August 24, 2001

Vacation 2001: West Meets East

horoscopeWe’ve just returned from an East Coast summer institution and I have been baptized in the waters of Wildwood, New Jersey! Our family’s first vacation at the New Jersey shore.

The Shore: one of the first differences I noted about East and West Coast summer rituals. Oh, people here often call it “the beach” but “the shore” has a long standing tradition. It’s an event imbued with 19th century gentility: one of escaping the oppressive heat of New York, Philadelphia or the swampland called Washington, DC. People around here will tell you they’re going “down the ocean” (said in my best “Bal’mor” accent). In LA we simply wanted to catch the best wave we could find.

After three days and four nights of in depth observation, here, in a nutshell, are my side-by-side comparisons between West and East Coast beach experiences. Of course, the biggest difference for me was getting used to the sun rising over the ocean, not setting.

You wake up in the morning and decide to go to the beach. You wake up in the morning and decide to go to the beach in 9 months. You start looking for a hotel. But you may be too late.
Everyone looks like they just got back from a casting call for Baywatch. Everyone looks like they just got back from a casting call for The Sopranos.
Tattoos look freshly made last June. Tattoos look freshly made in June 1950.
Young waiters speak to you with Valley girl and dude accents. Young waiters speak to you with East European accents.
Long hair flows down people’s backs. Long hair flows on people’s backs.
You hear Blink 182 on boom boxes. You hear Robert Goulette on hotel loudspeakers.
Everyone’s single or trying to look that way. Families, families, families. Often multigenerational (nice to see).

Whereas Cape May, a few miles to the south, is full of beautiful Victorian B & B’s. The Wildwoods (Wildwood Crest, Wildwood, and North Wildwood) are full of 50s motels. The Star Dust, the Fleur de Lis, the Hawaii Kai, the Athens, and the Pyramid are but a few of the white-washed, mildly themed motor inns with brightly colored doors, fake palm trees (where can we get a pair of these for our front lawn?), all tinted pale swimming pool aqua. At night the neon is better than Las Vegas and much more real.

We stayed at the Bal Harbour Hotels in Wildwood Crest. Why it’s plural is beyond me. It’s just one hotel. It looked more like vintage 1970s but it was right on the beach. This was my wife’s family tradition, since she was a girl: first in a rented house a few blocks from the shore (10 closely-packed relatives and one bathroom), then the migration to the Bal Harbour a few years later.

But the thing that most sets both coastal beaches apart are the boardwalks of the East. It feels like very little has changed in the last 50 years. The amusement rides are no longer rickety wood structures (the prices are decidedly 21st century though) and the booths waft with the sounds of Britney Spears instead of Rosemary Clooney. But it still has that edgy, forbidden feel: you know, like your dad would give you a good smack if he caught you there.

There’s nothing that comes close on the beaches of the West anymore. POP (Pacific Ocean Park), my haunt of youth, right on the border between Venice and Santa Monica beaches, was bulldozed decades ago. And high-rise condos hide any evidence it ever existed.

Since The Beach is a multiple day adventure here in the East, the boardwalk is the perfect diversion after a day on the sand. Dusk is the best time to arrive. It feels seedier as the sun goes down. And I can sense my dad’s presence glaring down at me just over my shoulder.

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