Gems of the Jersey Shore
From Atlantic City to Cape May, the Garden State’s classic seaside strip glimmers with beaches and boardwalks, casinos and campsites
The sun is barely above the ocean horizon, and already the Cape May promenade is teeming with cyclists enjoying the scenic 2-mile stretch of paved boardwalk that runs along the beach in this quaint Victorian seaside town at the southern point of New Jersey.
We fall in line on our own bikes, after reminding our boys to stay to the right and avoid sudden stops. Every half mile or so, we depart from the boardwalk to meander through the quiet side streets, packed with charming homes and bed-and-breakfasts, then circle back around to the seashore. Bicycles are allowed on the promenade until 10 a.m., and we want to enjoy it while we can.
This is our favorite way to start each morning in Cape May, a destination we grew to love as a dating couple and which still calls us back every year now that we have three young children. On some mornings, we follow up our leisurely bike ride with a pancake breakfast at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House, a beachfront restaurant staple in Cape May. Other mornings, if we are in the mood for something lighter, we pop into Avalon Coffee Company to grab breakfast sandwiches and fruit cups, eating at the outdoor picnic tables.
We break into our days slowly while vacationing at the Jersey shore. A morning at the beach is meant to be savored, offering warm sun, light breezes and the therapeutic sounds of waves and seagulls.
Originally settled as a whaling and fishing community, Cape May emerged in the mid-18th century as a popular resort destination for Philadelphia’s elite. It had become one of America’s most famous vacation spots by 1878, when a massive five-day fire destroyed most of the town’s homes and businesses. Reconstruction was fast and focused, resulting in a town full of Victorian-style buildings. Throughout the last century, preservation efforts have maintained the architectural integrity of Cape May, and it became a National Historic Landmark in 1976.
Present-day Cape May is a destination that draws in every sort of traveler: the young honeymooners searching for romantic candlelight dinners and moonlit horse-and-buggy rides, the families looking for sandcastle contests and mini golf, and the retired couples hoping to capture beautiful photographs of sunsets and migrating birds.
Camping in Cape May
Before owning an RV, we would spend our visits to Cape May in one of the hundreds of bed-and-breakfasts peppered throughout the town. When we bought our first pop-up camper six years ago, we were thrilled to find an amazing assortment of campgrounds and RV parks just outside of the downtown area.
Seashore Campsites, just 4 miles from the Cape May beaches, has emerged as our family favorite, and even though it is a big and bustling place, the landscaping and campsite layout somehow make it feel cozy. We love staying here in September, when the tourists have all gone home but the sun and ocean temperatures are still warm, especially since they keep the pool open until October 1.
About a mile farther away from the ocean, a bit north on U.S. Route 9, is Holly Shores Camping Resort, another family camping favorite. Like many campgrounds along the southern coast of New Jersey, this one has its fair share of upscale seasonal campsites. The remaining sites are a bit tight, and the best ones are booked far in advance.
On some visits we decide to forgo the pool, spa and organized activities, and stay at the Depot Travel Park, which places us within walking or biking distance of the best shopping and dining in Cape May. It is a great no-frills option, in spite of being a bit quirky. Don’t expect to make online reservations or even leave a voice mail. They do not accept credit cards, and guests are required to mail a check within two weeks of booking.
The south Jersey shore has many other appealing options for RV camping (see “Garden State Getaways” on page 60), but we always choose Cape May as our base camp for exploring area attractions all the way up to Atlantic City, 50 miles and less than an hour’s drive to the north.
Birds, Butterflies and Boardwalks
The beaches along the southern portion of the New Jersey coast are a diverse bunch, and at times we gravitate toward the ones with bustling boardwalk attractions. The iconic Jersey shore experience includes a Ferris wheel ride, funnel cake and a few games of Skee-Ball in the arcade. You can find all of these things in Wildwood, about 20 minutes north of Cape May. But there you will also find a great many college students and a bar on every corner, so we tend to head a bit farther north to Ocean City, a barrier island with a small population and sleepy feel.
If you arrive in Ocean City early enough, hop online for fresh homemade doughnuts at either Browns Restaurant or Oves Beach Grill, both situated at the northern end of the 2.5-mile boardwalk. It is a local tradition to argue about which doughnuts are better, and our money is on Browns, but you will have to decide for yourself.
The wide, pristine beaches here are perfect for young children, and at low tide our boys love splashing in the small pools that form along the shoreline. We enjoy our long, competitive games of paddleball on the hard-packed sand. Picking up a Pro Kadima paddle set at one of the sundry shops in town before heading to the beach is a tradition for many returning visitors.
After a long day in the sun, we always head to Ike’s Famous Crabcakes for the quintessential seafood-shack experience. The fish and chips are crispy, flavorful and fresh. The crab-cake sandwiches are legendary. We also enjoy the more adventurous menu items like fish tacos and crab quesadillas.
