Explore the country’s Original Seaside Resort
By B.C. Rausch
Make all the jokes you want about New Jersey: There’s nothing not to like about Cape May. Situated at the southernmost tip of the Garden State, this charming, historic town is situated where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean and is one of the country’s oldest vacation resort destinations. Its population of 3,500 swells in summer to as many as 50,000, yet it always remains a prime example of small-town America, complete with tree-canopied streets and Victorian architecture.
If you are driving in, take the Garden State Parkway until it ends. The Delaware River and Bay Authority operates the Cape May-Lewes Ferry year-round, carrying passengers and cars for an 85-minute ride across Delaware Bay. The Cape May Welcome Center is located in the ferry terminal. And in the summer a free trolley makes loops through town.
Settled by Colonial-era whalers and fishermen, Cape May has been a favored destination of vacationers since before the Revolutionary War. In 1878 Cape May City nearly burned to the ground; its reconstruction includes a collection of Victorian-era gingerbread homes and buildings like no other in America, which led to its designation as a National Historic Landmark City in 1976. Don’t miss the historic Cape May Lighthouse, built in 1859, on the National Register of Historic Places, and still in operation today. The 199 steps to the top, and the resulting views, are well worth the climb.
Special events cover the local calendar, including the annual Exit Zero Jazz Festival (May) and Cape May Music Festival (May and June). Scores of live theater performances and concerts are on throughout the summer, and regular attractions like The Harriet Tubman Museum are numerous.
And then there are the beaches. Travel Channel cited Cape May as one of America’s top-10 beaches and among the best on the Mid-Atlantic coast. When walking the sand, particularly Sunset Beach, look for “Cape May diamonds,” beautiful clear-quartz pebbles. Collecting “diamonds” — actually pieces of rock containing prismatic quartz that washed 200 miles downstream in the Delaware River — is a popular pastime. Many tourist shops sell them, but what’s the fun in that?
Another natural phenomenon to watch for is the incredible influx of migrating birds. More than 400 bird species have been recorded here, the narrow peninsula at the tip of the cape acting as a “bird funnel,” bringing in songbirds during their spring and fall migrations. It’s even given its name to one of the visitors, the Cape May warbler, a small songbird noted for its distinctive chestnut cheek patch and yellow collar with black streaks. The Cape May Bird Observatory, located at Cape May Point, is a leader in research, environmental education, and recreational bird watching.
Not to be outdone by our feathered friends, whales and dolphins are frequent visitors to Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, many coming within 10 miles of the shore due to the confluence of fresh and saltwater that creates a nutrient-rich area for marine life.
All this outdoor activity and fresh sea air are bound to work up an appetite. Here are some notable restaurants to put on your list.
Beach Plum Farm Kitchen is a 62-acre working farm and restaurant close to historic downtown and offers farm-to-table fare for breakfast and lunch. The farm grows 100 kinds of fruits and vegetables in addition to herbs, chickens and eggs. Dining is al fresco under patio umbrellas among acres of farmland.
Another unique venue is Exit Zero Filling Station, a relaxed restaurant that doubles as a publishing company and store. A retro, gas-station-themed eatery with a laid-back vibe, there’s a choice of dining indoors, outside around the gas stop, even in an old Airstream trailer. Popular starters include mega tots, crispy wings and unicorn salad. Extra hungry? Try the Bollywood burger (burger with crispy onion, pickled peppers, curried mayo and mango chutney) or the ultimate lobster/shrimp mac-and-cheese (wild-caught Canadian lobster, Baja wild shrimp and a three-cheese sauce). For dog lovers there’s a canine menu that features a pup patty and a hot diggity dog.
More casual, seaside fare can be found at the restaurants on Schellenger’s Landing at the base of the canal bridge (where commercial fishing boats come into Cape May Harbor), along the beach front and into West Cape May.
For upscale dining, 410 Bank Street, located in Carpenter’s Square Mall, specializes in Creole and Caribbean dishes. The Blue Pig Tavern, a refined American restaurant in Congress Hall, serves gourmet meals in a stately, historic setting: Among its favorites are Cape May clam chowder, congressional Caesar salad, crab-stuffed sea scallops and vanilla bean crème brûlée.
Lodging options span from historic hotels to bed-and-breakfast inns and guest houses, as well as resort hotels, homes and condo rentals. Prices vary with the season, amenities offered and, of course, proximity to the beach.
Some local recommendations include Southern Mansion (a restored home now operating as an inn), Congress Hall Hotel (in the center of Cape May), the Angel of the Sea (which has been awarded and lauded for its extensive, multi-year restoration) and, with a more modern look, La Mer Beachfront Resort.
If you’re still seeking action, cross the canal bridge to find amusement parks in the Wildwoods, or take a 45-minute drive to Atlantic City’s casinos. But if it’s beauty and serenity you’re looking for, Cape May is ready and waiting, as it has been for 250 years.
Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport (SAV) to Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR)
Duration: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Airline: Allegiant, United
Recommended rental: BMW 5 Series (Sixt)
Drive to Cape May: 2 hours, 31 minutes
Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport (SAV) to Philadelphia International Airport (PHL)
Duration: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Recommended Rental: Audi Q7 (Enterprise)
Drive to Cape May: 1 hour, 41 minutes