Favorite thing: After its Victorian architecture, Cape May is probably best known and most celebrated for its wealth of birdlife. I mentioned the Hawk Observatory at the State Park in my Things to Do tip, and the fall migration is one of the highlights of the birding year here, but there are many others. I found that the website of the Cape May Times was a very useful resource – it has month by month information about what birds to look for and where to look for them, and is as helpful for the vaguely interested beginner as it is for the keen bird-watcher.
Apart from the hawks, our other highlights were this flock of black skimmers (I looked them up on our return!) seen on the town beach one afternoon, and the gulls attracted by the horseshoe crabs on Higbee Beach. We also saw heron and egrets on the marshes at the State Park and south of Wildwood.
Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC)
Favorite thing: The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts is a non-profit organisation which organises tours, events, and festivals in the Cape May area. These include the Historic District Trolley Tour that we did, Haunted Cape May evening tours, guided walks by day and in the evenings and much more. There is an extensive programme of special events too – when we were there several of the Victorian houses were hosting open days (which we didn’t get round to attending) and there was a food and wine festival in a couple of the inns, also organised by MAC. Pick up a copy of the weekly This Week in Cape May at their information booth at the eastern end of Washington Street Mall (opposite the Catholic Church) for a complete listing of everything that’s going on, including dates and times of tours. This is also the place to go to buy your tickets, board a trolley or simply ask for information about the town and its sights.
The organisation is also responsible for the management of two of the town’s historic sites: the Emlen Physick Estate and the Cape May lighthouse. Indeed the organisation was formed (in September 1970) by a small group of Cape May citizens with the specific purpose of rescuing the 1879 Emlen Physick Estate from demolition. Their campaign to preserve not only this but many other Victorian architectural treasures throughout the town has played a vital role in revitalizing the nation's oldest seaside resort, and has helped transform Cape May from a "summer only" beach resort to the country's leading Victorian theme destination.
- Arts and Culture
Favorite thing: As well as being on the migration route for many birds, twice each year Cape May plays host to thousands of migrating Monarch butterflies. When we were there in September some were already passing through on their long journey south to Mexico. Being at the tip of a peninsular, Cape May is a perfect spot for them to rest and eat before setting out across the sea, and many residents encourage this by planting exactly the sort of plants they love, especially milkweed. We saw loads of them in the State Park and I spent quite a while without much success trying to get a good photo, only to capture this one on a bush in front of the Shore S Cape back in town.
I found this interesting description of the Monarch migration on the website of the Cape May Times:
” The final fall generation of Monarch is programmed to migrate, and NOT to mate. Because of this they live longer, up to 8 or 9 months. Throughout the eastern U.S. the final fall generation of Monarch migrates to the mountains of central Mexico where they will winter.
They begin crossing into Mexico in mid-October and reach the winter roost areas by late October. Millions upon millions of Monarchs winter in Mexico at high altitude roosts where flowers are scarce, surviving on fat reserves they’ve build up during their fall migration. A pathway of wildlife gardens along the coast and at land’s end (Cape May and Cape May Point) certainly plays a key role in the survival of migrating Monarchs, as do natural areas and vacant lots full of healthy stands of blooming Seaside Goldenrod, one of their favourite nectar plants!”
You can read even more about the butterflies on that website if you’re interested.
More signs of Cape May’s Victorian past
Favorite thing: As well as the Victorian houses themselves there are many other traces of Cape May’s early residents, such as cast iron hitching posts for horses, and mail-boxes. These hitching posts were the parking spaces of the early 19th century, and can be seen in front of several houses, usually on the grass verge between the pavement and the street. No doubt everyone would have had a hitching post in those early days. The posts were used to secure or “park” a horse, or a horse and buggy or wagon while the rider visited a friend, shopped or went about his business. When he left his horse he tied the horse’s reins to the post with a secure knot called a hitch, hence the name of the posts. Of course over time most of these posts have disappeared, but not all, and they make a great subject for photography. While some are quite plain I loved the ones decorated with horses’ heads in particular.
Many of the old mail-boxes too are quite ornately decorated and it was good to see that some are still in use. The one in my photo is from a house called “The Patron of the Sea” which is on Stockton Avenue a few doors down from the Shore S Cape.
Keep your eyes open as you walk round the town and you’ll find them
- Historical Travel
Favorite thing: Cape May is noted for the large number of Victorian houses that line its streets. Popularly known as “Painted Ladies” because of their elaborate trims, these present a beautifully harmonious appearance, despite each one being unique at least in its detailing. These houses have led to the town being designated a National Historic Landmark.
