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Cape May USA

Cape May - An Island for all Seasons!  - The memories I had of Cape May, following a few visits in my twenties, were centered on magnificent beaches, sand dunes that could be explored in a dune buggy and its B&Bs housed in splendid Victorian mansions.

Cape May, south of New Jersey, still has all of that, except for the dune buggies that have since disappeared. 

Then why make it this month’s Euphoria?

To start with, we could not have chosen a better time to visit Cape May than the end of this past September.  The temperature was around 28 or 30 degrees Celsius, sunny with warm water.  Perfect for long walks along the beach or through the small streets bordered with Victorian houses, all painted in different colors and all more splendid than the last.

Then, we met other fascinating “visitors” to Cape May… September and October are the best months to watch migrating birds converging on Cape May before beginning their long trip south.  They are joined by Monarch butterflies, also gathering there before their departure for Mexico.

And finally, we immensely enjoyed its plethora of excellent restaurants and tasted some delightful wines grown in the local wineries.

So, to answer the question as to whether Cape May Island is still "The Queen of the Seaside Resorts"  as it was in the year 1899 when it was at the top of its glory, we would be inclined to respond with a definitive “Yes.”

An island, you said?

With the Atlantic to the east and Delaware Bay to the west, and a canal separating it from the peninsula, Cape May is really an island – just as its residents claim – designed for the sea and for nature lovers.

Its powdery sand beaches are clean and inviting for a swim in waters at temperatures that are very comfortable.  As a matter of fact, we swam at the end of September without developing any goose bumps or shivers.  The main beach with its boardwalk along Beach Avenue is the most popular, but we could find many other more secluded beaches where no one disturbed our tranquility, except for some winged visitors.

Surf, windsurf, fish for crab, take sea excursions to watch dolphins and whales or to fish for shark, sea bass, and mahi mahi, take kayak trips on the bays and canals, go on excursions in catamarans in the marshes to meet and look at fauna and vegetation… all activities can be enjoyed by the whole family in Cape May.

Its "diamonds"

You can also search for “Cape May Diamonds” at Sunset Beach.

“Cape May Diamonds” are pure quartz crystals. Coming from the Delaware River, they are thrown in by tides on Sunset Beach, where the river meets the ocean.  They appear as pebbles on the beach and can be found in a variety of sizes. When polished or cut they have the appearance of a genuine diamond, except for the price, of course!  Bring your findings to the gift shop on the beach where someone will be able to tell you if you are carrying real treasures or just plain pebbles. The Kechemeche Indians considered the stone to be a talisman.  If you are lucky enough to find one, keep it, you never know…  it’s what we did.

Located at the southernmost tip of Jersey Cape, Sunset Beach also offers the most colorful sunsets you will ever see.  And with a bit of luck, you might see some dolphins playing in the waters around the S.S. Atlantus, one of the rare concrete ships built during World War I, whose cracked, weather-beaten hull lies a few meters from the beach.

A National Landmark

Cape May is one of the Victorian gems on the East Coast of the United States.  Designated a National Historic Landmark with its 600 Victorian-era houses, the city has decided to capitalize on its history with great success.

Cape May houses one of the largest existing collections of late 19th Century buildings in the country. Some of them were designed by the renowned architect Stephen Decatur, including Stockton Row, which is a good example of his work.

It is quite interesting to take the trolley tour through the historic district and to learn about the origin and history of the city.

You will learn, among other facts and anecdotes, that until 1848, women and men were not allowed to enjoy the beach together.  A white flag floating on the beach indicated that it was time for the women to swim. Men had to wait for the red flag, indicating that the beach was all theirs.

Walking, cycling or in a trolley, you have to visit:

The Emlen Physick Estate, Cape May’s only Victorian house museum.  Restored to its original splendor from 1879 with its 18 rooms, it gives an in-depth glimpse of the different aspects of Victorian life.

The Hotel Chalfonte, the oldest hotel on Cape May, which has been recently restored.

