By Laura Adams Boycourt
It’s true that the Maryland-DC-Northern Virginia region is chock-full of getaways that check the boxes for an easy, but delightful trip, but there’s another destination just to the northeast that offers visitors just as much thanks to its lengthy list of amenities and convenient location: Cape May, New Jersey.
A CAPE MAY PRIMER
Situated at the southern tip of the Garden State, the Cape is just northeast of Lewes, Delaware, separated by the confluence of the Delaware River and the Atlantic Ocean. The peninsula includes Cape May Point, West Cape May, and the oceanfront portion of the town, where a multitude of beachfront resorts, restaurants, and charming historic Victorian lodging establishments can be found. Continue north along the coast from Cape May and you’ll find the towns and beaches of Wildwood, Avalon, Atlantic City, and Lavalette.
Cape May was established after colonists purchased land in the region from the Lenni-Lenape Native American tribe, when the area became known as Cape Island. Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, visitors from East Coast cities flocked to the seaside town for its appealing and relaxing nature and the entertainment it offered. Although several fires and a major storm temporarily set back development, the city persevered and continued to make its mark as a prime resort destination, and kept its Victorian seaside charm.
These days, the Cape May Lighthouse, stunning Victorian bed and breakfasts, and countless seaside attractions have cemented the Cape as a perennial favorite for both city dwellers and suburbanites from states near and far.
HOW TO GET THERE
There are a few ways to get there, each no more than three and a half hours or so (traffic dependent) from the Annapolis area.
US-301 North and 95 will get you up to the Cape relatively easily. Depending on your route, you’ll likely traverse the Bay Bridge, Delaware-Memorial Bridge, and the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey. Things become pretty local (easier) once you edge closer to the peninsula and Cape May.
A personal favorite route (actually, the only way I have ever arrived in Cape May) is to drive to Lewes and take the Lewes-Cape May Ferry. It doesn’t add much time to your total trip, and it’s completely worth every extra minute of travel.
After booking a ferry ride online and with your reservation receipt in hand, head over to Lewes and the ferry terminal. (Arrive on the early side so you can park and head into the terminal to eat and check out the views). You’ll be directed to a spot in a lane/queue, where you’ll park and then drive on to the ferry.
Clocking in at under an hour and a half, the 17-mile ride across the Delaware River is relaxing and exciting. Sit inside, enjoy a treat from the snack bar, and look out the panoramic windows, or head out to one of the decks and seating areas available to passengers. Time passes quickly when you’re scanning the water for dolphins or looking for other wildlife and vessels on the river. Once the ferry is on its approach to the Cape May terminal, passengers will be alerted and asked to return to their vehicles. Welcome to Cape May. Visit cmlf.com to learn more about the ferry experience.
WHERE TO STAY
Accommodations on the Cape are diverse. You’ll find a mix of beachy hotels, and cozy inns. Though the stars are the ornate Victorian bed-and-breakfasts.
With its striking white columns and yellow facades, Congress Hall evokes the past but offers all the amenities of the present. The hotel, built in 1816, boasts charming rooms, an outdoor pool, gift shop, restaurants and bars on the premises, and loads of charm. This writer’s personal favorite, Congress Hall really has something for everyone; from kids having a ball in the pool to older families and friends enjoying a drink at dusk before heading out on the town, it’s a great option for all ages.
If rocking chairs on the porch, a delightful breakfast, and stepping back in time is your style, a stay at the Queen Victoria might just leave you and the family feeling like royalty from days gone by. The multi-building “campus” is an example of quintessential Victorian architecture, and the period wallpaper, elegant furnishings, and easy walk to the beach (just a block!) make for a luxurious seaside experience.
Sandpiper Beach Club, the Angel of the Sea Bed and Breakfast, and the Inn of Cape May are other favorites for beachgoers.
