From beach to zoo to great dining, how to spend a day in Cape May
The city of Cape May and its sister borough, Cape May Point, may be a long drive for much of New Jersey, but it’s a journey well worth making.
If you are looking for a mix of sophisticated dining, back-country exploring, family-friendly activities and unparalleled beach time, this is the place.
And keep in mind, staying in Cape May for any length of time affords you the opportunity to enjoy either the Wildwood or Ocean City boardwalks, but then leave the crowds behind for a quieter place to hang your beach towel.
If you only have a short visit in mind, here are some suggestions for making the most of a day or so in one of America’s favorite beach resorts. These suggestions leave out some of the most well-known locations – Cape May Lighthouse, Congress Hall, The Lobster House, the Physick House – for a reason. Those places are great, but you probably already know about them.
We want to fill you in on some options you may not have considered.
Pass the syrup
Before you explore Cape May County, you need an energy boost. Start your day at Dock Mike’s Pancake House in West Cape May, where you can dine on the deck or patio and enjoy big fluffy pancakes – choices include blueberry, strawberry, sweet corn, peach, sweet potato, piña colada and many more. Or dig into a large stack of French toast or try the generously topped waffles. You won’ t leave hungry, and you’ll likely return. 110 North Broadway; 609-884-2855, dockmikespancakehouse.com.
Burn off those calories
Before you hit the beach, duck into West End Garage, a vast shopping oasis in West Cape May with 50 vendors under one roof offering clothing, handcrafted and estate jewelry, crafts and so much more. Don’t leave without snagging an iced coffee and a treat for later atBeach Plum Bakery next door. 484 W. Perry St.; 609-770-8261, caperesorts.com/capemay/west-end-garage and caperesorts.com/capemay/west-end-garage/bakery.
The chicken whisperers
Those baked confections come in partnership with organicBeach Plum Farm, and you’ll want to make time to check it out on your way to the beach. Visit with a host of wandering chickens, gather provisions for your beach house or pack a picnic to be enjoyed from your beach blanket. This is also a good place to buy gifts for foodies back home. 140 Stevens St.; 883-327-6268, beachplumfarmcapemay.com.
The ocean beckons
By now, you’re probably saying, "Didn’t I come here for the beach?" You have some choices here – you can head into Cape May proper and spend the day on the Atlantic, where you will be close to amenities and the promenade if you are someone who likes to people watch and stroll. Or you can head to the end of the peninsula and spend the day at Cape May Point. Parking is available at the Cape May Lighthouse, where you will also find bathrooms, a nature center and a bird-watching observatory, or on the street. There is no swimming on the portion of the beach nearest the lighthouse, but you can find beach access several blocks down where you can purchase beach tags from inspectors at the access points. Beach tags are not interchangeable between municipalities, so choose wisely. capemaypoint.org/departments/beach-tag-program.html or capemaycity.com/departments/beachtag.
Not everyone enjoys spending hour after hour on the beach, so if you feel restless, consider renting a bike and tooling around Cape May. If you work off those pancakes, consider a sit-down lunch or takeout from Exit Zero Filling Station in West Cape May (think wings!), a converted gas station, or grab a sack of burritos, tacos and chips from Big Wave Burrito in town. There are plenty of places on the Promenade or in town to settle in and enjoy your meal. Exit Zero is at 110 Sunset Blvd.; 609-770-8479, exitzero.com. Big Wave Burrito is at 605 Lafayette St.; 609-898-8646, bigwaveburritos.com.
Toast the season
Cape May Brewing Co. is one of the top breweries in New Jersey and always has plenty of fun on tap. Located at the Cape May Airport, the brewery greatly expanded its outdoor space in response to COVID, so you likely will have no trouble finding a picnic table to enjoy a brew. We recommend Always Ready Pale Ale. Another option is to visit Cape May Winery, where you can also buy wine to take back home, or Cold Spring Brewery at historic Cold Spring Village. Cape May Brewing Co. is at 1288 Hornet Road; 609-849-9933, capemaybrewery.com, hcsv.org/cold-spring-brewery. Cape May Winery is at 711 Townbank Road; 609-884-1169, capemaywinery.com.
