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Cape May, New Jersey

Spotlight: Cape May

Victorian charm reigns in this historic coastal region

The spirit of small-town America and the charming aesthetic found in classic Normal Rockwell paintings are defining characteristics of Cape May County, New Jersey. Tree-lined streets and Victorian-inspired homes with tidy porches and crisp American flags are buffered by friendly mom-and-pop shops and a distinct lack of big-box outlets.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the city of Cape May itself, where in 1878 a small fire nearly burned the entire community to the ground. When all was said and done, more than 40 acres had been razed, leaving behind a massive swath of charred rubble. The ensuing reconstruction resulted in an explosion of ornate Victorian-era homes and resorts, most or all of which still stand to this day—and in tip-top shape, no less.

While many think of Atlantic City when it comes to beachside vacationing on the eastern seaboard, Cape May County’s 30-mile ribbon of white sandy beachfront has been attracting visitors and resorters for more than a century. Popular landing spots are Ocean City, Sea Isle City, Avalon, Stone Harbor the Wildwoods (North Wildwood, West Wildwood and Wildwood Crest) and, of course, Cape May at the peninsulas extreme southern tip.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

An Ocean of Fun

Ocean City is a popular and slightly quieter alternative to the thronging crowds found in Atlantic City a short distance to the north. The city has cultivated its family-friendly image since 1879, when it outlawed the sale of alcohol. Ever since it’s been a dry town, more geared toward activities like mini golf and music festivals than gambling. Gillian’s Wonderland Pier is the premier must-visit attraction, offering more than 38 rides and midway activities for visitors of all ages.

As you move south down the eastern side of the Cape the crowds grow thinner and the communities quieter. Sea Isle City and Avalon are popular laid-back vacation spots for water sports, shopping and sunbathing. Stone Harbor, just north of the Wildwoods, is a great place to window-shop, and wildlife enthusiasts will want to check out the eco-conservationist programs, tours and exhibits at the Wetlands Institute near the center of town.

In the Wildwoods—comprised of North Wildwood, West Wildwood and Wildwood Crest—a 3-mile boardwalk buzzes with an assortment of amusement rides, roller coasters, waterparks and a world-class selection of beachfront restaurants. It’s classic Americana on full display. Morey’s Piers is the star of the show, offering the usual beachfront amusement park selection of coasters, thrill rides, carnival games and bumper cars. It’s also the home of a shipwreck-inspired water park, tropical island beach club and cliff dive themed water slide. Splash Zone Water, home to man-made whitewater rapids, is another popular attraction in the Wildwoods.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Visit Victorian Times

Cape May, at the extreme southern tip of the peninsula, is one of the oldest resorting communities in the country. Its slate of Victorian-inspired homes and tree-lined streets make it a treat to simply stroll and explore on foot. A trip to the top of the Cape May Lighthouse is a must-do, and a tour of the Emlen Physick Estate offers insight into life on the Cape May coast, circa 1879.

If you’re a history buff visiting the Cape, you’ll want to set aside a significant portion of your time to scour the entire peninsula from top to bottom. You can slowly hop your way from north to south and east to west exploring a range of eclectic museums that cover everything from rock-and-roll to Naval aviation.

The Stone Harbor Museum, Sea Isle City Historical Museum and Avalon Museum provide insight into the history of each community and the Cape at large. Other popular museums include the American Lifesaving Station (dating back to 1895), the Doo Wop Museum (celebrating America’s rock-and-roll history) and the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse (dating to 1874).

At the northern end of the Cape, the Cape May County Zoo features free admission and guided tours. More than 100 species of animals are on display, including lions, tigers, giraffes and zebras. The Zoo is part of the Cape May County Park, which is full of picnic areas and open-pit barbecues, making the area a nice day-trip alternative from the beaches and amusement park rides of eastern Cape May County.

From its quiet historic communities dotted with Victorian homes and eclectic shops, to its buzzing beachfronts loaded with roller coasters and thrill rides, Cape May County offers something for everyone.

For More Information

Cape May Chamber of Commerce
New Jersey Department of Tourism