Historic Beach Town
Cape May, at the southern tip of New Jersey, is the most popular stop in the state for boaters cruising from New England south to the Chesapeake Bay or beyond. Recreational boaters will find plenty to see and do here, but it’s important to stay alert when coming into Cape May from the Atlantic, especially during summer weekends, when the boat traffic can range from hectic to downright insane. The Cape May ferries alone make multiple approaches daily, carrying more than 350,000 vehicles and more than a million people every year.
Interestingly, the town of Cape May is the exact opposite of this hectic scene. You won’t fi nd high-rises or wall-to-wall shopping malls after you tie up and meander ashore. Instead, you’ll encounter buildings such as Congress Hall, whose canary yellow bricks date back to 1816. Cape May is also famous for its “Painted Ladies,” the gingerbread-trimmed Victorian houses that line the shady streets and encourage gawkers with their bold paint and detailing. Forget about Hiltons and Hyatts if you need a night ashore. All you will find here are bed and breakfasts—and good ones, too. There are more than 40 bed-and-breakfast inns to choose among, some with just a few rooms and some offering several dozen rooms and suites. Most of the inns are converted mansions and homes from the late 1700s to early 1900s, boasting spectacular architecture in the Victorian, Edwardian, and Carpenter Gothic styles.
Cape May’s quiet charm is the ying to the yang of the neighboring Wildwoods, which comprise the cities of Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, and North Wildwood. As with so many New Jersey stops, the Wildwoods offer a beach and amusement-fi lled boardwalk full of blinking lights, buzzers, and sirens. There are water parks here, too, with slides and rides that leave adults and children alike screaming with delight. What’s different about this particular boardwalk on the New Jersey shore is that the Art Deco styling remains loud and proud from the 1950s. Should you meander along the beach and its offshoot streets, you’ll see that Wildwood’s motels are practically a living monument to an era that made them so popular with tourists during the postwar years. About a dozen motels and inns still offer rooms for less than $100 per night, allowing you to save your change for the arcade games along the beachfront.
Things to See and Do
For such a small town, Cape May boasts a long list of activities. Museums, bicycling, carriage rides, birding, golfing, ghost tours, parasailing, spas, tennis, town tours, theater, vineyard visits—you name it. Space it all out with a little lounging at Cape May’s world-class beaches.
The source for sightseeing is the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (800-275-4278), offering a wide array of events including a tour of the Emlen Physick Estate, a grand gem built in 1879 by Philadelphia architect Frank Furness, who also had a lovely garden. The “Cape May by Moonlight” trolley starts in the evening and entertains riders with stories of Victorian romance, which come to life in the shadows of local homes and mansions that were built during the same time period. The “Ghosts of Cape May Trolley Tour” narrates the writings of famed local ghost writer Craig Mc-Manus (who also markets himself as a medium and “ghost investigator,” should you be in the market for paranormal services). Tickets are available at the Washington Street mall information desk across the street from the trolleys. Or step a little farther back in time and imagine the trek from Philadelphia in the 18th century with a horse-drawn buggy tour. Pint-sized crew members will love the Cape May Kids’ Playhouse, found inside the Convention Hall right on the beach. Inside, you can watch puppet shows and jugglers, listen to storytellers, join sing-alongs, and more every Monday and Thursday in July and August. There are nearly a dozen more tours and events for children in town, as well as facilities that cater to kids. Check out the Cape May County Park and Zoo (609-465-5271), where the free admission includes unlimited train and carousel rides, or the Nature Center of Cape May (609-898-8848), which uses the harbor as a “natural classroom” for all kinds of activities, environmental classes, and natural history programs. Options can include lessons in crabbing, local birds, butterflies, kayaking, fishing, and beachcombing.
Tour the town by pedaling a bicycle, or get the whole crew aboard a multi-passenger surrey. There are several places that rent bikes, including Cape Island Bicycles (609-884-8011). Play some miniature golf, shop for souvenirs and antiques, or roam the boutiques at Washington Street pedestrian mall. Paddle around on a guided kayak tour from Miss Chris Marina (609-884-3351) or rent your own kayak for some independent exploration. They’re located at the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center (609-898-0055). While you’re there, go on an informative and exciting dolphin- and whale-watching cruise. Looking for something out of the ordinary? The Haunted Cape May Tour (609-884-4202) fits that bill, as does a trip to the Victorian Psychic Boutique (609-898-7752) in the heart of the harbor district.
