“Down the Shore” in Cape May, New JerseySeptember 10, 2010 2 Comments
I may be a California girl now, but my heart will always belong to the Jersey shore.
From the time my eldest son Tristan was a baby, traveling to the southernmost tip of New Jersey for our annual family beach vacation has been a tradition that we never missed–until this summer, since we moved across the country to “beautiful downtown Burbank,” as Johnny Carson used to describe it.
Cape May, for those not in the know, is America’s oldest seaside resort town. It is a picturesque city from another time, chock-full of gorgeous Victorian architecture, hotels and houses (many private residences; many converted to bed-and-breakfasts). In fact, the entire town is on the National Register of Historic Places. In the 1960′s and ’70, not too many people cared about the notion of historic preservation, and many of the beautiful turn-of-the-century homes and hotels, built by Philadelphia’s wealthy, were being torn down to make room for modern motels. Thankfully, much of the original charm has been preserved and renovated, and Cape May now bustles with tourists in the summer.
On our first trip we unfortunately chose to stay at an inexpensive motel called the Driftwood, which, with its painted cement-block walls, had all the charm of a jail cell. Not to mention our room was on the third floor, there were no elevators, and I was 8 months pregnant with our second son, Ben. Ugh.
After our Driftwood experience, we opted to rent houses–and we never looked back. Should you decide to do so, your options will be many, according to what you’d like to spend. There are campgrounds, bed-and-breakfast inns (extremely popular but perhaps not recommended for those with very small children), hotels and motels, and houses. For me, hands down, a house rental is best for families. Many houses will come equipped with cribs and linens; if not, they can be rented. We’ve stayed in everything from a tiny one-bedroom my husband dubbed “the bomb shelter,” to a large three-bedroom traditional with a huge front porch. For the last several years, we rented a not-too-fancy but very comfortable (and reasonably priced) ranch-style house with a small deck, barbeque grill and fenced-in yard on Sixth St. in West Cape May. We rented there every summer from the time our youngest, Will, was three months old until he was six–so it truly did feel like our home away from home. In fact, we were hard-pressed to explain to the children that we did not, in fact, actually own the place!
Locals know the beaches by such names as the Cove, Sunset Beach, the Point (where the Cape May Point State Park and Lighthouse are located) and Poverty Beach. You will need beach tags (seasonal tags cost $25; weekly, $15; and daily, $5) and they will need to be prominently displayed. Those beach-tag folks (you’ll encounter them entering the beaches, sitting under their red umbrellas) seem to take their job pretty seriously!
It’s advisable that you get to the beach by 10 a.m. if you have to drive to it; parking (most of which is metered) will be in short supply thereafter. We tended to like the Cove beach the best, since it was close enough to whichever rental we were staying at that we could take the boys home for a nap in the afternoon. (What do you mean, sleep on the beach? My kids NEVER slept on the beach. If yours do, more power to you. That means you don’t have to leave and fight for parking again later!) Also, there tend to be tide pools on the beach at low tide, which are wonderful for babies and toddlers to splash around in. Set your beach chairs up right next to them and you can actually relax for a while and not have to worry about anyone drowning. Also, there’s a casual restaurant (also called The Cove–what else??) right there, beachfront, which you can walk into in your bare feet.
A word of advice if you’ve packed your lunch–I wouldn’t let your kids feed the seagulls. Not only will you get dirty looks from your neighbor on the next beach blanket over, but the gulls will dive down like a B-52 and pluck your sandwich or ice-cream cone right out of your hand. I highly recommend eating under your beach umbrella, or at least holding your food close to your chest in squirrel-like fashion!
We always make time for a trip to our dearly loved lighthouse, located in Cape May Point State Park. Built in 1859,Cape May Light is 157 ft. 6 inches tall, 199 steps from top to bottom. My son Ben, who has been obsessed with lighthouses ever since, first climbed it as a 2-year-old, refusing to hold anyone’s hand. The kid wasn’t even potty-trained yet, but he made it to the top on his own. Go figure.
Once you make it to the top, you will oooh and aaaah at some spectacular 360-degree views; once you make it back down to the bottom, be sure to check out the gift shop. An array of lighthouse-themed tchotchkes from Christmas ornaments to playing cards is available. We had to buy the shirts that read “I CLIMBED THE LIGHTHOUSE” for each of the kids.
