I remember feeling it all change, especially the last leg, when the sea air came through the windows and let me know I was getting close, and the pine trees of Belleplain State Forest transitioned to the marshlands that lead up to the shore towns of South Jersey. It creates an anticipation and energy that would blow the fuses on an episode of Ghost Hunters, yet it was not long before I realized that such an attitude would only further disconnect me from the reason people visit Cape May.
It's true for both the locals and the tourists: They've come to town to kick back, to reconnect. Cape May has a certain mystique in the morning hours, a peace and quiet that's deafening. Everyone rehabilitates in their own way. Joggers, bikers, and walkers enjoy the beach before the crowds, while others are slower to start, preferring coffee on the porch.
And plenty of porches there are. Cape May claims to have the second-highest concentration of Victorian houses in the States with more than six hundred, second to San Francisco's thousand-plus. This stat was not able to be confirmed officially, but it sure as hell passes the eye test. Many have been converted into B&Bs, which would be my first choice for lodging (the Blue Rose Inn, for example).
The other major area where Cape May exceeds is in its ability to maintain a genuine small-town feel. Other nearby shore towns, like Ocean City, Sea Isle, Wildwood, and Atlantic City, feel like vacation-rental towns built with tourists as the first priority. Cape May, despite an increase in population from 3,700 to 100,000 in the summer months, maintains its personality nicely, something I attribute to the food and beverage scene. Even if the restaurants and bars aren't truly designed with the locals in mind, they feel like they are, and there's not much more I can ask for as a tourist.
When in town, stop by the Rusty Nail beach bar for a sun-faded happy hour (shown above), Cape May's living room, aka the Brown Room in Congress Hall, for a cocktail, or the Ugly Mug for a lesson in the town's fishing history. The Lobster House, located on the bay side, would be my choice for seafood and raw-bar snacking, and check out Mad Batter for brunch. Walk it all off with a trip to the top of the lighthouse to get an aerial view of the coast.
The icing on the cake? Despite its location on the east coast, Cape May's position on a peninsula makes for some pretty good sunsets. I leave you with that vision in the cover photo, captured during a sunset bike ride, the lighthouse lit in the distance.
[Photos: Will McGough/Will McGough/Cape Resorts]