Cape May is world-renowned for its birds, both indigenous and migratory, and their numbers explode during the horseshoe crab mating season in late spring. Call the birding hotline (609-898-2473) to hear what species have been spotted recently and where, or visit the Cape May Bird Observatory (609-884-2736) on East Lake Drive. At the Audubon Center for Research and Education, there is a model backyard habitat filled with hummingbirds. Climb the 199 steps of the 157-foot high Cape May Point Lighthouse (609-884-8656) built in 1859 for a bird’s-eye view of the area, or meander around the adjacent grounds of Cape May Point State Park, which has clearly marked walking trails from one-half to two miles long.
Worth a short ride, Historic Cold Spring Village (609-898-2300) plays the past out before your eyes among 30 acres of 19th-century buildings. Actors in period dress portray the professions of the era: blacksmiths, schoolmarms, innkeepers and homemakers. In the height of summer there are free concerts on Saturday evenings, and the children’s activity area offers a chance for wee ones to try on costumes, play period games, and participate in hands-on arts and crafts. The bike path will take you right to the village, which is typically closed on Mondays during the summer season. West Cape May has its own share of things to do, and for one weekend in October at Wilbraham Park there is the annual Lima Bean Festival. South Jersey may be known for its tomatoes and blueberries, but landlocked West Cape May is the “Lima Bean Capital of the World.” More than 50 vendors offer regional crafts, as well as a talent show and live country music. (Sure, you might have guessed about the lima bean chili, but have you ever seen lima bean earrings?) You can also check out Goldbeaten Alley, once part of the gold industry. This is where gold-beaters, mostly local women,
pounded gold strips into leaf that was sold to people employed in the decorative arts.
If the kids are still full of energy, get a lift up to Wildwood a few miles to the north. The atmosphere jumps from the 1800s to the 1950s, with doo-wop style motels and boardwalk amusements stretching for miles. You can cruise here from the ICW, but entering from the inlet is challenging without local knowledge, and the marina area is several miles from the beach and boardwalk—so a cab from Cape May is probably just as easy and economical for a daytrip, in terms of both time and money.
Morey’s Piers (609-522-3900) is the king of beachside entertainment with seven roller coasters twisting, turning, and dipping above all manner of spinning, whirling, and whizzing. Morey’s also has Go-Karts, racecars, and other go-fast rides that you can control yourself. If the surf thrills you, try out the water parks, such as Splash Zone (609-729-5600), which has kid- and adult-size rides to keep the entire family entertained. You’ll also fi nd no shortage of miniature golf courses here; Duffer’s (609-729-1817) offers 18 holes along with an arcade of games, meals from breakfast straight through dinner, and homemade ice cream treats that are available well into the night. Wind down your evening with a sunset stroll along the beachside promenade, where you can make frequent pit stops for penny candy, fudge or ice cream.
Where to Dine
Dining in Cape May is one of the best parts of any visit, though picking from a list of restaurants is often a hard decision and you’ll find everything from hot wings to chateaubriand available. Here are a few recommendations to make your decision a little bit easier.
Located in the heart of the HistoricDistrict, this family-owned restaurant is known for its gracious dining, providing for a comfortable atmosphere. (801 Washington Street, 609-884-5697, http://www.washingtoninn.com/)
The Ebbitt Room
The critically acclaimed restaurant is located in the Virginia Hotel and serves original American cuisine and fresh seafood. (25 Jackson Street, 800-732-4236, http://www.virginiahotel.com/ebbitt.html)
410 Bank Street
Considered one of the top restaurants in America, people come from all over just to eat here. The incredible Caribbean inspired menu helps to mix fine dining with the fun, tropical atmosphere. (410 Bank Street, 609-884-2127, http://frescoscapemay.com/410bankstreet.html)
Located just next door to 410 Bank Street, Frescos serves fine Italian cuisine and dock-fresh seafood that has won many awards. Be sure to call ahead and reserve the Osso-Bucco before it’s sold out! (412 Bank Street, 609.884.0366, http://frescoscapemay.com/)
Known for its amazing raw bar, dock side tables and the picturesque dining rooms overlooking the harbor, this restaurant is perfect for a casual dinner with your family and friends. Also, be sure check out their fish market, which offers the largest selection of freshly caught seafood around. (906 Schellengers Landing Road, 609-884-8296, http://www.thelobsterhouse.com/)
Lucky Bones Backwater Grille
Lucky Bones is a great lunch spot known for its brick oven pizza, homemade guacamole and nachos. This restaurant captures the laid-back spirit of Cape May and has something for everyone. (1200 Route #109, 609-884-BONE, http://www.luckybonesgrille.com/index.html)
The C-View Inn is a popular spot for locals and tourists. They serve great pub-style food, but expect a short wait since they do not take reservations. (1380 Washington Street, 609-884-4712)
The Ugly Mug is known for its great food, live music and, most importantly, the hundreds of mugs hanging from the ceiling (which all belong to members of the Ugly Mug Club). Open for lunch and dinner, this unique tavern is a Cape May must. (426 Washington St, 609-884-3459)
Navigation and Anchorages
Cape May Inlet is one of the safer inlets along the New Jersey Coast. Pick up R “2CM” Fl R 2.5s BELL southeast of the inlet
and head through the jetties between Fl R 4s 25ft 6M “4” and Fl G 4s 20ft 6M “5.” You can also use the range lights to
guide you in. While the inlet is deep and protected by breakwaters, occasionally the wind and tide conspire to produce the “inlet effect,” a disturbing chop in the area around the breakwaters and reaching out a considerable distance.
