As I finished off an afternoon breakfast at the Apollo Diner in Wildwood, N.J., where the owner -- his gold wristwatch strapped over his sweat shirt sleeve -- sat at the counter telling war stories to an indulgent staff, the waitress began tallying up my check. As she tore it off the pad, she shrugged and said, "It's on the house." Before I even had time to express sufficient incredulity, she smiled and said, "April fool's."
It is the kind of joke -- well-worn, a bit tacky, brimming with unironic conviviality -- that seems just at home in Wildwood, a resort town near the southern end of the Jersey shore. Wildwood's heyday was in the late 1950s, that halcyon age when America hummed with postwar consumer confidence and unprecedented amounts of leisure, and the town has spent the past few decades trying to recapture its former glory -- without much success. Wedged somewhere between Atlantic City and Cape May, Wildwood has seen much of its trade diverge to the high-rise profit palaces of the former and the twee bed-and-breakfasts of the latter.
Yet it is precisely this half-abandonment that has made Wildwood so remarkable. Driving down the town's Ocean Avenue on a Saturday afternoon, still a couple of weeks before the season's opening, I felt as if I had stumbled into some mothballed corner of 1950s America, a playground of Naugahyde and Necco-wafer colors that was simply lacking a Latin soundtrack from Juan Garcia Esquivel and a pitcherful of martinis to complete its transformation to swinging, lounge-culture theme park. For lining both sides of the streets over the course of perhaps a dozen blocks is a collection of motels that can make the visitor believe, if only for a moment, that Americans have yet to orbit Earth and Hawaii is still a recent addition to the Union.
Their names suggest nautical themes (the Ebb Tide, the Jolly Roger), or refer to other geographic locales (the Alps, the Royal Canadian, the Casa Bahama), or to the early optimism of jet travel and space exploration (the Astronaut, the Satellite, the Pan Am), and there are more than 100 such motels in Wildwood, themselves mementos from an age when mom-and-pop operators were the dominant economic force in the motel industry, when a red neon "No Vacancy" sign was the only technology on hand, when the car was so revered that nothing seemed more contemporary than to be able to pull up right to the lobby and then to drive to one's room. Architecturally, the motels reflect the wedding of high European modernism, with its geometric rationality, to the gaudy colors, iconic signage and exaggerated shapes of the early 1960s suburban strip.
With most of the motels still closed for the season, my girlfriend and I spent a few hours wandering in what seemed like a museum of mid-century modernism, American-style. This sort of architecture is termed "Googie" on the West Coast, after a chain of L.A. diners, or, more generically, "populuxe" or "coffee shop modern." Here they call it "Doo-Wop," but it's essentially the same. At the Caribbean (the neon sign dots the "i" with a star), I walked up the AstroTurfed circular ramp to the second floor, where the windows of the rooms that face the ocean jut out as if about to be launched; I half expected to interrupt a fashion shoot for that bible of design-as-nonstop-lifestyle, Wallpaper magazine. I gazed up at the spires of the Singapore, at the non-spinning Space Age globe atop the Pan Am, through the glass-walled coffee shops that sat like dormant animals awaiting the reawakening of spring. I watched green plastic palm fronds blowing in the breeze in front of a yellow motel with matching pink curtains. The trees, I noticed, were bolted to the sidewalk.
In a few weeks, Wildwood would begin again to entertain its faithful; in the early spring, however, it sat eerily quiet and gray, the riotous pastels and outlandish signage clamoring to no one in particular. In the afternoon, I wandered toward Wildwood's amusement park on the boardwalk, where only a handful of "99 cent" stores and hot dog stands were yet open. The Wildwood boardwalk is a brash honky-tonk that makes the motels look austere by comparison; it too, however, seems anachronistic in an age of entertainment-conglomerate amusement parks. One sign advertised saltwater taffy "cut to fit the mouth," while another, for Wildwood's aquarium, promised the chance to "have your picture taken with a 16-foot albino Burmese python." Odds are that, on this boardwalk, that is not the strangest photo opportunity you are likely to find.
At night, my girlfriend and I returned to our hotel, the Waikiki. Along with the Royal Hawaiian and the Kona Kai, the hotel harks back to the novelty of what was then a brand-new state. With green lighting cast against fake rock walls and thatched huts near a pale blue pool, hotels such as the Waikiki fed the same hunger for ersatz entertainment as the casinos of Las Vegas and the castles of Disneyland. Like the newly emerging medium of television, they offered a whiff of the exotic to travelers for whom the Jersey shore was as far as they were likely to go.
Wildwood is not for everyone: There are no aromatherapeutic spas, no concierges and none of the Victorian frippery found in Cape May. The rooms at the Waikiki, with the televisions chained to the wall and the plastic cups (wrapped with a label that says "Sparkling Clean" in a 1950s font) in the bathroom, are strictly utilitarian, if clean and cheap. But if you have a yen for vernacular architecture, or a love of streamlined diners and the visual motifs of "The Jetsons," go to Wildwood to catch a fading glimpse of what the American Dream used to look like.
Travel Advisory: The Waikiki Oceanfront Inn is at 6211 Ocean Ave., Wildwood Crest, N.J.; 800-622-5642, www.waikikiinn.com. Room rates range from $62 for an off-season motel room to $190 for a high-season oceanfront suite.