window for easy boardwalk access. Their pepperoni pie had a nice chewy crust with the perfect amount of cheese for the best gooey pull.

Hotel Room at The Shore House in Wildwood, NJ. (Lauren Musni | NJ Advance Media)

Check into hotel

The Shore House, established in 2018 in North Wildwood, was my home for this busy day. The dog-friendly motel is very chic and gives off a luxurious modern feel – contrasting the doo-wop vibe usually associated with dozens of motels in Wildwood. There are more chic spots like this one under construction in Wildwood. They have a lovely heated pool, comfortable lounge chairs, cabanas, and an ocean terrace with fire pits to warm up at night against the shore breeze. Checking-in and out was seamless and can all be done on the phone. The room itself was very clean and had a charming beach house vibe. They even offer free beach gear for guests to use whenever they talk the short five-minute walk to the beach. The most spartan Wildwood motels can get pricey and book up fast – I highly recommend book as far out as possible; snagging rooms now for 2024 isn’t a bad idea.

Fries from Curley’s Fries on the boardwalk in Wildwood, NJ. (Lauren Musni | NJ Advance Media)

Back on the boards

Soon enough I was back on the boardwalk, relishing in more eats and the electrifying scene of carnival games, arcades and amusement parks. For my money, the boardwalk is best in the evening, drawing out the early beach crowd as searing temperatures cool.

Too many cynics assume boardwalk food is overpriced or isn’t worth it. That’s true — if you don’t know where to go. The Wildwood boardwalk is scattered with casual eateries and stands selling quick nibbles, but amid many of the rather forgettable slice shops, plenty of boardwalk gems are hiding. Curley’s serves some of the best crinkle cut fries; delightfully crisp and evenly salted. Douglass Fudge, the oldest family-owned business in Wildwood, is like being in a chocolate factory with what seems like an endless amount of fudge, chocolate, salt water taffy, candies, caramels and much more.

Polish Water Ice on the boardwalk in Wildwood, NJ. (Lauren Musni | NJ Advance Media)

Polish Water Ice & Ice Cream offers the creamiest soft-serve “wahh-der” ice (according to the audio blaring from the stands) I’ve ever tasted that helped me cool down from the summer heat. And no, its not called Italian ice, especially down in Wildwood. The blue raspberry flavor was my favorite. If you’re thirsty, stop by Lime Ricky World and grab an old-school Lime Ricky this freshly-squeezed fizzy lime drink is equal parts sour, sweet and refreshing.

Arcade fun at the boardwalk in Wildwood, NJ. (Lauren Musni | NJ Advance Media)

Fun at the boardwalk

If you’re looking for arcades, go for Mariners Arcade or Ed’s Funcade. Wildwood is also known as the unofficial Skee-Ball capital of the world and hosts the Skee-Ball championships every year. This year’s tournament will be at Ed’s Funcade at their Lincoln Avenue location during Labor Day weekend. Though all the games were a bit challenging, I still went home with a stuffed shark and avocado for my dogs to destroy.

Mariner’s Pier at the boardwalk in Wildwood, NJ. (Lauren Musni | NJ Advance Media)

There are also three piers filled with endless fun — and nausea if you’re lucky — on the boardwalk that are all part of Morey’s Piers. The piers are Surfside Pier, Mariner’s Pier and Adventure Pier with three amusement parks and two water parks among the three.

View of Mariner’s Pier from The Giant Wheel at the boardwalk in Wildwood, NJ.(Lauren Musni | NJ Advance Media)

A breathtaking view

The Giant Wheel at Mariner’s Pier delivers one of the best beach views in Wildwood, but nothing compares to riding this Ferris wheel at night. Once the sun sets, the whole amusement park lights up in the most dazzling way. When you’re at the top, the pier, boardwalk and beach becomes almost cinematic. This breathtaking, panoramic view is a must-see.

A Tram car is driven down the Boardwalk in Wildwood in 2018 (Lori M. Nichols | For NJ Advance Media)

“Watch the tram car, please!”

The famous yellow and blue tramcars have been riding along the Wildwood boardwalk since 1949. It goes all the way from 16th street in North Wildwood to the Wildwood Crest border, which is great since the two-mile boardwalk can do a number on your sandy feet. You can’t walk on the boardwalk without hearing “watch the tram car, please” at least a dozen times. At the end of the night, it was a relaxing ride back to North Wildwood and my hotel. During the summer, the tram car runs 7 days a week from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Friday Morning

North Wildwood Beach (Chris Franklin | For NJ Advance Media)

Finally, a beach day

A trip to Wildwood would not be complete without a glorious beach day. Again, the best thing about all the Wildwood beaches? They’re free. The white sand shore stretches about five miles. North Wildwood beach was my favorite as it was one of the cleaner and more tranquil beaches, which makes sense since it ranked No. 21 on our ranked worst to best New Jersey beaches list. It was the most serene way to start the morning, as the sun wasn’t blazing hot and the beach wasn’t overly crowded.

Hooked on Books in Wildwood, NJ. (Lauren Musni | NJ Advance Media)

A bookstore gem

For 33 years, Hooked on Books has been selling used books and winning multiple awards 2017 Readers Choice Award by readers of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com. There are thousands of books to discover with the shelves overflowing with different reads from much older books mixed with the more modern day pop-culture reads. It just served as a reminder of the value of local bookstores rather than the big-box chain stores like Barnes & Noble. The location is also a smart bit of counter-programming from the heat and bustle of most Wildwood adventures. The bookstore is only open for the summer season from May to September.

Sticky Buns from Britton’s Gourmet Bakery in Wildwood Crest, NJ. (Lauren Musni | NJ Advance Media)

Breakfast pastries to go

I had to grab something sweet before the long drive back home, and the pastries at Britton’s Gourmet Bakery were calling my name. The cash-only bakery displayed all matter of fritters, croissants, doughnuts, cinnamon rolls and the best of them all, sticky buns. I bought a case of six buns with raisins and walnuts, some sfogliatelle (lobster tail pastries), and fruit and cheese filled danishes. The sticky buns were amazingly caramelized, sweet and nutty from the walnuts.

I may or may not have been chewing one as I drove away from Wildwood, my head still spinning as I soldiered back north.

I left feeling almost protective of Wildwood — neighboring Cape May gets so much love every year, makes national “best of” lists for its picturesque Victorian homes and easy, breezy aesthetic. But if you want to have some real fun, Wildwood is teeming with thrills large and small.

Perhaps I was a fool to try and jam-pack the entire experience into one 24-hour trip — you really need the whole summer to experience every inch of this beautiful island.

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Lauren Musni may be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @Laurengmusni. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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