WHAT TO DO
Sand and Sun
A trip to the beach is more or less a requirement during a trip to Cape May. Whether your outing calls for some light beach chair reading, building sandcastles, or cooling off in the Atlantic, there’s nothing like ocean views in one direction and stunning Victorian architecture in the other. Be sure to bring your sunscreen and your beach tag; the latter is required Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day (some lodgings provide tags, and they’re also available at beach entrances and the city tag office)
It’s All Fun and Games
The young and young at heart will love the challenge of the midway games at the Family Fun Arcade, right on the boardwalk. Afterward, test your putting skill at Ocean Putt Golf or Cape May Miniature Golf.
Take a Ride
Many hotels offer bikes for guests to enjoy. Pedal alongside the ocean on the concrete boardwalk, or map out the route to the Cape May Lighthouse and get lost exploring along the way. The beautiful side roads are worth it!
The Cape May Lighthouse
Not afraid of heights? Get your steps in with a trip to the top of the lighthouse. The structure, built in 1859, offers unbelievable views and a postcard-perfect photo-op.
Walk through the Washington Street (pedestrian) Mall to find a charming souvenir in one of the many gift shops. There are plenty of restaurants, coffee shops (may I recommend Magic Brain Cafe?), and small stores on the mall or nearby.
Stop for a Drink
If a nice white or red sounds good, the Cape May Winery, Willow Creek Winery, and Turdo Vineyards and Winery are all within walking, biking, or (designated) driving distance from the beach. Fancy a brew instead? Check out the Cape May Brewing Co., Cold Spring Brewery, or Gusto Brewing Company for a cold one.
WHERE TO EAT
Cape May is teeming with dining options. From the casual beachside hangouts and elegant establishments and everything in between, there’s no shortage of delicious food to suit every taste. Here are a few favorites.
The Mad Batter Restaurant & Bar: Great seafood, salads, and live music.
Uncle Bill’s Pancake House: Pancakes, pancakes, pancakes. And don’t forget the eggs and bacon.
The Rusty Nail: At this beachy restaurant and bar (named one of Travel & Leisure’s Top 10 Beach Bars), you can roll in sandy from the day’s oceanside fun to enjoy fish tacos and a frosty drink.
The Pier House, Washington Inn, Freda’s Café, and the Lobster House are all other popular options.
And there you have it. Something for everyone. As you set your sights on planning this summer’s family fun, be sure to keep Cape May in mind. You’ll be glad you did.
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As of this writing, here are some tips you should know about what’s open in Cape May. Your best bet for local updates and openings is at their site for visitors.
Cape May-Lewes Ferry—Is up and running, though reservations are currently required, and the ferry is operating at a reduced schedule. Passenger decks have been closed this spring, though may change at any moment. At the terminal, social distancing efforts are underway.
Hotels—As of June 1, hotels and motels in the city of Cape May are allowed to open at 60% capacity.
Restaurants—At the time of this writing, restaurants in Cape May are only open for take-out or curbside pickup.
Beaches—Cape May beaches are open for exercise, and as of Memorial Day Weekend, open for sunbathing as well. But please be aware to keep your distance from other beach-goers.
Swimming has prohibited until May 30th when it will be reevaluated. Check CapeMayStrong.org for updates.
Cape May Promenade—The promenade offers 1.3 miles of ocean-front views and fresh air. Please use a face covering and practice social distancing while walking on the promenade. No biking, gathering, or dogs.
Around Town—Cape May offers amazing views along almost every street, with its Victorian homes and hotels. Please wear masks, practice social distancing, and stay on the sidewalks while out.
Biking—Check CapeMayStrong.org for a .pdf biking tour around town, highlighting 50 historic landmarks along the way.
Interested in Visiting Cape May, but not quite ready to travel? Understandable. Here are some virtual ways to learn more about the town, and perhaps book your next daytrip or vacation there.
Tales of the Victorians—This virtual weekly short story reading series from East Lynne Theater that will be available on their YouTube Channel every Thursday.
Virtual Lighthouse Tour
Take a virtual tour of the 157-foot tall Cape May Lighthouse, which is the third documented lighthouse at the southern tip of New Jersey. The light has been inoperation as an aid-to-navigation for mariners and attraction for visitors since it was built in 1859. More than 2.5 million visitors have climbed the lighthouse since it opened to the public in 1988.