The preponderance of these houses is actually the result of a disaster. In 1878 a fire wiped out 30 blocks of the town, including a number of elegant hotels dating back to the start of that century when Cape May first began to attract visitors (hence its claim to be the earliest seaside resort in the country). To replace these a massive building programme was initiated, and for the most part what was built were individual family homes, naturally in the style of the day.
In the 1970s these beautiful houses were under threat of demolition, as with changing times very few families wanted or could afford such large and grand homes. Luckily, although quite a few were lost in the push to modernise, very many more were saved. And as they were too large for today’s lifestyles, most of these have been turned into inns, bed & breakfast accommodation or into apartments like our own Shore S Cape so that today Cape May can continue to welcome visitors. There are larger hotels (and many of these built in a similar style) but it is these wonderful “Painted Ladies” that give the town its real charm and character.
If you want to explore them properly, you can go on a tour organised by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, or do as we did and pick up their information leaflet to lead you on a self-guided tour. You can also enjoy them from a horse-drawn carriage or on one of the Center’s sightseeing trolley rides see my Things to Do tip). The leaflet, or the commentary on the tours, will help you learn to distinguish between the different styles such as Gothic Revival and Queen Anne, and to know what to look for to be able to identify each. We also learned about which were the historically accurate colour schemes (basically, not white!) and about a few of the people who had lived here in the past.
Of course we got to know the streets that lay between our apartment and the town centre very well, so most of my photos were taken in this area to the south and east of Washington Street Mall in streets such as Columbia and Gurney. But wherever you go in the centre of town you’ll find gingerbread trims, colourful porches and picturesque details that will keep your camera very busy!
- Historical Travel
When to go?
Favorite thing: Although it is primarily a seaside resort I think you could visit Cape May at any time of year and find plenty to enjoy.
At the height of the season in the summer of course a trip here would be all about sun, sea and sand, and the focus is very much on family holidays. All the local attractions are fully open, as are the shops (seven days a week until 10.00 at night in the case of the Washington Street Mall ones). Outdoor dining is a great way to enjoy many of Cape May’s restaurants, and afterwards you can sit out on the porch of your B&B or condominium until late in the evening.
When we visited in late September the season was winding down. The weather was less reliable, a few restaurants had already closed for the winter (those on the sea-front) and some attractions were only open at weekends. Nevertheless this is a great time to come. The resort is quieter, the beach uncrowded (but more suited to walking than sunbathing) and you should be able to get into even the most popular restaurants without booking. Accommodation is a little cheaper and easier to find at short notice (although most places had no vacancies” signs out still over our first weekend). And if you’re a keen bird-watcher, or have just a general interest in wildlife as we do, this is the time to see the great hawk migrations passing through the area.
In the late autumn and winter a number of special events lure visitors to Cape May. In October there is a Victorian Week to celebrate the town’s special heritage, and in November a well-regarded film festival. But it seems that it is for Christmas that the town really pulls out all the stops! If I lived near enough I would love to go back at that time, to see the shops decorated for the season, the Candlelight House Tours and the Christmas Parade.
There are also festivals in the spring, including a jazz one, but of course this is also when the weather begins to improve and outdoor activities again become an attractive proposition. For bird-watchers, there are the hawks to spot on their way back north, and many sea-birds and waders arrive from their winter quarters.
By the way, if you’re interested in seeing whales and dolphins, these mammals can be spotted at any time of year but the boat trips mostly shut down for the winter due I imagine both to the limited numbers of visitors and the inclement weather. Check the websites of the various companies before planning your trip if this is important to you.
And whenever you chose to visit, enjoy Cape May!
Favorite thing: Stroll around town and take in the scenery and many victorian homes for which Cape May is famous for. Cape May was a seaside resort for more than a century. It offers s blend of secinic beauty and victorian splendor in its many restored homes. Many of which today have been made into Bed and Breakfasts.
Fondest memory: The tremendous variety of birds to be fond in the areas numerous hotspots.
Marine Debris Timeline
Favorite thing: Found this rather interseting and informative, thought I would pass it on. It's amazing how long it takes for different types of trash to break down over the years, for example.
Apple core is 2 months, aluminum cans 200 years, plastic 6 pack ring 400 years, disposable diaper is 450 years, and the list goes on, so all they ask is only leave you foot print on the beach.