Cape May Lighthouse and its surrounding area, where the small church of St. Peter by the Sea bravely stands.  Known as the “Gingerbread Church,” it is the most photographed and painted building of South Jersey.

Antique shops on Park, Lafayette and Broadway streets and art galleries and artists’ studios.

A top birding "hot spot"

Some well-known naturalists, such as John Audubon and Tory Peterson, the father of bird watching, say that more than 400 species nest in the peninsula during the migration period en route towards the more clement skys of Mexico, the Caribbean or South America.

Natural History magazine ranks Cape May among the top 50 destinations to be seen in the world.  The specialized Birder’s World magazine adds that Cape May is the top destination to see hawks, birds of prey and Warblers and is the second hottest spot for shore birds.  Impressive, isn’t it?

Consequently, from September to the end of November, it is a continual ballet of colors, sounds and movements.  But first of all, let me confide that we are not professional bird watchers. It was our first experience of the kind and it was so exciting that we are considering going back in the spring to see those birds on their way back from the South (at the end of April/mid-May).

Like many “professional” birders coming from New Zealand, South Africa, Japan, Argentina, U.K., the United States, of course, and even a few Canadians, we watched and observed Ospreys, Turkey Vultures, Northern Harriers, Cooper’s Hawks, Snowy Egrets, the Double-crested Cormorant, Blue-winged Teals and the spectacular Bald Eagle, not to mention the various duck species.  And we did not see just one or two specimens… the place was vibrating with dozens of them.  You have to agree that it was a successful introductory experience.

The New Jersey Audubon Cape May Bird Observatory offers adults as well as children guided visits, demonstrations, workshops, safaris on the harbor, kayak adventures, walks through the marshes and the beaches.

Feel free to swap your bathing suit and beach towel for binoculars and cameras, look up to the sky and open your eyes!  You will be fascinated and inclined to look at the sky with a different perspective, we guarantee it.  For our part, we will keep a sacred memory of our sighting of a bald eagle, illuminated by the morning sun and soaring above us. It looked like a mythical, magnificent and majestic golden eagle!

If you are so lucky: Monarchs as a bonus

We were seduced by the magnificent Monarch butterflies that created waves all around us before landing on the sunflower plants growing around the Cape May Hawk Watch and its surrounding marshes.  The thousands of butterflies, weighing just ½ gram, nectar on the flowers and accumulate the energy they will need to navigate a journey of over 2,000 miles to the forests of Central Mexico, where they will spend the winter.

Concerned about the impact that environmental change might have on such an exceptional migration, the Cape May Bird Observatory researchers work to monitor the migration.  Under this program, thousands of Monarchs are tagged every year.  Dozens of them have been found in Mexico or in other places, such as in Virginia or more southern areas.  The findings provide valuable data about the routes they follow and the speed of their migration.  Tagging demonstrations are open to the public.  We attended one and we can now tell a male Monarch from a female. Bring your kids: they will be fascinated!

Free Zoo

With its 250 species of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles and more than 550 animals, and a savanna trail with giraffes, lions and zebras, this free visit open 364 days a year (closed on Christmas) promises and delivers free fun for the whole family.  Two very rare snow leopards were born this summer at the zoo, the first snow leopard cubs ever born there. Quite an event!

The restaurant Capital of New Jersey

On Cape May Island, don’t even try to find a McDonalds, KFC, Burger King or any other fast food chain sign!  They are not allowed.  The result is a solid and varied restaurant offer, where fine food is abundant.  Crab cakes, fried clams, fresh shrimp and lobster are the fast food here! We have to admit that we loved it and don’t seem to be the only ones, since The New York Times named Cape May the “restaurant Capital of New Jersey”.

You can rest assured you will find a large variety of restaurants, from the canteen on Sunset Beach where you can taste famous crab cakes, to the delicious fish and seafood offered at the Lobster House, where you will have to choose between lobster, shrimp and various fish practically just unloaded from the fishing boats.  You can enjoy the fresh catches on the wharf while watching fishermen emptying their boats from their day’s work. Try their crab chowder and keep room for one of their fabulous desserts.  Their take out menu is also quite tempting.

For fine Italian cuisine, try Cucina Rosa on Washington Mall and don’t miss the exquisite cuisine of the famous chef Henry Sing Cheng at 410 Bank Street.  His inspired creations and sauces are invitations to lick your fingers. The thought of his Blackened Sea Scallops, his rack of lamb and his chocolate pecan pie still excites our taste buds.

Worth noting: in many restaurants, even in the best ones, a BYOB (bring your own bottle) policy is followed.  Worth checking before sitting down!

For a great snack in the middle of the afternoon after a swim, should you not wish to go far from the beach, we recommend the tapas offered by PSI – Peter Shields Inn & Restaurant at 1301 Beach Avenue, where you will enjoy the view of the beach and the sea comfortably seated on the porch of the beautiful Victorian house. 

Surprising Wine Trail

The Cape May Wine Trail was a huge surprise for us.  We didn’t know that this southern portion of New Jersey has such a variety of wineries – a dozen in the immediate surrounding area of Cape May and more than 30 in the State of New Jersey – to offer an intriguing escapade amongst the pleasures of Bacchus.

If you are a Cabernet Franc, Riesling, Merlot, Chardonnay or Pinot fan, you will find interesting wines to taste and bring back home at the wineries, which offer year-round tasting and tours.

We particularly appreciated our visit to the Cape May Winery & Vineyard, which offers a selection of 14 award-winning wines.  We tasted 6 of them for as little as $6 and were even offered the glass as a souvenir.  A light lunch shared on the terrace overlooking the vines, savoring one of their best whites, was our favourite activity of that day.  We left with a few bottles of their exceptional dessert wine.

The Garden State Wine Growers association offers passports online that will allow you to follow the Wine Trail and to a tasting at each of their member wineries.

 www.newjerseywines.com.

Events and festivals

Why not combine your visit with one the festivals taking place throughout the year?

  •              In March and November, the Sherlock Holmes Weekends
  •              In May, the Blues & Wine Festival
  •              In October, the Victorian Week and the Cape May Wine Festival with its guided visits of mansions and tastings
  •              In November, the Holiday Wine Trail Weekend and the Jazz Festival
  •              Christmas celebrations (from Nov. 19 to January 2) when the city known for its gingerbread, gas streetlamps                  and Victorian hospitality offers a whole calendar of activities. Click here to view the calendar.

Where to stay

The accommodations offered include hotels, motels, guesthouses, B&Bs, condominiums or houses for rent that are vast, interesting, cheerful and elegant.

We were not surprised that many of the monumental Victorian houses, built as second homes in the 1800s by rich Americans and most classified as historical monuments, have been since transformed into B&Bs.  Most of them are built on small secondary streets, a walking distance from the beach, and have large open porches with flowerbeds and rattan chairs where you can relax and enjoy the view.

We stayed at the La Mer Beachfront Inn, on Beach Avenue, overlooking the beach.  It is the newest hotel built on Beach Avenue.  Its restaurant, The Pier House, offers excellent cuisine with courteous and cheerful service.

The camping selection is large.  Many campgrounds are located only minutes from the beach and focus on families, offering a vast choice of services, including activities for the kids.

Ecotourism and all!

Many businesses support the New Jersey Audubon Cape May Bird Observatory with discounts offered to their members.  You might choose to take advantage of this offer and support those businesses.  For information, visit www.BirdCapeMay.org.

Christiane Théberge

We would like to thank the New Jersey Audubon, the Cape May Bird Observatory as well as the Cape May County Department of Tourism for their invitations that allowed us to experience such precious times.

A secluded beach


A Victorian house


St-Peter By the Sea Church


Birders


Tagging of a Monarch


Crab Cakes


Lobster House 


Cape May Winery & Vineyard terrace


Christmas in Cape May


View from La Mer Beachfront Inn

 

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