On our last morning in Cape May, I awoke to the smell of bacon wafting from the kitchen of our seven-bedroom vacation home, a block from the Atlantic Ocean. Our family had gathered for our annual vacation at the New Jersey shore, and as we prepared to hit the road, my brother decided he'd prepare a pancake breakfast for 14 before we departed.
"Just doing my part," he said, as the bacon sizzled at dawn.
The Saturday morning pancakes were a fitting end to a week of sibling conviviality in a seaside community that caters to families, provides top-notch vacation homes for rent near the sprawling beach, and features the vibrant Washington Street Mall — a pedestrian strip with shops, restaurants, and ice-cream shops that teems with activity each night. It's a town where kids can safely ride bikes on city streets, dolphins frolic close to shore, and the vigilant lifeguards keep a close watch on swimmers, including my son, Tom, who was rescued one afternoon after getting caught in the undertow.
It has been nine years since we first came to Cape May, a seaside city where you can park your car for the week, and walk or ride your bike to the beach or downtown. The Atlantic, with temperatures typically in the mid-70s, invites young and old for quality time cavorting in the surf.
Families have been coming to Cape May since the 18th century, when Philadelphians would arrive by stagecoach or boat. By the 19th century, New Yorkers were arriving by train. Like most Cape May visitors today, we arrive by car — our destination Exit 0 on the Garden State Parkway. We've learned to arise before dawn to beat the traffic on our four-hour drive from New York City's northern suburbs.
We keep returning to America's oldest seaside resort, which has more than 600 restored homes from the 19th century, many of which have been transformed into inns along Jackson Street and Columbia Avenue. Its historic district is considered a National Historic Landmark. Cape May has a few high-rise hotels along the beach, but the Cape May we know is a homey place, a resort where you rent a house for a week, relax, and find time to play together.
As more of our family members and friends have joined us, we've found ever bigger houses to rent through Sol Needles Real Estate or the Cape May Times website. For the past three summers, we've rented the Queen of the Sea for $6,200 a week at the corner of Stockton and Queen, with enough space for four families, with its seven bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a broad porch protected by awnings that stretches along the home's north and eastern sides.
We've developed our routine over the years. We go daily to the Queen Street beach, to body-surf the waves, fling Frisbees, and watch the kids dig in the sand. We buy locally grown vegetables at Duckie's Farm Stand on Broadway and hit the Lobster House for smoked bluefish and mussels. We walk to town after dinner for soft-serve ice cream at Dairy Queen. We adorn our table with bouquets of zinnias from Tina's flower stand on Madison Avenue and the kids buy gummy bears at Morrow's Nut House on the Boardwalk.
The traditions change too as the children grow older. For the past two years, we've had a gang ride bikes out to the Cold Spring bike trail — a 14-mile jaunt that our youngest, an 11-year-old, did with alacrity in August. This year we also had four teams for doubles at the Cape May Tennis Club on Washington Street, which has 14 clay courts and welcomes non-members to rent court-time.
And Uncle Dave — that's me — remains the target for at least one vacation prank. This year it happened the final night. My niece, Ruthie, asked me oh so kindly to join the kids for a game of Four Square on the Queen Street sidewalk. I obliged. By the fourth round, I was serving. Then my sons and their cousins let loose, pelting me with scores of water balloons from the second-floor porch. I got drenched, the kids howled with laughter, and vacation memories were made to last a lifetime.
If you go: