Escape To Cape May

A Low-Key, Small Town with Pristine Beaches

I have always been a Cape May person. Since I was in high school, Exit 0 on New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway has been No. 1 in my heart.

Growing up in central Pennsylvania, we went “down the shore” to New Jersey. Yes, I have cherished my time with my Maryland-born husband’s family downy ocean in Ocean City, Maryland, but, for me, the Victorian seaside gem that is Cape May is hard to beat. No high-rises, multilane highway or senior week shenanigans, just a quaint, low-key, small town with pristine beaches. And it has more than enough places to enjoy my favorite vacation activity: breakfast out with a hot cup of coffee and carbs slathered in syrup.

My family spent a week in Cape May each year, and I worked there for a summer in college. I got fired from the Mad Batter, a great restaurant still worth the wait for breakfast, lunch or dinner, but please go easy on your server if she can’t remember all the specials. I spent the rest of the summer making hoagies—Jersey-speak for a submarine sandwich—for lifeguards on lunch breaks at a dive across from the beach. Even as a college gal, Cape May’s many charms were not lost on me, even after the lunch crowd went back to their chairs.

Known for its beauty and history—in 1976, the entire city was named a National Historic Landmark—Cape May lays claim to the best walks I’ve ever taken. The Victorian houses are beautiful and strolling along the oceanside of Beach Drive—Wildwood has a boardwalk; Cape May has a promenade—is wonderful, early morning, high noon or late night. Bed-and-breakfasts, guest and rental houses and resort hotels offer plenty of lodging choices, and everything is walkable (or bikeable or carriage rideable).

The beaches require a beach tag for anyone over 12; they can be purchased at any beach entrance – a nuance or nuisance, depending on your beach background, but you have a swell souvenir of your trip. Poverty Beach is less crowded than the other beaches, and cabanas at Cape May’s beaches add to the charm. The biggest crowds at the beach, though, are for Hot Dog Tommy’s, a hot dog stand off the beach. Lines form around the block for his wide selection of dogs and creative toppings (including the hot dog hat worn by the owner), slushies and such.

As it’s been for decades, foodies flock to Cape May’s excellent restaurants and eateries from the classic Lobster House to the Congress Hotel’s farm-to-table Ebbitt Room or Blue Pig Tavern. The Chalfonte Hotel, Cape May’s oldest original hotel, serves Southern-style fare in the gracious Magnolia Room Restaurant, and its Kind Edward Bar has been a favorite for generations—and got a big portion of my paycheck back in the day. Thirsty travelers also may patronize the Cape May Brewery and Cape May Winery. At the Ugly Mug Bar, you can soak in the bar’s sudsy history. Dozens of mugs hang from the ceiling, property of Ugly Mug Club members. The mugs of deceased members face the ocean, and on the last Sunday in August, living members gather to compete in the U.S. National Froth Blowing Competition.

Boutiques, galleries and quirky stores are on the pedestrian Washington Street Mall or sprinkled through town. (Don’t miss the home accessories at the West End Garage.) Play Skee-Ball in the arcade on the promenade or mini-golf, whale and dolphin watch, rent a sea kayak, go antiquing, take a ghost trolley tour, fish, bike or just walk the streets and wave to people on their porches. They’ll wave back, I promise.

Cape May Bird Observatory and Cape May Point State Park are great places to bird-watch in what is one of the world’s best-known flyways. One of my favorite things to do then and now is to bike or drive to Sunset Beach at Cape May Point, 4 miles from town. There, among the smooth pebbles on the beach, people hunt for Cape May “diamonds” or quartz crystals that wash ashore. Eat at the Red Store or Sunset Beach Grill and be sure to stay for the sunset flag ceremony.

Whether your visit is for the day, weekend or longer, chances are that they’ll be an Exit 0 sticker on your car before you cross the bridge to the Garden State Parkway.

For all the details, visit CapeMay.com.