Before we get into just some of the many things to do in Cape May, NJ, first let’s set the record straight. You know the standard comeback line, “You’re from New Jersey, what exit?” It’s funny because it’s true – the Garden State Parkway travels the length of the state, and many of its residents only know of towns by their exits, all 172 of them. As a proud resident of Exit 25 during my formative years, I want to say this: The New Jersey that bears the brunt of every TV show joke and Springsteen ballad is located roughly at Exit 100 and above. It’s down in the low 20s where six of the top 10 beaches in New Jersey can be found, and life gets just a little bit slower, sweeter, and better-smelling. And down at the very bottom, at Exit 0, is the jewel of New Jersey – Cape May.
The cool thing about Cape May is that it’s not just about summertime fun – the city has worked hard for decades to develop it into a year-round destination, and that work has paid off in spades. Any trip to the Eastern Seaboard should include Cape May; and for those of you located anywhere between DC and New York, it should go on your list of weekend getaways pronto.
1. Hop on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry
OK, it sounds weird that the first thing to do in Cape May is to leave it – but the ferry not only provides a wonderful day trip to tax-free outlets in the “first city in the first state,” Lewes, DE; for locals and visitors alike, a trip on the ferry is an event in and of itself. Get a combo ticket to take the shuttle bus that stops in downtown Lewes and the Tanger Outlets, as well as on a continuous loop around downtown Cape May.
2. Spend the day at the Cape May Lighthouse
You may think that it would take five minutes to look at a lighthouse and then call it a day – but the lighthouse, which is still in use, is simply one of a number of things to do in Cape May Point State Park. There are hiking trails, guided nature walks and birding tours, picnic areas and more. The park is also a stop on the migratory route of the Monarch butterfly, so in late summer it’s a riot of color and movement.
3. Enjoy Cape May’s beaches
There are few better ways to spend a summer day than soaking up the sun on the beaches of Cape May. But my dad would be severely disappointed if I didn’t mention that Cape May beaches also have top-notch surf fishing – Poverty Beach and the Cape May Point jetty are his favorite spots.
And it’s not only a daytime activity; during the summer there are outdoor showings of classic films on the beach near Convention Hall starting at 8:30 pm, and in October the city hosts a nighttime star-gazing event – FYI, bring your own flashlight.
4. Tour Cape May’s historic Victorian homes
The famed Victorian homes of Cape May weren’t always popular – in fact, for many years they fell into disrepair. But these homes have since helped make the entire city of Cape May a National Historic Landmark. They were built almost entirely en masse since the famous, massive fire of 1878 razed a huge section of the city, and are now meticulously maintained reminders of a point in our nation’s architectural and cultural history.
The interior of the Emlen Physick Estate is open all year round, and there are guided tours, self-guided audio tours, and even a trolley tour of all of Cape May’s “painted ladies.” At Christmas time, people come from far and near to tour the neighborhoods at night and see the gorgeous light displays. And in October the city hosts “Victorian Week,” celebrating the fashion, culture and even the cuisine of the Victorian era.
5. Get married
Did you know that Cape May is one of the top three wedding destinations in the country? Strange as that may seem, it’s true – and the city rises to the occasion, with plenty of assistance in the way of arranging for a beach ceremony, a Victorian-themed wedding or the best spots are for your wedding photos. And east coasters, consider this – because Cape May Point is a peninsula, your early evening ceremony can feature the sun dipping into the sea on Sunset Beach!
Spontaneously romantic types can even propose during a walk on the beach after finding Cape May “diamonds” – quartz crystal pebbles that wash up on the shore after traveling down the Delaware River.
6. Chow down
Cape May has become quite the foodie destination, attracting some seriously talented chefs and featuring ridiculously fresh, locally caught seafood. The Lobster House at Cape May Harbor is a longtime favorite – waterfront dining and an outstanding raw bar are just two of the reasons why. Other consistently delicious places include 410 Bank Street, The Ebbitt Room and Pier House Restaurant for American cuisine, Washington Inn for a touch of French and George’s Place for Greek delights.
7. Watch for whales and dolphins
Whale watching – it’s not just for New Englanders anymore. Whale watching and dolphin spotting is a popular local activity, and the Cape May Whale Watcher even offers evening dinner cruises!
8. Get your wine on at Cape May’s vineyards
The climate and terrain of the Cape May area are ideal for growing wine grapes, and the local vineyards are New Jersey’s best-kept secret. The Cape May Winery & Vineyard offers tours that include food and wine sampling. (http://www.capemaywinery.com/) And Natali Vineyards, with its “by hand from vine to wine” philosophy, has a grape harvest party each October where the community is invited to help pick each year’s crop as well as areas to lay out a picnic after a tour or for a wine tasting. And as I write this, my parents and their friends are attending Natali’s Oktoberfest event, with free tours, tastings, sangria and food prepared by local chefs.
9. Shop ‘til you drop on the Washington Street Mall
The use of the word “Mall” in this district’s name is more like the Mall in Washington, DC than s shopping mall – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fire up the credit card anyway. The city closed off the Washington Street Mall back in the 1970s, so the brightly painted, cedar shingle, privately-owned shops are enjoyed by pedestrians only. And at night you have your pick of hip cocktail bars, homey pubs and other evening entertainment for couples and families alike.
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