Our day in Ocean City is never complete until we visit Playland’s Castaway Cove, a fixture on the boardwalk for more than 50 years. We purchase our sheets of tickets and rip them up in strips of four and five, laying out the family strategy for riding the Tilt-a-Whirl, Scream Machine, Gravitron and Double Shot. The pirate-theme shooting gallery hasn’t changed in decades, and we are instantly transported back to the summers of our youth when we would fork over a pile of dollar bills and fire air rifles at targets for game after game.
Other days we stay closer to the campground, enjoying the beautiful Cape May beaches. You could spend the day at any of the popular beaches that run along the stretch of Beach Avenue, but our favorite place to get sandy requires venturing away from the promenade and driving out to Cape May Point State Park, home of Sunset Beach, the Cape May Lighthouse, a World War II bunker and miles of nature trails that meander through wetland marsh and coastal dunes.
We bring our binoculars, and even though our birding knowledge is limited, there is always a stunning amount of wildlife to enjoy at the Cape May Point. We count egrets, herons and ospreys. If it is October, we join the dozens of birders who gather to watch one of the world’s largest hawk migrations, which passes right through Cape May. Hundreds of hawks swarm in the sky above, and as they swoop down, we hear the cacophony of shutter clicks from all the cameras set up to catch an image of one of nature’s great shows.
And then there are the monarch butterflies. Tens of thousands of monarchs pass through Cape May every September and October on their way to Mexico. We ask the locals where they seem to be gathering, and often we are directed to the even more remote beaches of the Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area. We walk quietly through the beach plum, bayberry and scrub oak laden trails, and even if we don’t spot the monarchs, we are sure to see a variety of migrating songbirds on our hunt.
Beyond the Beaches
After a full day at Cape May Point State Park, we find ourselves walking through the Washington Street Mall, a pedestrian thoroughfare lined with fudge shops, souvenir stores and specialty boutiques. Cape Atlantic Book Company has been providing visitors with great beach reads for decades, and you can find the perfect Jersey shore postcard at Whale’s Tale, another longtime resident on the mall.
At the end of the mall, on the corner of Ocean and Washington streets, we spot the horse and buggies from the Cape May Carriage Company. Our boys will beg for a ride, and sometimes we give in, purchasing tickets and settling in to enjoy the 30-minute tour, always packed with fascinating local history. Prior to the boys’ arrival in the world, we loved a good ghost tour and can’t wait to enjoy one again in the future.
On other evenings, if we can get away from the kids, we drive north to Atlantic City where the Borgata, Caesars and Tropicana casinos offer us the chance to get dressed up, do a bit of shopping, try out our luck at the gaming tables and then enjoy dinner at one of the many amazing restaurants. We debate endlessly about whether we will eat at Cuba Libre, Morton’s or the Borgata Buffet.
Sometimes when we are feeling casual, nothing but a White House special from the famous White House Subs on Arctic Avenue will do. We sit in the orange booths that haven’t changed since we were teenagers and scan the hundreds of celebrity photos lining the walls. Afterward, we walk off the sandwiches by strolling through the outlet shops on Atlantic Avenue and drooling over the outdoor gear at Bass Pro Shops.
Cape May is a town for foodies, and we avoid the pub-style restaurants that line Washington Mall and instead make reservations to enjoy surf-and-turf at the Peter Shields Inn, comfort food with a twist at Freda’s Cafe or upscale Creole at 410 Bank Street. Many restaurants are BYOB in this town, so we love picking up a few bottles of wine from the Cape May Winery to enjoy with our meals.
After decades of vacationing along the southern Jersey shore, the magic still hasn’t worn off for us. The combination of beaches, boardwalks, wildlife, wine and food has kept us coming back again and again. And each time we leave, heading north toward home or south toward another RV destination, we blow our beloved Cape May a kiss and whisper, “See you soon.”
Garden State Getaways
More than a dozen RV parks dot the Atlantic coast on New Jersey’s southern shore. Go to www.goodsamclub.com/travel to search for them all.
Depot Travel Park
609-884-2533 | www.thedepottravelpark.com
Clean and tidy, this no-frills RV park is perfect for those that want to be near the downtown area of Cape May.
Holly Shores Camping Resort
877-494-6559 | www.hollyshores.com
A bustling family-owned campground with fantastic amenities and theme weekends.
Seashore Campsites and RV Resort
877-817-5697 | www.sunrvresorts.com
A beautiful family-friendly Good Sam Park less than 5 miles from downtown Cape May. It’s also big-rig friendly, but some sites are tricky to get into.
Pomona RV Park and Campground
609-965-2123 | www.pomonarvpark.com
If you want to be just minutes away from the Atlantic City casinos and restaurants, this top-rated Good Sam Park is your best bet.
Ocean View Resort
609-624-1675 | www.ovresort.com
Midway between Atlantic City and Wildwood, this campground is minutes from the Sea Isle City beaches. It has an on-site pool and lake, as well as a full roster of amenities and activities.
Atlantic City North Family Campground
888-229-9776 | www.campacn.com
About 30 minutes north of Atlantic City and 15 minutes from the beaches of Long Beach Island, this Good Sam Park has a swimming pool, spray ground and tons of recreation options for families.