Ring the dinner bell
Cape May has dozens of worthy choices for dinner, whether you want seafood, a full Italian meal, a juicy burger or a vegan feast. Stroll down pedestrian-friendly Washington Mall and you will have no trouble comparing menus. (If you opt to stay in town, check out Cione Gelato in Washington Commons). Want to dine with a view? Head to Aleathea’s at the Inn of Cape May for casual, oceanfront dining – and don’t sleep on the poutine sweet potato waffle fries with choice of toppings, perfect to share while reflecting on your adventures. You also can wiggle your toes in the sand and dine at the very family-friendly Rusty Nail, also across from the sea, and a good place to hear live music (check for COVID restrictions and availability here, there and everywhere). Aleathea's is at 7 Ocean St.; 609-884-5555, aleatheasincapemay.com. Rusty Nail is at 205 Beach Ave.; 609-884-0017, caperesorts.com/capemay/rusty-nail. Cione Gelato is at 315 Ocean St.; 267-496-7788, facebook.com/cionegelatocapemay.
Watch her drop
If you prefer takeout picnics, head to Sunset Beach at the tip of the peninsula early (to beat the traffic) with sandwiches or tacos to take in the sunset over the Delaware Bay. You can sift through the famous Cape May diamonds and ponder why anyone would build a concrete ship (you’ll spy the wreck of the SS Atlantus, part of a World War I emergency fleet, just off the coast). A flag-lowering ceremony in honor of veterans is held at 7 p.m. daily Memorial Day weekend, at 7 p.m. Saturdays in June, and nightly in July and August, and at 6 p.m. Saturdays in September. sunsetbeachnj.com.
Rise and dine
Want a memorable breakfast off the beaten track? Consider Bella Vida Garden Café in West Cape May, which has some cozy garden seating and offers hearty breakfasts – don’t skip the cheesy grits! The vibe here is decidedly more local than many of options closer to the center of Cape May. A recent special tempted social media fans: Smashed avocado on gluten-free toast with goat cheese, tomato, grilled shrimp and homemade pesto. facebook.com/bellavidagardencafe/.
Birds of a feather
OK, time to move. Grab a hat and some SPF and head back to the lighthouse in Cape May State Park and prepare to get your steps in. This seaside park has marked trails that vary in length but not difficulty, and lead to ponds, dunes, marshes and forests. Wetlands platforms offer hikers a place to watch birds and other wildlife. Trails also connect along the wetlands to the nearby Nature Conservancy South Cape May Meadows Preserve. Most of this hiking is really more like walking, but do watch for snakes and be mindful about ticks and sunburn. An observation deck provides a sweeping view of South Cape May Meadows, where each fall scores of hawks and eagles can be seen staging for the 10-mile crossing of Delaware Bay. 305 Lighthouse Ave., Cape May Point; state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/capemay.html.
New zoo to you?
Whether you’ve never visited Cape May County Park & Zoo or are a longtime friend of its critters, no trip to Cape May is complete without several hours getting to know the antelope, zebras, giraffe, black bear, lemurs and many other creatures waiting to meet you at this free county park zoo just off the Parkway. Picnic pavilions are available if you want to show up with your Lucky Bones (just before the causeway headed north) pizzas and chow down before you explore. While it’s true the zoo is free, donations are greatly appreciated to keep this New Jersey treasure secure into the future. A visit to the zoo is a great way to start or end any visit to Cape May. The zoo is at 707 North Route 9 in Cape May Court House; 609-465-5271, capemaycountynj.gov/1008/Park-Zoo. Lucky Bones is at 1200 Route 109 South in Cape May; 609-884-2663, luckybones.com.
Tammy Paolino is Features Editor for the Atlantic South region of the USA Today Network. She’s an award-winning reporter and editor who loves to cover trends, diversity, the arts, food and drink. Reach her at email@example.com or 856-486-2477 or on Twitter @CP_TammyPaolino. Help support local journalism with a subscription to the Courier-Post, Daily Journal, Burlington County Times or one of our sister publications.