Garden State Bliss

Cape May’s Beauty and the Beach Dazzles New Jersey’s Southern Shore

By April Bartel | Posted on 07.25.14 – Destinations, Travel

New Jersey has made a mark with reality TV, but fuggedaboudit! Sure, you can find wild fun in Atlantic City and creative cakes in Hoboken, but Cape May is the essence of coastal allure—white sand, leaping dolphins and grand Victorian “painted ladies” are the reality here.

Cape May is one of the nation’s oldest seaside resorts. The entire town is a National Historic Landmark, boasting more than 600 Victorian wooden structures (circa 1850-1910). Visitors and locals agree, the community merges architectural beauty and historic charm with small town atmosphere. For more than a century, pilgrims seeking rejuvenation have come to doff their shoes at beach’s edge and breathe a long sigh of relief. Rimmed with miles of public shoreline, walk-able shopping areas and hundreds of accommodation options that range from quaint to modern, it’s no surprise that Cape May remains a top tourism destination for all seasons.

Getting there is half the fun, according to travelers who opt for the popular ferry ride between Lewes, Del., near Cape Henlopen State Park, and Cape May. Riders can drive, bike or walk onto the ferry, cutting out hours of traffic around the Delaware Bay. (Bring ID.) Instead of gripping the wheel in gridlock, passengers load onto one of four fleet vessels for a 17-mile, 85-minute journey. There’s a snack shop, bar and small arcade on board, with seating inside and on deck. Fares range from $10 for adults to $45 for car and driver during peak season in July and August when reservations are most recommended. Each ferry can carry 1,000 passengers and 100 cars.

GETTING THERE IS HALF THE FUN, ACCORDING TO TRAVELERS WHO OPT FOR THE POPULAR FERRY RIDE BETWEEN LEWES, DEL., NEAR CAPE HENLOPEN STATE PARK, AND CAPE MAY, N.J.

On-ship programs offer welcome diversions. Mid-summer brings live music and drink specials on “Rock the Boat” Friday and “Tropical Tuesday” evenings. Families aren’t forgotten either. The Nature Center of Cape May hosts live animal programs spotlighting local birds, fish and marine life, while the ferry mascot, Lighthouse Pete the Pirate, leads kids’ activities. As passengers relax, the route slips past historic lighthouses, picturesque harbors and oceangoing vessels, while often sighting dolphins or whales. The Cape May-Lewes Ferry connects points like Wildwood, Stone Harbor, Avalon and the rest of the Jersey Shore with Rehoboth Beach, Bethany Beach, Fenwick Island, and Ocean City, Md. So, it’s easy to add a day trip in either direction.

There are packages with roundtrip voyages and trolley or walking tours. On the Delaware side, visitors can check out the Cannonball House or the Zwaanendael Museum for maritime artifacts and recovered “treasures” from the bay. Cycle enthusiasts can roll along the six-mile Junction and Breakwater Trail, a former rail line connecting Lewes and Rehoboth Beach. And retail therapy is readily available at the Tanger Outlets.

A SHORE THING

In Cape May, the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities (MAC) is a hub of activity. The not for-profit organization promotes the preservation, interpretation and cultural enrichment of the Cape May region. It offers a full roster of tours and events to satisfy just about any age group or interest. For $10, you can rent an Acoustiguide unit to hit the highlights of 96 landmarks at your own pace; while $15 uncorks a mini wine trail to Natali and Hawk Haven Vineyards, plus the new Cape May Brewing Company. (The $65 version includes brunch/lunch and transportation from the Emlen Physick Estate, a Victorian house museum that also hosts family events such as the Princesses & Pirates Luncheon.) MAC trolley and self-guided tours are an engaging experience covering everything from paranormal happenings to insights about local architecture or the area’s role in American military history.

MAC TROLLEY AND SELF-GUIDED TOURS ARE AN ENGAGING EXPERIENCE, COVERING EVERYTHING FROM PARANORMAL HAPPENINGS TO INSIGHTS ABOUT LOCAL ARCHITECTURE.

Military buffs can scope out the WWII Lookout Tower and the Artillery Bunker. There’s even a sunken concrete ship at Sunset Beach. The experimental S.S. Atlantus was built for World War I but sank in 1926 off Cape May entertainment and craft vendors. Parking is free. To see things in a different light, time your visit for a Full Moon Climb up its 199 stairs to the stars.

The Historic Cold Springs Village reaches further back in time. This “homespun” hands-on history site has 26 restored buildings and an organic farm that offers a peak into life in the early 1800s. Or jump ahead to the mid-20th century and revel in “Googie” design/style at the Doo Wop Museum in nearby Wildwood. Morey’s Piers, an oceanfront amusement park, operates in Wildwood as well.

But what is a beach vacation without a little sand and surf? There is no shortage of that here. Even while summer crowds surge like high tide, the views are breathtaking. Parasailers glide overhead as beachcombers scour the ground for interesting shells and sparkling Cape May “diamonds.” Summer Thursday evenings mean movies on the beach. (Aug. 7 is Jaws, just for fun.) Beach tags ($6 entry fees for 12- adult) are required between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Pets, alcohol and fires are not allowed, but coolers with food and drink, umbrellas, chairs and tents are welcome. Bathing suits are required! The beach runs parallel to the aptly named Beach Avenue.

Throughout the years, Cape May’s breathtaking scenery and diversionary variety leaves most visitors struggling to find a high enough superlative. So, this old tourist town seems to be doing something right. Whether you load your schedule with new experiences or spend all day on the beach, Cape May will make a lasting impression. Just don’t forget the sunscreen.