The Cape May Zoo (707 N. Rte. 9, Cape May Court House; (609) 465-5271) is a great choice for one of those overcast, oh-no-we-hope-it-won’t rain days when you don’t want to chance going to the beach, but still need something to do with the kids lest you go stir-crazy in your motel room. The park is clean, spacious, filled with beautiful flora and fauna, and entrance is FREE (though they do accept donations). It’s not too big, so it’s completely doable in an afternoon. Exciting new additions, born at the zoo this spring, are two very rare snow leopard cubs, Sabu and Kaba. They will kill you–with cuteness.
The Washington Street Mall is another option for a day when you’d like to do something besides go to the beach. It’s three blocks of restaurants and retail shops ranging from chic little boutiques to (you guessed it) toy stores to souvenier shops peddling “I Love Cape May” T-shirts and painted shell figurines with googly-eyes. Since it’s outdoors, It’s can be hot and humid during the day in summer, but evenings will become extremely crowded, so it’s a toss-up. My favorite store there has to be the Whale’s Tale (312 Washington St.), which carries all manner of things from toys to stationery to jewelry. The Ugly Mug (426 Washington St.) has been there forever and is a great choice for a quick and casual family lunch outdoors (plus is a great chance to people-watch). And don’t miss Laura’s, famous for its fudge, saltwater taffy and especially the chocolate-dipped strawberries–I’d fight a crowd for those anyday!!
You can take a ride on a bicycle built for two–or four, or six, for that matter. Local bike rental places offer covered red-and-white canopied surreys that can be pedaled by adults while kids can sit in the front basket and enjoy the ride. My husband and I did this when our two oldest boys were toddlers and I honestly have to say–it wasn’t as relaxing an experience as it looks!! We worked HARD! So, if that’s not your bag (you ARE on vacation, after all), you might want to opt for one of the horse-drawn hansom cab rides, where for about $25 you and the fam can sit back and tour Victorian Cape May while your driver regales you with tales of the town’s history and architecture. The kids will also enjoy petting the horse. Much more relaxing than the bike, in my opinion.
Where to go for dinner? It’s the most difficult decision I like to have to make while on vacay. Top-notch dining abounds in Cape May–restaurants including the Peter Shields Inn, Union Park, 410 Bank Street, and La Verandah all offer an elegant, upscale dining experience and suberb chefs. My hands-down favorite, however, has got to be the Black Duck on Sunset (corner of Sunset and Broadway, West Cape May). You may want to leave the kids at home and save this place for a date night if you are so lucky (if you’ve brought a grandparent or babysitter with you). The Black Duck, heavy on Asian fusion dishes, is truly special and never disappoints. It’s cool, casual, yet sophisticated. I love the minimalist decor (everything is white and clean and has a breezy feel inside), and the snug rooms inside a beachy-gray, traditional clapboard house with a charming flower-covered front porch.
If you’re going for something a bit more casual and family-oriented (and of course you are or you wouldn’t be reading this), consider Lucky Bones (1200 Rte. 109 South, Cape May–standard American fare), Godmother’s (Broadway and Perry, West Cape May–Italian), or one of our time-honored favorites, the Lobster House (Fisherman’s Wharf, Rte. 109–super-fresh seafood, natch!).
For after-dinner entertainment with tykes, there’s miniature golf, movies, and the Cape May Promenade. Like a small boardwalk, this strip of elevated asphalt runs along Beach Drive, and comprises retail shops, more restaurants and AN ARCADE, where we always drop a chunk of change! An absolute must-do every year for us is a stop at Morrow’s Nut House (722 Beach Drive), where we load up on fudge, nuts and various candies by the pound to nosh on all week. Kids’ favorites include gummy sharks, Lego candy bricks and chocolate-covered pretzels–the possibilities are practically endless.
I must admit it was a rather strange summer this year, not driving “down the shore.” We did miss the time-honored traditions I’ve described. But we’ve had a chance to explore some of Southern California’s world-famous beaches, including Venice, Redondo Beach, and Point Dume. You know, I think maybe it’s time to start a new tradition!