A Day at the Beach: Cape May, N.J. -- a Charming Resort Since the 18th Century

By Justin Rude
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 2009

One of the oldest seaside resorts in North America, Cape May, N.J., has been a vacation spot since the 18th century. These days the city's history is as big a draw as its award-winning beaches, and it's that mix that makes the Cape such an attractive family destination.

Before you leave home, there is a choice to make: highway or ferry? Cape May can be reached by heading north on Interstate 95 to circumvent Delaware Bay or by heading east to Lewes, Del., and catching a ferry. Time-wise it's a tossup: Either route will take about four hours from downtown Washington. Economically speaking, the highway might be the better deal, with less than $10 in tolls. A one-way ferry ticket will run you $43.25 for car and driver during peak season plus $10 for each adult passenger. In terms of atmosphere though, there is no comparison. The drive over the Bay Bridge through Maryland and rural Delaware offers better views than I-95, and watching the beach approach from the ferry's deck is a sign of free summer days ahead.

Among the city's countless original Victorian houses and historic hotels, there is no lack of lodging options. The city has done a remarkable job of maintaining the vibe of a classic northeastern beach town. It might be the absence of national chains, the authenticity of the architecture or even the quaintness of the beach's modest boardwalk, but Cape May manages to avoid the tourist-targeted tackiness that plagues other nearby seaside locales. Which isn't to say that you're out of luck if you are looking for funnel cakes, a boogie board or a piece of shell-framed art. It's all there, but it has been gracefully folded into the life-size dollhouses, restaurants and boutique shops.

Cape May isn't devoid of tourist traps. Sometimes that's a good thing. The Lobster House could be easily mistaken for one of those restaurants that churn through out-of-town customers. On Fisherman's Wharf in the harbor, the restaurant has waits of up to two hours in peak season. Still, with a waterfront location in view of the fishing fleet, an outdoor raw bar, an on-site seafood market and a takeout window offering the option of carrying your meal onto the pier, it is understandable why you can hear the staff shouting warm greetings to locals across the crowded bar.

If you have fully embraced the tourist spirit, one of the best ways to spend the day away from the beach is to invest in a book on local ghosts and take a walking tour of the sites. The city has a reputation as one of the nation's most haunted places, and it has turned that into something of a publishing cottage industry. It seems as if almost every small shop carries a handful of the books. There are also several organized ghost tours for those seeking professional paranormal guidance.

If ghosts aren't your thing, head to Cape May Point. There you will find the historic lighthouse, hiking trails, a national bird sanctuary, an abandoned World War II-era bunker and one of the best places for spotting Cape May diamonds. The diamonds are actually quartz crystals that come from the Delaware River, and searching through the sandy beaches to find them is a popular family activity.

The trails and the bird sanctuary encourage exploration of the area's amazing avian diversity. It may happen that in visiting the Cape you never stray far from the beach. It would be understandable, because the beaches are very nice. And even if one does skip out on the history, natural attractions and dining, the charms of the city are hard to overlook. After all, beyond ghost tours, boardwalk pizza and long, sandy beaches, Cape May is selling its charm, and with more than two centuries to perfect its pitch, it has become very good at being charming.

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