Once past Sewell Point, the inlet’s channel intercepts the ICW at Q R 16ft “4.” Leave this mark to the north and head
west if you are aiming for Cape May Harbor or head northeast up the ICW.
Cape May Harbor is an important port for those heading to Delaware Bay and for those coming in from sea. It’s the
last convenient refueling and provisioning stop until the C & D Canal and an excellent refuge during poor weather. The
harbor itself is fairly shallow, so stick to the channel. You can anchor south of the channel, east and west of the Coast
Guard Station, but keep an eye on your depth sounder.
Excellent facilities, including Utsch’s Marina (609-884-2051) and Canyon Club Marina (609-884-0199), can be
found at the mouth of Cape May Canal, along the harbor’s western shore. Adjacent Schellenger Creek, at the head of
the harbor, is home to South Jersey Marina (609-884-2400), which is the best bet for boats requiring a deeper
draft. Enter the creek between G “1” and R “2.” A fairly swift current in the creek can make for challenging approaches
to the dock.
Cape May Canal
If you would like to avoid an offshore approach to Delaware Bay from the Atlantic, as well numerous shoaling areas off of Cape May Point, then the recommended route to Delaware.
Bay is through the Cape May Canal. The Cape May Canal was dug during World War II as a place to escape from German U-boats and to avoid rounding the exposed cape into Delaware Bay. The minimum controlling depth is 6’ and vessels with drafts in excess of 4’ should use caution and be on the lookout for shallow spots even within the marked channel. Vessels traveling with the current have the right of way, except for small pleasure craft that must yield to the commercial vessels. It is best to travel on a favorable tide, since the current can reach as much as three knots. During an ebb tide the current is heading east, and during a flood the current will be heading west. Sailing is forbidden, and anchoring is not allowed.
Entering the canal from Cape May Harbor, you’ll pass under a fixed bridge with 55 feet of vertical clearance. The railroad swing bridge is less than a mile farther along and is usually open.
A third bridge, fixed with 55 feet of vertical clearance, is directly west of the railroad bridge.
At the western end of the canal, on the north bank, you’ll find the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. There is a 5 mph speed limit when passing the terminal.
Unless you are already on the ICW, the closest entrance to Wildwood is Hereford Inlet, which, frankly, is best left to those with local knowledge. It’s not protected by jetties, so the buoys shift frequently—so frequently that they are not charted. The only way to tell if the inlet has become completely impassable is if the buoys are removed altogether. That’s a day-to-day decision, which is again why this inlet is best reserved for those with local knowledge.
Having said that, if you choose to mind your depthsounder and brave the entrance, you can access the Wildwoods by turning south and joining the Intracoastal Waterway at Grassy Sound Channel. It leads to Grassy Sound proper, which abuts the southern side of Wildwood.
Plan to stop at Schooner Island Marina (609-729-8900), where they have so much to offer you and your boat, you may not want to head to the beach at all.
Shoreside and Emergency Services
Coast Guard: Sector Delaware Bay 215-271-4800 or VHF 16
Police, Fire, Ambulance: 911
—Ocean Cab Company, 609-886-8400
—Yellow Cab Company, 609-522-0555
Trolley: Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, 800-275-4278
—Sea Tow, 800-4SEATOW or VHF 16
—TowBoatU.S. 800-391-4869 or VHF 16