There are days that stretch through the summer, days when the hours between sunrise and sunset deliver close to 15 hours of daylight on the shoreline, days that make a mere 12 hours in Cape May seem like you may be shortchanging yourself. Cape May is a vacation destination – the oldest seaside resort in the country; but since it’s right in our Jersey backyard, a day trip can hold endless promise.
“Cape May is so much more than just a beach,” said Jessica Leeburg, creative director at CapeMay.com. “We have a vibrant restaurant scene, super niche shopping, history everywhere you look. We have real working wineries, breweries and distilleries that you can tour. And if you are interested in birding, this is one of the best places in the world that you can visit. Because of our location, we experience incredible spring and fall migrations.”
But without further ado, we’ll list all the to-do’s you can do when your beach day is through.
Pedal Or Stroll Wherever You Go
“The city is small enough that you can explore it on foot,” Leeburg said. “You can literally park your car when you get here and not touch it again until you leave.”
At less than 3 square miles, the town is as easy to navigate as it is easy on the eyes. Leisure and fitness walkers mingle with joggers who take to the paved Promenade that runs for nearly 2 miles of Beach Avenue, basking in the ocean and town views to either side. Bicycles and skates are also permitted, but only until 10 a.m. during the summer season.
Speaking of bicycles, there are plenty of rental shops for adult and child cruisers, baby bike seats and trailers, tandems, alley cats (a tandem sized for one adult and one child), and, of course, four-passenger surreys. Surreys provide entertainment for both riders and spectators, who can’t help but smile or wave when one passes by (it’s what you might call a fringe benefit).
Shopping in Cape May is a passive sport, with most of it centered in and around Washington Street Mall, a quaint, brick-paved outdoor walking mall with fountains, floral planters and benches for resting in between.
Feast Your Eyes On Dining
Cape May’s rich history, Victorian charm, and enchanting personality set the stage for visual delights to go along with just about any dining experience. Outdoor dining on patios, on sweeping covered porches, or al fresco seating on the sidewalks let you take in the scenery with every meal. Here are a few options to round out your three squares.
All Rise For Breakfast
Hats off to the award-winning Mad Batter, located in the artful Carroll Villa Hotel on Jackson Street, which is home to such fluffy fare as pancakes and omelets, fresh baked breads, savory Benedict’s and Bloody’s that might make you want to stay through lunch.
Honorable mentions go to Uncle Bill’s Pancake House, offering seemingly endless pancake varieties in a family restaurant atmosphere; and to Zoe’s Cape Café, an airy corner bistro with a pet-friendly patio and a tastefully diverse menu that’s unfussy and satisfying. Both are located just a stroll apart on Beach Avenue.
Break for Lunch, Dress for Dinner
The abundance of restaurant options, from casual to BYO to lively to romantic, means there’s a menu and ambiance for every mood.
The Rusty Nail, known as Cape May’s “Iconic Surfer Bar and Restaurant,” has open-air indoor seating, an outdoor sand bar, fire pit, shuffleboard, live entertainment, comfort food and a wood bar rumored to have been the longest in town. Come as you are for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Located on Beach Avenue.
Walk or bike less than a half-mile from the beach to Gecko’s on West Perry Street for casual Southwestern fare and dine inside or out, but bring your own cerveza to wash down the pork posole or shrimp and chorizo quesadillas.
There’s no denying the red, white and Blue Pig Tavern, an all-American pub located on Beach Avenue in Congress Hall. It’s got an impressively diverse menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but, oh, the burgers!
Seeking something more upscale? Visit the Washington Inn, built in 1846 to resemble George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation house. Featuring new American cuisine in its historic dining room, the Wine Bar is popular for weekend happy hours and outstanding craft cocktails. Located at the corner of Washington and Jefferson streets.
Find romance at the Peter Shields Inn on Beach Avenue, a grand Georgian Revival mansion built in 1907. Its five dining rooms and ocean-view front porch offer a traditional and contemporary menu you can pair with selections from Cape May Winery or bring your own wine to accompany what promises to be an exquisite meal.
There’s More To Do And Explore, For Shore
History, architecture and nature cannot be overlooked in Cape May. The town is a National Historic Landmark, and its vast concentration of 19th century Victorian homes invites visitors to take a tour.
Consider a guided tour on foot, or book a Trolley Tour to sit back and enjoy the parade of color and architectural detail of home after distinctly charming home. Step inside Emlen Physick Estate to learn through its exhibits and historical reenactments what Victorian life was like back in 1879.
It’s only natural to visit Cape May Point State Park to hike the trails along the dunes and marshes, observe wildlife and migratory birds, and to climb the 199 steps inside the Cape May Lighthouse to reach a panoramic view of the Cape May peninsula — it takes your breath away, literally.
Cape May is the premier perch to witness the fall bird migration, with a variety of waterfowl and raptors, including loons, garnets, hawks, falcons and terns, passing through. Also at summer’s end, you can marvel at the fluttering migration of Monarch butterflies. Visit on your own, or consult the New Jersey Audubon for scheduled ecotourism events. BYO binoculars.
Drink It All In
And now for a toast to the wineries, breweries and distilleries of Cape May for all they do to keep our spirits up. Only the finest homegrown and handpicked local ingredients go into the wines, craft beers and distilled spirits produced in the region, and their doors are open for tastings and social events year-round. Touring is a fun way to support the local economy, learn a little about how your favorite adult beverages are made, and gather with friends for good cheer. Here’s a sampler round, free of charge:
Cape May Winery & Vineyard – 711 Town Bank Road, Cape May
Sprawling 150-acre farm with 26 acres of harvest vineyards. Offering daily guided tours and tastings, weekly happy hours and live music every Sunday. Daily tapas menus, special event dinners, Sunday brunch and Wednesday grill nights.
Willow Creek Farm and Winery – 160-168 Stevens St., West Cape May
Scenic 150-acre farm open for tours, tastings and tapas. Weekly Fire Pit Fridays, private events and farm festivals.
Jessie Creek Winery – 1 Route 47 North, Cape May Court House
Winery and Inn producing small batch wines. Tastings, tours and Soulful Sundays featuring live entertainment and food trucks.
Cape May Distillery – 371 NJ-47, Cape May Court House
Tour, taste and purchase unique blends of handcrafted spirits including rum, bourbon, whiskey, gin and vodka.
Nauti Spirits – 916 Shunpike Road, Cape May
Distillery and farm producing vodka, gin and rum and offering tours, tastings and live music events as well as private bookings.
Cape May Brewing Co. – 1288 Hornet Road, Cape May
IPAs, pilsners, lagers and stouts and more, brewed for sipping in the Tasting Room or the sunny Beer Garden. Take guided or self-guided tours and visit the “Brewtique” gift shop for souvenirs.
Like Waves On The Shore, People Come Back To Cape May
It’s anyone’s guess what compels people return to Cape May year after year, day after day.
Maybe it’s the sunsets, like the spectacular ones you’ll see at Sunset Beach, where the flag lowering ceremony, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and playing the Star-Spangled Banner and God Bless America is a 40-plus-year tradition.
“Cape May has a certain magic,” Leeburg said. “People who have been coming here for years all say the same thing: They wish they could be here all the time. This is their favorite place, even when it’s raining.
“Cape May has a way of getting under your skin. Maybe it’s the salt air?”
Due to the ever-changing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, please check with each location for openings, closings and hours of operation.