Beachcombing, birding, historic homes and more on the Atlantic
Over the years we’ve visited Cape May, NJ on our trawler when we were cruising north from the Chesapeake Bay. On our most recent getaway we wanted to revisit this popular beachfront town by car to see what we missed. This trip we arrived at the charming beach resort at the southern tip of New Jersey on the Jersey shore as passengers on a large car ferry from Lewes, Delaware on Delaware Bay. The ferry trip was an easy 90 minute ride and comfortable crossing. We arrived for some beachcombing, birding and visiting historic homes on the Atlantic seashore. Historic Cape May has it all, a boardwalk and beaches, birding trails, historic homes and shoping and a busy harbor and an aviation museum.
A little history of Cape May
In the early days of Cape May the city on the shores of the Atlantic became a fishing and whaling community. Later visitors from Philadelphia and New York arrived by stagecoach. Soon trains and cars brought visitors to its seaside location to avoid steamy summer months in cities. Early boarding houses and resorts, designed in Victorian, Queen Anne and Gothic architecture, were recognized with grants by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Today the Cape May Historic District is a National Historic Landmark due to its concentration of Victorian buildings, second only to San Francisco.
As time passed these charming buildings evolved into bed and breakfasts, guest houses, restaurants and shops. With its broad beach lined with these historic gems and trolley tours and horse-drawn carriages to see them, Cape May, NJ is a step back in time and a refreshing alternative to most other beach towns.
We stayed at the Grand Hotel on Beach Avenue, one of many lovely hotels along the ocean. From there you can easily walk to the beach at night for a little stargazing, and the dark sky over the ocean didn’t disappoint. The boardwalk is an almost two mile long paved promenade on the Atlantic Ocean with many access points that are ideal for walkers, strollers, runners and bike riders.
Specialty shops galore
A state park with plenty to please
Nearby the Washington Street Mall is an outdoor walking mall spanning three blocks of specialty retailers, gift shops, fine dining and of course, ice cream shops. The walkway is paved with bricks with colorful planters and plenty of benches to sit and savor the surroundings. A trolley service and carriages stop nearby to pick up and discharge passengers is helpful to locals and visitors to keep cars off the street and visitors on their feet. The Cape May beaches and proximity to restaurants and shopping make the seaside town a popular family-friendly day trip or weeklong vacation destination. For some who want to avoid the summer crowds Cape May, NJ is a year-round getaway when weather may be cooler but the quiet beauty of the area can be enjoyed.
We took our time visiting the Cape May Point State Park near town because it has so much to offer. The grounds perched on the tip of the peninsula are surrounded by quiet neighborhoods with the lighthouse as its centerpiece. The striking white brick Cape May lighthouse stands 157 feet high with a red ventilator ball on top. Visitors approach the expansive beach on walkways leading to the shore with nature trails that crisscross the area for biking, birding and walking. Cape May Point State Park is a site that gives you a good overview of all the park has to offer.
In the Visitor’s Center we were given useful maps and information about the nature center and the best birding areas in Cape May with a field list to keep track of our sightings.
We chatted with a birder who pointed to a large whale watching tour boat headed out of the harbor to the Atlantic Ocean saying the boat was for sighting birds and dolphin watching, too. National Geographic considers Cape May a premiere destination for birding because the narrow peninsula acts like a funnel bringing birds in during spring and fall migrations.
A strong military presence in Cape May
In Cape May County the proximity to the Atlantic Ocean brought the U.S. Coast Guard to Cape May where its headquarters and training center are based on the shores of the harbor. The harbor is home to the commercial fishing industry and sports fishing center and a bustling waterfront with workboats, fishermen, charter boats, tour boats and U.S.C.G. vessels. Years ago when we arrived by boat we tied up at Utsch’s marina or anchored in the harbor in front of the Coast Guard. With Atlantic City only 50 miles north, Cape May is a popular weekend cruising destination for boaters. Today the shores along the harbor are lined with handsome beach houses and low-rise condos, many offered as vacation rentals.
Outside of town we enjoyed visiting NAS Wildwood Aviation Museum in a former World War II hangar used extensively in 1943 to 1945. Tunes from the era play in the background while you see exhibits about the Tuskegee Airmen and wander and wonder about the 25 historic aircraft there. You can climb in a flight simulator or head up to an air traffic control tower. Pets and kids are welcome so it’s a nice family-friendly place to visit.
During our late May visit a volunteer explained that some of the aircraft were moved outside the hangar on the tarmac to make room for a dance floor for the local high school’s senior prom.
Throughout our trip to Cape May, NJ we experienced a small town feeling at all the places we visited. The people who live there seem to appreciate their seaside location and bounty of nature surrounding them and welcome visitors to share it.