Cape May a charming Victorian beach town on the Jersey Shore

Hit the beach when you visit Cape May.  Photo Credit: Cemile Kavountzis

The vacation spot in a short 2 hour and 45 minute drive from Manhattan.

Hit the beach when you visit Cape May. 
Hit the beach when you visit Cape May.  Photo Credit: Corry Arnold

At the very tip of New Jersey, Cape May brims with ornate Victorian architecture, seaside splendor and tons of great places to eat.

The Garden State’s answer to Mile Marker 0 in Key West — and Philly’s version of the Hamptons — Cape May is a small seashore town lined with meticulously preserved historic homes, spotless beaches and rambling vineyards and farms. In fact, it has the second largest collection of Victorian houses after San Francisco.

For anyone looking to relax rather than rally for a big weekend out, Cape May presents a step back in time, along with cool shops, stylish beach house-style accommodations and bike-friendly streets. Noise in residential areas winds down around 10 p.m. for those who want to catch up on sleep, but if you want to party on, there are lively haunts that go till late.

The “other Cape” is a great spot for kicking back on a porch-front rocking chair — and watching the horse-drawn carriages go by.

The Chalfont features the Magnolia Room restaurant serving up fried chicken and biscuits.
The Chalfont features the Magnolia Room restaurant serving up fried chicken and biscuits. Photo Credit: Cemile Kavountzis

Get Your Bearings on Saturday

A short walk from the main beachfront, which runs about 2.5 miles parallel to Beach Avenue, head to Mad Batter (19 Jackson St., 609-884-5970, madbatter.com) for breakfast staples, including vegan and gluten-free options. Behind the light-filled front porch dining room, the back bar is a popular spot for evening cocktails and live music. After downing a stack of award-winning pancakes, get a dose of history with a boutique bike tour from Curious Cape May (122 Sunset Blvd., 833-386-7433, curiouscapemay.com), which caps at 10 riders on Priority brand bikes. On the tour, you’ll get the backstory on some of the area’s most interesting homes, as well as tips for local hangouts and secret beaches. For a casual lunch, try Big Wave Burritos (1400 Texas Ave., 609-898-8646) or Gecko’s (479 West Perry St., 609-898-7750, geckoscapemay.com).

Recharge at Out There Coffee (315 Ocean St., outtherecoffee.com) owned by a husband-and-wife team passionate about locally roasted coffee and outdoor adventure. Cross the street and stroll down the Washington Street Mall, a pedestrian-friendly shopping district filled with cute shops like Quirk & Co. (514 Washington St., 610-213-7735), a beachy design store, and Givens (418 Washington St., 609.884.4202, givenscircle.com), a fashionable clothing boutique.

One block over on Carpenters Lane, check out a clutch of specialty food stores, such as Cape May Peanut Butter (516 Carpenter’s Ln. , 609 898-4444, capemaypeanutbutterco.com), RSK Doughnuts (505 Carpenters Ln., 609-536-8868), and Peace Pie (326 Carpenters Ln, 609-435-5321, peacepieworld.com) for gourmet ice-cream sandwiches. Have dinner at Fins Bar & Grille (142 Decatur St., 609-884-3449, finscapemay.com).

Bike Around on Sunday

Rent bikes from Village Bicycle Shop (605 Lafayette St., 609-884-8500, villagebikescapemay.com), a friendly, reasonably priced bike shop with plenty of options, including tandems. Pedal over to Beach Plum Farm (140 Stevens St., 609-972-8070, beachplumfarmcapemay.com), a working farm with a restaurant and market, and get your day started with egg sandwiches and fresh juice. Continue to the Cape May Lighthouse built in 1859 to climb the 199 steps for a bird’s-eye view or walk along the beach. Next, make a pit stop for lunch at Exit Zero Filling Station (110 Sunset Blvd., 609-770-8479, exitzero.us), a restaurant attached to possibly the hippest gas station in the nation. You’ll find solid lunch plates from the burger bar, salads, and sandwiches, expert cocktails, and excellent Indian curries in the evening.

Bike over to Rea’s Farm (213 Stevens St) to pick fresh strawberries or head straight to Willow Creek Farm & Winery next door (168 Stevens St., 609-770-8782, willowcreekwinerycapemay.com). Stick around for a tour or sip wines with light bites and charcuterie in the spacious tasting room with indoor and outdoor tables and comfy oversize couches. Head back toward the beachfront for ice cream at Fine Fellows Creamery (313 Beach Ave., 609-854-4934) serving Bassetts ice cream and a round of mini golf at Steve’s Stockton Golf (801 Beach Ave., 609-827-1379), a kitschy 18-hole course with running fountains and Grecian columns. Ride over to the Lobster House (906 Schellengers Landing Road, 609-884-8296, thelobsterhouse.com) for seafood, including local Cape May scallops, or its year-old little sister restaurant, Mayer’s Tavern (894 Third Ave., 609-435-5078, mayerstavern.com).

GOOD TO KNOW

Getting there: You have a few options for traveling to Cape May, but the quickest is driving, which takes about 2 hours and 45 minutes from Manhattan. Alternatively, you can take a bus from Port Authority or a train from Penn Station to Atlantic City and then connect to a bus to Cape May, the trip will take between three and four hours. (For more express service to AC, locals recommend looking into casino buses.) During summer, NJ Transit also offers seasonal service directly to Cape May.

Getting around: In town, there is a free Jitney shuttle service for popping around the downtown and the green Cape May Beach Buggy (609-600-7216, capemaybeachbuggy.com), but you can walk or ride pretty much everywhere very easily. You’ll also find shops renting bikes, tandems, and covered quadricycles.

Where to stay: Among the historic hotels and stylish vacation homes, Cape May’s newest hotel, The Boarding House, which opened on Memorial Day weekend, and its oldest original hotel, The Chalfont, bookend the full range of accommodations. The modern, surf-inspired Boarding House (810 Lafayette St., 609-884-4884, boardinghousecapemay.com) has collaborated with nearby artisans like Cape May Roasters for its signature coffee blend available in the reception area, Shore Soaps specializing in small-batch handmade products, and Black Sheep Dog Treats. For anyone who loves old hotels filled with tchotchkes, floral prints, and quiet places to hide away and read, The Chalfont (301 Howard St., 609-884-8409, chalfonte.com) has a maze of rooms, a hidden cupola, the charming King Ed Bar, and the Magnolia Room restaurant serving up legendary fried chicken and biscuits.

Cemile Kavountzis