I’m a professional travel journalist, but the coronavirus pandemic has definitely curtailed my wanderlust. After the lockdowns began in my home of New York City (the one-time COVID epicenter), I canceled all my future trips and carefully sheltered in place for months on end. But after quarantine measures began to lift this summer, my family and I started to open up to the idea of taking a vacation.
On the one hand, I am acutely aware of the risks of traveling during the pandemic—for myself and for the communities you visit—but on the other hand, there’s a way to travel safely and responsibly. So in mid-August, after avoiding travel for pleasure’s sake for many months and confident that my family was healthy, we cautiously booked a weekend trip to The Wildwoods, an island made up of funky little beach towns on the southern end of the Jersey Shore.
Two years ago, my family and I had traveled to The Wildwoods and loved its mix of family-friendly activities (buzzing boardwalk, amusement rides), its affordable motels and its wide beach. I was interested to see what it would be like to return during the pandemic, especially given that the area’s popularity is on the rise. Booking.com just named Wildwood Crest—a town in The Wildwoods—one of the many lesser-known destinations that have risen in search ranks year over year on the travel site.
This time, we made sure to book a hotel that carefully outlined its COVID procedures and chose restaurants with safety measures in place. And while we were nervous about the idea of visiting an amusement park during the pandemic, we were impressed with the precautions being taken at Morey’s Piers. We also felt reassured to know that the island’s municipalities, businesses and attractions have been implementing intensive measures to protect visitors and employees, from sanitizing protocols to social distancing procedures.
Back in the 1950’s, The Wildwoods became so popular that it was nicknamed “Little Las Vegas” and motels sprang up all over the area with futuristic mid-century Doo-Wop architecture. When we arrived, we were struck by how The Wildwoods had amped up its Doo-Wop design sensibility since our previous visit. Just over the bridge that leads into the area, there’s a massive space-age sign welcoming visitors, a Wawa convenience store with an atomic-era look and a new McDonald’s with massive swooping arches reminiscent of the brand’s original design.
The next impression was less positive. As we passed a brewpub, we were surprised to see a number of people waiting for tables outside, very few wearing masks. As we got closer to our hotel, we spotted a big group clustered around an open-air bar listening to a band. Again, masks were in short supply. Social distancing? Not so much. As someone who is used to seeing almost 100% mask compliance in New York City, I was surprised.
But when we got to the Daytona Inn & Suites, a retro-chic hotel conveniently located just a block from the boardwalk, we were relieved to see the staff in masks, as well as signs instructing guests to wear masks in common areas. There would be no housekeeping during our stay, but the hotel told us they would be delivering a bag of fresh towels and amenities (coffee pods, extra toilet paper rolls) each morning.
The Daytona had a classic 1950’s motel vibe, but our sparkling-clean one-bedroom suite was thoroughly modern, complete with a kitchenette. The room overlooked one of the hotel’s two pools, which were surrounded by faux palm trees (and where we planned to spend some quality time over the weekend).
After settling in, we made our way to Joe’s Fish Co., an open-air seafood restaurant on the boardwalk that we fell in love with two years ago. This time, the tables were more spread out, the staff was wearing masks and the bartender was even wearing a face shield. We used a QR code to read the menu on our phones and enjoyed a delicious—and safe—meal of house-made crab cakes and other seafood dishes.
The next morning, we headed to the Doo Wop Diner, an old-school boardwalk spot that serves hearty breakfast eats (Oreo pancakes, a kitchen-sink omelet) and diner classics (foot-long hot dogs, Southern fried chicken, about a million kinds of burgers). Again, the restaurant had safety measures in place, with only a few distanced tables outside and a digital menu powered by a QR code. Guests were instructed to keep six feet apart while waiting in line and to wear masks until they got to their table. Staffers were wearing face coverings that perfectly complemented their sassy vintage outfits. It was like a flashback to The Wildwoods’ 1950’s heyday (minus the masks, that is).
The boardwalk itself was another story. While there’s a mandatory mask requirement and the town even employs boardwalk ambassadors to remind visitors about mask wearing and social distancing, I’d estimate that about 1 in 20 visitors wore a mask. (Ironically, masks were the hot souvenir in many of the gift stores along the boardwalk.) Luckily, it was easy to social distance from the other mask-less visitors in the open-air environment.
Another way to further distance yourself is to rent bikes and surreys from a shop like Green’s and ride up and down the boardwalk. Or you can head to the beach, which is absolutely massive, stretching for five miles along the coast and giving beachgoers plenty of room to spread out.
The boardwalk is also home to Morey’s Piers, an amusement park with hundreds of rides scattered across six beachfront blocks. Morey’s has taken great strides to protect its guests and staff, from reducing capacity to encouraging social distancing while waiting in line for rides. In order to get onto Morey’s amusement-lined piers, we had to pass through a new entrance. Masks were required—and everyone there was 100% in compliance, even on the rides. My family and I were happy to enjoy a balanced mix of safety and fun while checking out the classics, from tea cups to coasters.
That night, we dined at the Surfing Pig, an open-air restaurant hidden away in a marina in North Wildwood that’s known for its barbecue and seafood. With its tables under a tent and on a wooden deck overlooking the water, it’s like a cross between Key West and the Bahamas. As we had experienced in other parts of The Wildwoods, the staff was wearing masks and kept guests’ safety top of mind. We dined on blackened fish bites (Cajun-seasoned mako), pan-seared sea scallops and a heaping BBQ platter of ribs, brisket and pulled pork. A musician strummed reggae tunes as we watched the sun dip into the ocean.
Despite seeing visitors without masks on Wildwood’s boardwalk and in town, it all added up to a relaxed weekend escape that was, ultimately, safe and stress-free. And for a couple of days, the pandemic felt very far away indeed.
Note: Coronavirus has interrupted travel on a global scale. Should you decide to plan a trip anywhere during the pandemic, you should check local travel restrictions for the destination you are hoping to visit, consider warnings from the State Department and CDC and be prepared for quarantines or restrictions that could make travel challenging. Travelers should also consider risk factors like age and existing health issues before going on a trip and take precautions to keep themselves and others safe. For New Jersey state specific information, visit the official New Jersey COVID-19 Information Hub.
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