An Insider’s Guide to Cape May, New Jersey
- New Jersey
A unique gem among New Jersey’s beach towns
Not many places can list U.S. presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Harrison among their distinguished guests, but Cape May, often cited as the country’s first seaside resort, is unique among the beach towns on New Jersey’s 204 kilometers of coast.
With the country’s largest concentration of Victorian architecture — some 600 restored structures — the whole town is a National Historic Landmark.
Eighteenth century pirates and smugglers favored Cape May with frequent visits and, some say, with buried treasure. And for the past two centuries, bird lovers have convened for the spring and fall flyovers of thousands of raptors, songbirds and waterbirds.
Located 156 kilometers from Philadelphia International Airport, Cape May is busy year-round with tours, concerts, theater and culinary events. Rent a bike and pick up a tour booklet at the Washington Street Mall information booth. With descriptions and photos of more than 50 historic properties, it can also be used as a walking tour guide.
What to See and Do
For a snapshot of life among the Victorian elite, take a trolley tour that visits the Victorian house museum at the Emlen Physick Estate. This candy box example of “Stick Style” architecture has hooded dormer windows and massive upside-down chimneys. As plenty of ghosts are said to reside in Cape May, some of the tours include re-enactments of the spiritualist séances.
By the light of a full moon, climb the 199 steps of the 1859 Cape May Point Lighthouse in Cape May Point State Park for views of the coastline. If watching birds is more your style, visit during May. Each year the World Series of Birding has participants trying to identify the most species within a 24-hour period.
Around 600 restored Victorian structures can be found in Cape May.
What to Do Outdoors
Sandy beaches and a lively Atlantic surf invite you to swim or rent a surfboard to challenge the waves. For heart-pumping fun, parasail over the beachfront or ride a jet boat. You can also climb aboard the Cape May Whale Watcher to look for dolphins and whales, or take a kayak or paddleboard nature tour through the inland salt marshes.
From kayaking to whale watching to lounging on the beach, you’ll have many options to play outdoors.
Where to Stay
Lodging in the area blends history and modern comfort. The 1879 Virginia Hotel offers period charm, excellent service and private beach tents for ocean-side lounging. The Peter Shields Inn, a 1907 Georgian Revival mansion with a glorious front porch and a fine-dining restaurant, provides a luxurious bed-and-breakfast experience.
What to Eat
Fresh seafood and classic regional dishes are the stars on local restaurant menus. Crustaceans are served with waterfront views at The Lobster House, and cocktails can be enjoyed aboard a 130-foot-long schooner docked outside.
Expect fresh ingredients as well as gluten-free and vegetarian dishes at the farm-to-dining Ebbitt Room at the Virginia Hotel. The Red Store serves refined dishes like artisanal bread with white truffle oil and Cape May sea salt to please palates.
Restaurants such as The Lobster House come with excellent views.
What to See Beyond Cape May
Drive 16 kilometers north to Wildwood, which had its heyday when Elvis Presley was “King” and cars sported big tail fins. Today in Wildwood, you can enjoy a beach and a 3.2-kilometer boardwalk with three amusement piers and 100 rides, including heart-stopping roller coasters, a giant wheel and a waterpark.
At the 1950s-style Doo Wop Diner on the boardwalk, sample the unofficial state food, the pork roll, an addictive, processed and smoked pork product made with a mix of spices, salt, a sugar cure and preservatives. It dates back more than 150 years and is found on the menu of almost every New Jersey diner.