But then, friends of ours bought a house in Wildwood. For me, it was love at first sight. The beach was huge, and my parents agreed that, at 12, I was old enough - and it was safe enough - to go to the boardwalk with my brother and friends. Little by little, from that first trip for a hot dog, I got to go with my cousin, Katrina. We could take our $5 and play games, go on rides, do a little shopping, whatever tickled our fancy. We had to be back by a certain time, of course, but it was a chance to start venturing out on our own. Right there on the Wildwood boardwalk.
In 1973, New Jersey lowered the legal drinking age to 18, but the law's effect wasn't felt right away. By the end of the '70s, though, Wildwood was just, well, Wild. And it stayed that way through the '80s, despite a 1983 law setting the state drinking age back to 21.
During those Wild years and after my college graduation in the '80s, I would go to Atlantic City. Gambling had arrived by then, and casinos offered glitz and glamour to my young-adult friends and me. The Boardwalk and the beaches, especially from just above Bally's to Caesars, were great for people-watching. (Yes, the shells could be annoying at the water's edge, but once past them, the ocean was fine.)
A.C. always had good restaurants and lodging to fit all budgets. And the beach down by the Tropicana, at the southern end of town, is one of the most beautiful I've seen in New Jersey. There were some adult-only sights when the sun set, but children weren't around.
After I became a mother, I found that I'd missed a few things in Atlantic City. There's Ripley's Believe It or Not, exciting and terrifying for all ages at once. And down the Boardwalk is the Rainforest Cafe, a must-visit spot for kids. There's still an amusement pier on the Boardwalk. Now, the Pier Shops at Caesars has an illuminated water show; Boardwalk Hall has a light show. The Atlantic City Aquarium in Gardner's Basin is a fun afternoon, and it's right near Crafters Village.
While I was rediscovering Atlantic City, the Wildwoods were busy. When I was invited down there this spring to see that the Shore is open for business after Hurricane Sandy, I was pleasantly surprised.
My jaw dropped when I went over the bridge and saw the Wawa. Then, the TD Bank sign. I was excited by the pretty town, which felt like a resort. Gone were the ticky-tacky houses with "Rooms for Rent." In place of fleabags were condos, bungalows, hotels, and motels, some in doo-wop style. And it was clean.
The Wildwoods - Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, and North Wildwood - have retaken their place among the best beaches around. With alcohol mostly gone and under control, the boardwalk has been turned around and is host to water parks, amusement piers, even Morey's Piers' new artBox artist colony. The tram car rolls along the boards to give visitors a lift, and there are plans to extend the scenic Wildwood Crest bike path. Add jet skiing, parasailing, surfing, and speedboat rentals.
When the sun goes down, watch a movie on the beach behind the Wildwoods Convention Center. And not too far from there, on Ocean Avenue, is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a permanent, half-sized replica of the official memorial in Washington. It lists all 58,913 names of the soldiers killed during the war.
For those who want to get their drink on after the beach and boardwalk, maybe dance a little, there are nightclubs, comedy clubs, deck lounges, and sports bars.
On a recent visit to the Wildwood boardwalk, I saw families with three generations, older couples, young couples, teenagers, and parents with toddlers, all having a good time.
It's back to the Wildwood of my youth. And it's just in time for my 111/2-year-old daughter and her bff to start venturing out a bit.
Contact travel editor Philippa J. Chaplin at email@example.com.