At the Caribbean Motel, doo-wop the night away

In the Doo Wop Motel District of Wildwood, New Jersey, the Caribbean is a time machine to 1957, complete with neon signs and fake palm trees.
In the Doo Wop Motel District of Wildwood, New Jersey, the Caribbean is a time machine to 1957, complete with neon signs and fake palm trees. THE WASHINGTON POST

At the Caribbean Motel, I patted the top of my head, wishing for a pair of cat-eye sunglasses to slip on. The stylish accessory would have matched the 1950s decor perfectly. Plus, the dark lenses would have protected my peepers from the blinding colors and patterns in my room. Based on empirical evidence, staring too long at avocado-green walls can cause tear ducts to leak.

The motel in Wildwood, on the Jersey Shore, is one of the items preserved in the beach town’s living time capsule. The Doo Wop Motel District, a two-mile stretch between Atlantic and Ocean avenues, is neon-lit with more than 50 motels — including the Caribbean — dating from the era of drive-ins, bobby socks and skyscraper-high hairstyles.

Built in 1957, the motel was an original cast member as well as a trendsetter. It introduced the landscaping practice of “planting” plastic palm trees (species: Palmus plasticus) around the pool, an idea the neighbors borrowed. In 2005, the National Register of Historic Places added the property to its esteemed roster.

To love the Caribbean (and its kitsch) is to understand the Caribbean.

According to the National Park Service, which oversees the register, the motel was an important witness to the growth spurt of beachy tourism in New Jersey. In addition, it displays significant design elements that characterize the mid-century resort motel style. (Yes, that really is an architectural genre.)

“We want to enable the guest to go back in time to a period that most of us have fond memories of, because of the music, the designs or the use of materials like plastic,” said George Miller, who co-owns the motel with his partner, Carolyn Emigh.

At the check-in station, a cube of glass with a high counter, the clerk handed me two keys on green plastic fobs. He informed me of coffee service in the morning and provided directions to the boardwalk, two blocks north and a half-block toward the ocean. Then he drew down his lids like heavy curtains.

The two-story building accommodates 30 guest rooms, including five with Modern line furniture sets by Heywood-Wakefield, an American manufacturer that collectors covet. My ground-level room was within watermelon seed-spitting distance of the crescent-shaped pool. The swimming area was empty except for two giggly girls who dared one another to take a dip in the cool night air. Though the pool is heated, neither took the bait and instead fake-baked beneath the moonless sky.

Inside my room, a riot of colors hit me like a giant piñata: an olive-green table, a lemon-curd-yellow dresser, turquoise-blue chairs, a mint-green ceiling and Astroturf-inspired carpeting. But the decor didn’t stop at the bold palette. This room had moxie, kid, and expressed it through texture (stucco, grass cloth, tongue-and-groove pine wood panels), patterns (striped comforters, animal-print stool) and fake vegetation (a pair of wood-cut palm trees pinned to the back wall).

Across from the Venetian pink and Ming green bathroom, the pocket-size kitchen was more college dorm than Cleaver house. It came with a microwave, a mini-fridge, a coffeepot, a two-burner stove and a full complement of daintily flowered dishware. If so inclined, I had all the equipment I needed to whip up a retro meal: Swanson TV dinner, Jell-O mold and cup of Ovaltine.

While preparing supper, I found myself humming an Elvis Presley song. I tried to think back to where I might have picked up the ear worm — in the car, on the pier, inside the arcade? I shushed my inner voice and heard the answer: The King was in my room. The motel was piping in jukebox tunes via satellite radio. Sock hop in Room 102!

In the morning, I woke to the Sounds of the Caribbean (motel edition). A guest shuffling past my window, gripping a giant mug for his morning fill. Some folks sprawled on pool chairs, yammering about their day’s plans. Palm fronds crinkling in the breeze.

For a jolt of cardio, I climbed the curved ramp to the cabana, which resembled a wing of Judy Jetson’s Orbit High School. I stood on the sun deck and looked down at the timeless scene below. No matter the decade, kids will always splash in the pool, and parents will always tell them to knock it off.

▪ Caribbean Motel: 5600 Ocean Ave., Wildwood Crest, New Jersey; 609-522-8292; Rates from $79. Closed for the season; reopens April 24.