We are very dedicated to conservation of our reefs, dunes and sealife. This Marine Timeline is a great example of what kind of harm we can cause with just leaving trash around. So please clean up after yourself and save the beautiful beaches & sealife for our great grand kids to see and experience. Thank you for your support!
- Diving and Snorkeling
Beach tags are required
Favorite thing: Cape May has required beaches tags for some time now so beware you must have a BEACH TAG to get on the beach for the day which cost the following
$4 per day, $8 - 3 day, $11 week,
You can purchase them at city hall, information center in the mall, & convention hall on weekends.
And YES they do have people walking around checking for your beach tag all day long, so have it ready.
Did I mention the hours are from 8-5:30PM and late night walking or what ever will not be tolerated, a bit uptight if you ask me..
- Water Sports
- Family Travel
Beach Tags--What's That About?
Favorite thing: The beaches of New Jersey are lovely in spring, summer and fall. But if you plan to go swimming, it is important to determine whether the particular beach town you are in requires a "beach tag" in order to be on the beach or swim. It's a special tag/pin which you must display on your bathing suit, beach bag, etc. It is an unfortunate fact and one disliked by New Jerseyan's and others, but a "beach tag" is a sort of user's fee imposed by the town and most likely used to pay for life guards, and beach maintenance. The price per day I believe is less than $10 in most places.
As for Cape May, the last time I was there I believe the "beach tag" law is still a must. It can be purchased in several places, and your hotel or B & B probably has them. There is also a kiosk at the northern end of the street mall which I believe sells them.
Cape May's historical streets
Favorite thing: The best way to see Cape May is to walk through town. Cape May is a small island with so much to see that walking is the best way to explore the town.
If you're spending a few days in Cape May, getting around town is easier and more fun on a bicycle. You don't need to bring your own. There are several bike rental agencies in Cape May.
Cape May is America's first and oldest seashore resort at the southern tip of New Jersey.
Fondest memory: Our honeymoon spent in Cape May.
- Romantic Travel and Honeymoons
Cape May websites
Favorite thing: Visit Cape May's Department of Touristm at: www.beachcomber.com/Capemay/tourism.htm 'to get a listing of the events that are going on.
And for more general information visit the Cape May Chamber of Commerce: www.capemaychamber.com/
The beaches are clean and...
Favorite thing: The beaches are clean and beautiful in Cape May. In the fall and winter when the Nor'Easters ravish the coast and make surfing difficult or impossible up North, Cape May's SouthWest facing beaches have perfect offshore waves for us diehards to enjoy!
Fondest memory: THis was a nice beach day but the waves were flat.
You simply must wander around...
Favorite thing: You simply must wander around the narrow streets of Cape May. The Victorian buildings create a timeless quality that is not often seen in the US and certainly not at the Jersey shore.
Fondest memory: I’d woken up early as usual and had finally decided to make the trip down to Cape May to take photos for VirtualTourist, as I’d planned all summer. It was a glorious morning, the kind that is typical of Jersey shore Septembers. After all the tourists have gone away, we always sneak out our best weather. It was sunny and dry, with crispness in the air that belayed fall. The drive down was fast and soon I found myself on the Cape May beachfront for the first time in years during the day and perhaps ever at this early hour. It was only 7:30 and must say the town had a lot more charm than on typical afternoon forays to show visiting friends the quaint Victorian town. It’s popularity coupled with narrow streets and insufficient parking makes for hectic driving conditions at best, but at this hour the streets were deserted. I drove down to snap a photo of the Sea Mist, a great old Victorian Inn, knowing the lighting would be just perfect. Once on the small boardwalk I noticed a school of dolphins effortlessly swimming along shore, just a tad out of zoom’s reach. I got back in the car and drove up a few blocks, got back out and on the beach. Damn, they’d managed to out swim the car! I did this one more time and wouldn’t you know it, just not close enough. I’d run out of road at this point so just wandered around taking some other photos and then a small walk through the bird sanctuary. I got a few good photos so here they are. But as human are wont to do, I can’t help thinking about the one that got away.
Take a horse and carriage...
Favorite thing: Take a horse and carriage ride! They will take you through the streets and tell you all about the history. Each home must conform to historical standards so they are beautiful!
Fondest memory: Walking the Promanade early in the morning while sipping coffee and eating french pastries! The boardwalk by the beach was washed away so many times in storms that they knocked down the wooden one and made a cement boardwalk with very few stores. When they did this they built a promanade about 4 blocks from the beach with shops and dining, it's cobblestone and cut off from most traffic...I love to shop here!