The Nation’s Oldest Seaside Resort
Cape May is located on Cape Island, the southernmost tip of New Jersey where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. This area is known as an island because of a man-made canal that was built, separating it from the mainland. Cape May got its name from Dutch captain Cornelius Jacobsen Mey who explored and charted the area between 1611–1614. In 1848 the borough of Cape Island was formed and later became Cape May.
Cape Island is comprised of three municipalities: Cape May, West Cape May and Cape May Point. An unincorporated community called North Cape May rests on the “mainland”, north of the canal, so technically it is not a part of the island. The City of Cape May is the main hub of the island where many hotels, inns, shops and restaurants are located. West Cape May also has inns and restaurants but is more rural with terrain that is typical of South Jersey – flat farmlands, scrubby pines and sandy roadsides – where wineries and a Beach Plum farm can be found. Cape May Point has a state park and is where its famous lighthouse and Sunset Beach are located, and North Cape May rests along the bay.
Cape May first became recognized as a seaside resort in the mid 18th century, when vacationers from Philadelphia began arriving by way of train to escape the heat of the city and relax by the sea, and by the 19th century it was considered one of the finest resorts in America. Today, as a result of intense preservation efforts, Cape May is well known for its gingerbread Victorian era architecture. In 1976, the entire city of Cape May was officially designated a National Historic Landmark, and is the only city in the United States wholly designated as such.
Many of the Victorian homes in Cape May now serve as bed and breakfast inns, taking overnight visitors back to simpler times. Cape May has a very strong cultural atmosphere, with community and dinner theaters, historic trolley tours and other special events. The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities (MAC) is a group of volunteers brought together in an effort to save the Emlen Physick Estate from demolition years ago. Today, it provides a plethora of year-round tours, activities, festivals and other events.
In the summer, Cape May is a popular destination for day trips and overnight stays. It is a great destination for people who enjoy the ocean but who do not wish to spend their entire vacation on the beach, as its ample town provides much to do on land. May visitors enjoy shopping on Washington Street Mall and on surrounding streets where other quaint boutiques are located. Other non-beach activities include renting a surry to wheel around the tree-lined streets, taking a horse drawn carriage or trolley tour, or just sitting on a bench on the “boardwalk” (an elevated pathway along the beach) to people-watch. Cape May has an abundance of delicious gourmet options for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Cape May’s beaches are guarded by a seasonal lifeguarding staff and, like its neighbors to the farther north, beachgoers are required to purchase beach tags. “Sunset Beach”, in Cape May Point, is where visitors gather each night to salute the flag, pay tribute to the nation’s veterans and watch the sun slip into the sea.
During the day, beachgoers comb the beach for the famous “Cape May Diamonds”, which are clear quartz pebbles that tumble down from the Delaware River. These shiny trinkets were once used by Native Americans as currency. Close by is the Cape May Lighthouse where a nature center is housed and plenty of activities are held, as well as the Fort Miles World War II Lookout Tower where one can climb to the top and learn more about Cape May’s part in World War II on the way up.
The Cape May area is also a playground for naturalists. It is world-famous for the observation of migrating birds, and is considered one of the top bird-watching areas in the Northeastern United States. The Cape May Bird Observatory is based nearby at Cape May Point. The area is also great for marine mammal watching, as several species of whales and dolphins can be seen in the waters of the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean due to the confluence of fresh and saltwater that creates a nutrient-rich environment for marine life.
Cape May is year-round resort community with many events occurring in fall and winter, unlike its neighboring beach towns to the north that are more seasonal.
In autumn, visitors can take part in several different festivals, take ghost tours, and enjoy the town’s fall foliage and plentiful autumn decorations. During the holidays, visitors can shop for last minute gifts, stroll the tree-lit streets and visit beautifully decorated Victorian homes and inns. The holiday festivities allow visitors to step back in time while sipping hot chocolate and listening to strolling carolers.
With such incredible history, so many things to do and some of the most beautiful scenery on the South Jersey coast, it is no wonder that Cape May has been recognized as one of America’s top 10 beach destinations by the Travel Channel and its year-round visitors.
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