By David McKay Wilson
When we hit Exit 0 on the Garden State Parkway in August, it will mark the 15th year we’ve return to Cape May, that seaside community at the state’s southern tip 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 laid-back vacation village where kids can safely ride bikes around town, the Atlantic warms to the mid-70s for prolonged body-surfing and front porches rule at cocktail hour.
As New Englanders, we’d never considered the Jersey Shore because our childhood beach memories were formed on Cape Cod, staying in cottages up on the North Truro dunes and digging clams on the tidal flats in the bay. We discovered Cape May in 2001 when my cousin invited us down to the rental house his family had rented for many years. We fell in love with the place, and vowed to return, which we have done, year after year.
We aren’t the first to make a habit of vacationing in Cape May. Families have flocked there since the 18th century, when Philadelphians would arrive by stagecoach or boat. By the 19th century, New Yorkers arrived in style by train. We drive, arising before dawn to beat the traffic on the four-hour drive south from New York City’s northern suburbs.
Cape May lays claim to being America’s oldest seaside resort, and its more than 600 restored Victorian homes from the 19th century provide that historical context. Many of the old homes were transformed into inns along Jackson Street and Columbia Avenue, with the restored Congress Hall the centerpiece of Cape May’s downtown, which 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. It’s a place where you park your car and walk to the beach or bike to the market. It’s a place where my kids and their cousins have grown up on summer holiday.
As more of our family members and friends have joined in, we’ve found ever bigger houses to rent through the Cape May Times or the CapeMayRentals.com. The best places are available in the fall, for the following summer, but last-minute bookings are still available. If all goes well, you’ll most likely get dibs on the place the following year.
That hasn’t always happened, with the owners deciding to come themselves that week, or rent to another family.
We’ve moved around a bit since 2002, getting a sense of the Cape May market. First it was the Hedgehog House at 811 Sewall Ave., a three-story green Victorian right next door to the place my cousins have rented. Then it was around the corner at Franklin’s Key.
We loved 20 Queen Street, just a block from the beach, with its fabulous wraparound porch that had awnings providing so much privacy it was almost as if you had another room. It rents for $6,650 in early August.
We did a year at 200 Madison – all air-conditioned, with a glassed-in front-porch and dining room big enough for 18. It’s $6,100 a week in early August, but dips to $3,700 a week in September.
Then came the Victorian Angler, at 809 Kearney Avenue, where we’ve stayed for the past several years, with eight bedrooms, 3.5 bathrooms, and an outdoor shower that’s the best place to wash off after a day at the beach or afternoon of family doubles at the Cape May Tennis Club.
Most evenings, we gather on the front porch to catch up, partake in that evening’s signature cocktail and partake in lawn games out front – be it tossing bean bags in Corn Hole, or flinging Frisbees to score points in Kan Jam.
Then its dinner, with one family in charge of cooking that night, with a feast that could begin with raw oysters or smoked bluefish from the Lobster House.
For Cape May, the Victorian Angler is a great value, at $4,000 a week. We’ve paid more than $6,000 for previous houses, but they all had air-conditioning. The Angler, staying true to its Victorian roots, has no summer-time cooling, except for the fans in each of the bedrooms and the cool Atlantic breeze off the Atlantic, just two blocks away.
We’ve developed our routine over the years. We walk daily to the Queen Street beach, sitting just to the left of the lifeguard stand, where our cousins and another Connecticut family knows to meet us. There, we’ll body-surf the waves, fling Frisbees, or hunker down under a beach umbrella to read that novel we’ve saved for vacation reading.
If we think far enough ahead, we rent a box at the beach to store our beach chairs and umbrellas.
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 nab the fudge samples outside Morrow’s Nut House on the Boardwalk.
At the Cape May Tennis Club, which has 14 clay courts on Washington Street, we rent court time for our annual family doubles matches.
The traditions change too as the children grow older, and they become more independent. When the kids were in grade school, we’d rally our crew for a ride out to the Cape May Lighthouse, a few miles down to Cape May’s southern tip. Then we gathered them together to ride over the Broadway bridge out to the Cold Spring bike trail – a 14-mile jaunt that our youngest, an 11-year-old, did with alacrity one August.
Now the teens don’t ride with us much. Instead, they put on their helmets and ride on their own north to Wildwood, for an afternoon at the amusement park. The adults, meanwhile, have widened their bike-riding terrain as well, venturing as far north along the Atlantic as Stone Harbor, and circling back west to take Route 47 by the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge.
Perhaps this year we make it as far north as Avalon, or even Sea Isle. Who knows what will unfold in this year’s Cape May adventure?
Cape May details: