"A Touch of Polynesia on the Jersey Shore"
WILDWOOD, NJ UPDATE
: : Good news tiki fans! Authentic Polynesian pop is still alive and kicking in the Wildwoods! As we reported way back in issue #3 of Mai Tai, these New Jersey shore communities are a haven for leftover 1950s and 1960s tiki-themed motels and other establishments featuring so-called “Doo-Wop” style architecture. Things are so alive and well, in fact, that the plastic palm tree was recently named the official tree of the Wildwoods by former New Jersey governor Christine Whiteman. : :
: : In our report on the Wildwoods three years ago, we (as the Montreal Tiki Appreciation Society) took exception to the efforts of Wildwood’s Doo-Wop Preservation League and its concept of fostering awareness and appreciation of mid-century resort architecture. We had witnessed the fruits of the D.W.P.L.’s labour in Wildwood Crest’s Memory Motel, a renovated abomination fully endorsed by the league. Rather than working to preserve the original, vintage aspects of the building, it was turned into a “Happy Days”-type theme motel featuring rock-n-roll symbolism, including Rolling Stones lips, a John Lennon mural, and other ridiculous elements having absolutely nothing to do with mid-century stylings. Well, three years down the line, maybe it’s safe to say that our criticism of the D.W.P.L. was well-founded. The Memory Motel has been torn down to make way for condos, while all around it, untouched Wildwood Crest originals such as the Kona Kai, Hi-Lili, the Astronaut, the Bonanza, and Casa Bahama not only survive but are still going strong. : :
: : Things are also looking up in the heart of Wildwood, where someone has finally understood what a complete motel overhaul should be. Following in the footsteps of places like Palm Springs’ Orbit Inn, the Starlux opened its doors at the corner of Rio Grande and Atlantic avenues in 2000, going on to win the city’s Beautification Award for that year. It’s renovation done right... painstakingly researched, with completely refurbished or re-created mid-century styles, evident in its lobby furniture, wall coverings, draperies, and lighting. Of course, this effort also means it’s quite expensive (at least when considering Canadian – U.S. exchange rates) to stay there. We therefore opted for more affordable and vintage accommodations, returning to our old haunt, the Kona Kai in Wildwood Crest. : :
: : Under the management of new owners Ralph and Jo Ann who bought the place three years ago, the Kona Kai has also undergone a few renovations that are a step in the right direction. Built in 1962, the Kona Kai has not changed much since it first opened. The Chinese menu font used for the red lettering of its sign remains untouched (and, in the evening, still lights up in beautiful green neon following the contours of each letter). The lobby features a small tiki garden to the left of the front desk and rattan furniture in the sitting area on the right. Though not as overtly “tiki” as some of the Wildwoods’ large Polynesian hotels (such as the Waikiki and the Royal Hawaiian), the Kona Kai and other smaller tiki-themed motels still have a lot going for the average tiki fan. Thankfully, recent renovations at the Kona Kai continue to preserve the motel’s Polynesian Pop elements. : :
: : “First thing I said I was going to do when I bought the place” says owner Ralph, “was to re-wire those torches.” The Kona Kai is the only establishment in the Wildwoods to feature huge tiki torches fueled by natural gas. Ralph lights them in the evenings – two on the roof above the lobby and two jutting out at an angle from the sundeck over the pool – and they are just beautiful to look at as you sit on the balcony in front of your room or as you walk or drive along Ocean Avenue towards the motel. The same care is going into the renovation of the motel rooms. Fresh paint, new rugs, wall coverings, and upholstery are evident but “I could never get rid of my Kona Kai furniture” says Jo Ann. That’s good news for us. Ralph and Jo Ann have also kept the tiki masks hanging on the walls in each of the rooms... wherever possible, since some of the masks have unfortunately been stolen. (Tip to Ralph and Jo Ann: screw those masks to the wall to prevent any further theft or vandalism. Tip to tiki fans visiting the Kona Kai: request a room on the second or third floor, as I believe all of these still have masks... but keep your hands off them!). : :
: : Like some of the masks, the large colorful tikis we saw outside the lobby on our last visit three years ago were, unfortunately, also stolen the year Ralph and Jo Ann bought the place. The good news is that Ralph is looking into having them replaced by a carver who makes his way up the coast every year or two. (Tip to any tiki carvers out there: contact Ralph if you’ve got any 3 to 6 foot tikis to show). The replacement of the outdoor tikis (which will be put into storage during the off-season from now on) is just part of the plan for revamping the area leading to the Kona Kai office. As it exists now (and has existed for quite a number of years), there is a right-veering footbridge leading over a tiki garden (sans tikis for the time being) and into the office. The tiki garden ends at a rock wall which makes up part of the motel’s facade. Already great as it is, this area was actually a pond at one time, and Ralph would like to eventually have it cleaned out and returned to its original glory. Ralph also showed me something that would make it look absolutely amazing: the rock wall was originally built to be a waterfall! And the piping is all still there! I imagine that, once the pond is cleaned out, all that would be needed is a pump to circulate the water. Hopefully, plans for this will be carried through. : :
: : As much as we were enjoying our stay at the Kona Kai, we did also take the time to experience some of the Wildwoods’s other tiki hot-spots. Something we missed on our last trip was North Wildwood’s Hawaiian Rumble Pancake House and Miniature Golf Gourse, featuring the Tiki Ice Cream Parlor. Quite a mouthful, right? Well, the highlight of the place is the mini golf course. There are thatched huts, colorful tikis, and lagoons throughout the course... they even put coloring in the water to make it look extra blue! Unfortunately, there was nothing tiki about the Tiki Ice Cream Parlor (but the ice cream was great). However, the pancake house did have a bamboo-covered counter that would look great as a tiki bar. : :
: : Well, after a week and a half of the beach, the pool, the boardwalk, fireworks (we were in Wildwood during the Fourth of July celebrations) and a lot of good food (including an amazing meal at La Piazza restaurant, where you are guaranteed to feel like you are in a Scorcese movie) it was our last evening at the Kona Kai. Ralph had promised me something special. As dusk began to fall, there was a knock at the door and I opened it to find Ralph standing there with a lighter and a long stick. Yes, on my last night, I had the honor of lighting the Kona Kai torches. Silly I know, but what a thrill it was and what a perfect way to end a great vacation. : :
UPDATE: SAD NEWS - Monday, january 9, 2006
For those who have not yet read my "Tears and Zoning in New Jersey" article, here's proof of the destruction and loss of many of the Wildwoods' mid-century motels, as our beloved Kona Kai (Mai Tai's home base in the Wildwoods) went down earlier this week (photo from the online edition of the Wildwood Reporter)... It looks like someone saved the neon sign, at least.
Kona Kai Family Motel
7300 Ocean Ave. & Orchid Rd.
Wildwood Crest, NJ 08260
Hawaiian Rumble Pancake House
Surf Ave., between 24th and 25th
North Wildwood, NJ
Corner of Pacific and Roberts
John Trivisonno © 2002
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